A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Frank DenDanto III
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
I currently own two companies. One lighting and video consulting company and one that supplies technology based material for commercial temporary and permanent installations.
You graduated in 1997 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
I never really thought of the arch of my career as having a secret per say. I think it is a bit more like being really aware of the things you already know. Sometimes I think of it like driving a racecar. There is no magical thing to have, or know, about getting into a car and going fast. BUT if you want to do more than pretend when you are on the freeway, then you need to think about those simple things you know in a real, a precise way. Committing to that is half the battle. Pressing the gas is not just putting your foot down but understanding the pressure on the pedal and what is happening in the combustion chambers of the engine because of that exact pressure. Once you have digested the complexity of a “simple” thing, then you can execute that simple thing with skill and complexity. I think that if there is a real talent in the conversation, it is knowing what an opportunity is and how to fit that into the real end game.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I have not had much proximity to the department since my graduation. I have had a fairly fast-paced hustle since leaving and aside from the occasional design show visits, and obligatory run-downs with other alums when our paths cross, have been a little distant. It would be an exciting honor to be more involved on really any level. I have recently had the ability to capitalize on my success in a way that might translate into something more tangible for the department and the students. In any event, I do believe that there is a real practical perspective that I can offer to anyone looking to grow a career
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
I have worked with a number of NYU Alumni over the course of the years. Currently my two key associates are NYU Alums.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
In my last year at NYU, I had an opportunity to work on a project with Anne Rinking, Tommy Tune and Gene Saks. On the day of First Run the LD was unexpectedly called away from the theater leaving myself and another novice NYU Alum sitting at the tech table. After a brief but palatable moment of tension in learning that the LD was unavailable for the run, the three power houses collected their thoughts and in a kind and professional way said, well then, let’s proceed.” In that very moment I understood the phrase, “If you want to run with the big dogs you can’t pee like a puppy.”
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
While I have a few moments that stand out, there are two that I think of most in my career. Shortly after NYU, I took a gig at Performance Space 122 on the Lower East Side. I have to say there really could not have been a better fit. As the resident Lighting Designer at PS122, I had the opportunity to work with all sorts of incredible artists. Each pushing the envelope in their discipline. However, there was something profound in having had the ability to design for all four of the NEA 4. There is something palatable and important about activist art. Given the current political climate, I hope to have a chance to be involved in even more of that.
Like so many designers, I had to scramble to fill the voids between design gigs and in doing so, fell into the architectural lighting scene. A simple gallery focus turned quickly into exhibit lighting and then permanent installations; with a budding partnership between some other fellow NYU Alums. In 2006, I struck out on my own concentrating on museum and luxury retail work to fund my theater and performance life. In 2011, I designed the lighting for Salvatore Ferragamo’s New York Flag Ship. While others stores and buildings have followed, I believe the NYC Ferragamo is a real testament to marrying form and function. One of the first fully integrated LED Flagships on 5th Ave, it fully embraced a Cradle to Cradle philosophy by refitting or reengineering museum grade, component designed LEDs, for a new, and existing ceilings. Now coming into its 6th year, the design and engineering, born from theater thinking, has had zero maintenance issues all the while consistently sculpting and complementing the environment and product. I think it is what happens when you use technology in a comprehensive way.
When did you get interested in theater and how?
While my parents were always pushing to provide cultural experiences to my siblings and myself, it was not until the end of undergraduate school that I got the “bug.” At the end of my last year studying studio art, I had a rather bad accident that nearly ended any hope of a real art career. While recovering, a friend whose father was in the IA offered me a chance to get my mind off the injury by bringing me to see a Broadway show from the follow spot booth and tour the back stage afterward. I was enamored with the complexity and practicality of design for an aesthetic experience. When I returned to school to finish, I promptly went to the Theatre Department and was turned away because I was in my last semester of school. As I sulked out of the office, the department chair yelled out that there was a new guy in the Dance Department and he was into lighting and might be willing to help me out. When I met him and told him what I was looking to do he smiled, asked if I knew what a crescent wrench was, pointed me to the lighting closet, handed me his little brown book and said, “ there is a student concert in a week, get the list of performers from my office and good luck.
What or who were your influences?
I have a number of influences and they tend to shift depending on the project. However, there is a core group of people that seem to be at the heart of pretty much all over it: Howell Binley, Tim Burton, John Conklin, Dan Flavin, Edward Hopper, and Guy Pene du Bois.
As you design and meet the challenges of being a freelance artist, are there any voices that you particularly hear from the aggregation of voices?
From school: Campbell Baird “when it gets to be too much, take it to the sink and scrub it”*
From outside of school: Howell Binkley “Hey Boober, your shoe’s untied”
Are there any challenges and/or rewards that you feel lighting designers have that are different ones that other designers may have?
Absolutely yes. Our field is the only one that views the human condition in a live state within the arch of time. Not captured in a moment. It is that movement that speaks in real time to our emotional being. No matter what you are doing, this is what you affect. If we lose track of this we lose what we are saying; and it can be in as quick as a five count.
What are some of your other interests in life?
I have quite a few outside interests. The following are my favorites: Painting Sculpting skiing and boating.
What was your favorite snack that your assistant brought to you during tech?
I do not really have assistances bring snacks, but there was this one time, while working in Europe, during a break someone brought bratwurst, schnitzel and a beer to the tech table and I thought I need more European gigs.