Seth Jackson: Lighting The Big Picture

Posted on November 3, 2015

Lighting never takes place in a vacuum. Every designer knows this, but few have woven this concept as completely into their work as Seth Jackson. Whether he’s designing lighting or a theatrical set, the multiple Parnelli Award winner has an ability to view his work in the context of how it fits into the overall production. This attribute has not only made him a popular collaborator among other designers on projects like Star Wars In Concert, it’s also earned him a long list of clients like Toby Keith, Jason Mraz, Selena Gomez and Carrie Underwood.

Jackson’s designs can be bold and powerful with penetrating arrays of beams and blinders. Yet even at its most intense, his work remains balanced, always serving the larger purpose of supporting the overall production. This is true of his concert work as well as his growing body of theatrical projects, which includes Manilow on Broadway at the St. James Theater in New York. Regardless of the genre he’s working in, keeping the proper role of his design in sharp focus has been a cornerstone of Jackson’s philosophy. He conveys this message to students today as a professor at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts. We grateful that he shared some insights with us as well. Enjoy.


In addition to your successful career as a designer, you’re also a highly regarded teacher. If a new student asked you “what’s the main role of a lighting designer?” How would you answer?

“I would answer by saying that the show is not for your amusement as a lighting designer.  We have seem to have lost the fact that the lighting designer is there to support and enhance the artists. Our job is to make them the center of attention and make them look larger than life. So many LDs today have decided to forego the purpose of design, which is to support the presentation, even if it means being in the background sometime. Instead, these LDs seem to be trying to compete with the performer they are supposed to be enhancing.”

You’ve certainly seemed to maintain that perspective of supporting the artist. A lot of your concert work has dramatic beam looks, yet they never appear to be over the top or be distractive. How do you manage to get the intensity without the distraction?

“This is something I learned from my mentor and dear friend, Steve Cohen. I watched his work for years before we became friends, and certainly before we worked together. Steve, without even knowing me at the time, taught me that you have a big arsenal at your disposal. You can blow the whole thing in the opening moments, but then what? Sure, you could hit every snare hit in the show, but then what? Successful design is all about having a lot of moments of fineness with a few moments of assault!”

To return to the subject of teaching – has being a professor and interacting with students influenced you as a designer?

“Tremendously. It is great to be around young designers that have such a newness and passion for their craft. They want to know everything. They want to know where our industry came from. They want to dive into questions about design choices Steve Cohen made on Billy Joel. It is so encouraging to see that there is a new generation of giant lighting nerds like me.”

You won two Parnelli Awards as a set designer what advice would you give lighting designers about collaborating successfully with set designers?

“It’s the same advice for working in concerts, theatre, television, corporate and festivals – communication…lots of it, and often. That’s the key.”

How about the other way around, how can set designers work better with lighting designers?

“See above! I also stress learning the art compromise early in the process, so you can avoid a lot of heated, silly, arguments at load in.”

It seems like scenic elements have become more important in touring applications, has this blurred the line between lighting and set design?

“I think the line has always been blurred. In the early days the LD was often all things visual. The line that has truly been blurred is the one between the