A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Josh Benghiat ‘05
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
I split my time between designing, new play development, teaching in the Yale School of Drama and the Brooklyn College Department of Theater, developing Vectorworks plug-ins, and spending time with my wife and thirteen-year-old daughter. My most consistent design work is as lighting designer for The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Lincoln Center White Light Festival’s music programming. I’m also working on a renovation project for CMS. Most residences are only a day or two at a time, and as much as I also enjoy biting into a longer juicy project and refining my work, there’s also something nice about working quickly, making decisions on instinct, and leaving at the end of the day with the show complete. The performances are all world-class and nearly always sold out, adding to a sense of satisfaction.
I find software development to be a great creative outlet. John McKernon and I have discussed this benefit on several occasions. Unlike design, I don’t have to wait for a producer or collaborator to invite me to do my work. If I have an idea I can just set forward on my own path towards a finished product. My process is probably a bit more organic than the average software engineer, as I’m constantly thinking about how adjustments to the code are going to affect my design and drafting process as an end user.
As Artistic Associate of the Jewish Plays Project, a new play development company, I spend a lot of time serving as de facto dramaturg and working directly with playwrights, which uses a completely different part of my brain from software development. Lighting designers are often the last one’s who come in on a project (which I think is a mistake), so I enjoy the regular opportunity to be part of the beginning of the process.
You graduated in 2005 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
I’m a firm believer in doing my homework for a project, whether that means research, work-sheeting every light, or taking notes on musical structure and timing. I take a lot of pride in not wasting other people’s time, particularly when it comes to having lights in the right place to make the shots I need and communicating that information clearly. I’d rather spend my time cueing that stage than moving lights. I had one White Light concert a couple years ago where I realized I was lighting artists I had never worked with before, a program I had never seen before rehearsal, in a venue with a rep plot where I had never worked, and very little time. In those situations, your solid foundation of craft combines with your design instincts, and everything falls into place. A stellar crew helps too. That said, I’ll often have the fear at the beginning of a project that I have no idea what I’m doing. What if I don’t know what lights to turn on first? What if the stage looks like mush and I don’t know why? What if I have nothing to say to a playwright or director? So far I’ve always proven those fears wrong, but I think some initial insecurity is normal. I actually think a small amount of self-doubt helps keep me present and focused on a project: if I’m confident that I always know exactly what I’m going to do, then I’m imposing a pre-conceived structure on the piece, not letting it speak for itself.
On a practical note, shortly after graduation I made myself a set of focus tapes out of jute webbing. I made sure the US/DS set has plenty of room for an apron, the numbers are clear, and that the five-foot markers are called out. I find most theaters lack a decent set. Not only have they been useful for taking focus notes as an assistant, but as a designer, even if the focus isn’t being recorded, they can be really useful. They save time taping out focus areas and really help as a reference for symmetry or for where areas should blend.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
For several years I’ve given at least one guest lecture to the second-year lighting designers, and occasionally get to see a cohort more than once. I really enjoy having the opportunity to get to know each class. When teaching, I find that students have learned similar processes and expectations to what I experienced, so a lot of conversations can short cut to an advanced discussion. I also try to be involved with the Tisch Design Alumni organization, though scheduling conflicts can often get in the way.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
I don’t know if I can identify a few discrete moments (unless you count graduating from the Department). I’ve been fortunate to work on a number of projects as an assistant, associate, and designer that have connected well with audiences, which is always gratifying. I also love hearing from designers that my software has become instrumental to their workflow and seeing my students take pride in their portfolios. Occasionally, during final dress, first preview, or opening, I’ll have the sensation that rather than being an extension of myself, my lighting design is purely an extension of the piece, and I’m watching as an audience member for the first time. I see that as a sign that my work was at its best.
When did you get interested in theater and how?
The day camp I went to in first grade had a large theater component, and I made my stage debut in the Junior Chorus. I returned the next twelve summers, on stage, back stage, and as a staff member. The program director was one of my mentors; I think she was truly disappointed when I became far more interested in design than directing, though my love of communal story telling really derived from her guidance.
I was also always interested in visual art and design, taking classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art every Saturday, and for many years I was interested in architecture as a career. I first started working with lighting in middle school – the intangibility of the final product presented a great challenge, and I loved both the art and craft of applying technical principles to enhancing emotion and telling stories. I continued working both on and back stage through high school, and started to really think about design as a way to combine visual art with theater.
My school’s theater department took over a multipurpose room next to the gym and converted it to a black box theater. It had a very basic lighting system – twelve dimmers, I think – but I was able to do a lot of experimentation for both theater and dance in that space. My senior year, I benefited from some otherwise unfortunate staffing cuts and became the first student to design a mainstage production. I remember that as the first time I really understood controlling the entire visual image with light, as well as feeling like a story-teller and not just a “techie.”
When did you start developing software?
I was a very early adopter of CAD for drawing light plots. My high school had a copy of Claris CAD – I was the only one interested in learning it, so was allowed to take it home. At the time I had easier access to CAD software than I did a lighting template and drafting table. In college, they had a copy of MiniCAD, the precursor to Vectorworks, and the combination of data tracking, symbols, and drawing capabilities made it very attractive.
In those days, what evolved into Spotlight was delivered as a set of scripts called the Theatrical Lighting Toolkit. This was before plug-ins, and even before script encryption, so essentially everything was open-source. If something was inefficient or not meeting the graphic standards I wanted, I could go into the script, figure out how it worked, and make changes.
Sam Jones, the developer of AutoPlot, had a simple script for drawing the plan view oval of a beam of light at head height. In his release notes, he noted that his math was messy and welcomed improvements. I discovered that not only could the mathematics simplify considerably, but some of the fundamental premises were incorrect, and my calculations were far more accurate. When Vectorworks introduced the concept of the plug-in object, essentially a method to dynamically draw an object via a script, I saw the possibilities to really revolutionize the plan-view drawing process, and Beam Draw was born.
When I started assisting in Chicago, CAD was still fairly new, and most designers and assistants still turned in hand-drafted plots. In fact, a few of the Chicago regionals hired me to do the initial conversion of their venue drawings to digital files. To be taken seriously, I had to make sure my computer drafting still obtained the aesthetic values of hand drawing, and, “the software made me,” could never be an excuse. I think for me, drawing in Vectorworks and developing plug-ins have been an extension of my design work: tools that help me plan, communicate, and persuade.
What or who were your influences?
I’m a firm believer that humans have an innate understanding of the relationship between light and our daily lives. We have intrinsic and learned associations with environments illuminated by various sunlight, sky, and manufactured light conditions, and I like to start by either replicating or opposing those conditions. Sometimes I push those associations into an extreme or emotional realm, or completely upend our expectations.
I also love to observe how painters and photographers capture and manipulate lighting in a 2D, non-luminescent medium. It’s a great way to study how light can affect perception, emotion, or communicate an idea. I’m particularly drawn to those works that find the sublime in the ordinary.
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?
I feel Allen, M.L., and Robert’s presence in nearly every project I do, sometimes even literally recalling bits of advice, both encouraging and critical. I continually recall teachers in my support classes as well: Lowell, Sal, Campbell, and John Conklin have affected the way I experience the world and think about making theater.
From outside of school:
Prior to NYU, I spent a couple of seasons doing rep opera in Chicago. I learned a lot about working quickly and under pressure. The first time we would do act break focuses in real time were during orchestra dress, and the general director would literally stand behind me looking at his watch – going overtime with a full crew, orchestra, and chorus was not an option. I learned how to focus quickly and confidently, as well as how to triage the washes that the crew could mostly do on their own from the shots that had to be just right to make a certain moment successful. I really grew to love being able to focus a show several times a season and try to make small improvements each time. I also gained a lot of practical experience: earning respect from the crew, calling followspots, using non-incandescent sources, and working in large spaces. Not to mention, I got to observe a lot of outstanding designers.
Are there any challenges and/or rewards that you feel lighting designers have that are different ones that other designers may have?
During rehearsals, lighting designers have to be engaged with the stage every single moment. Light is always visible (except when we are keenly aware of the absence of light), present, mutable, and linked to the performers. I sometimes envy other designers who don’t always work at the same level of intensity, but ultimately I like being forced to commit one-hundred percent of my attention on one thing.
Lighting designers are good at seeing a play from the outside in. We’re attuned to things like structure, pace, and mood, and I’ve found can be an important ally in understanding a script or production as a whole.
What are some of your other interests in life?
I have a teenager who still, occasionally, likes spending time with her parents, so I try to savor that as much as possible. I’m also very slowly renovating our house in Brooklyn.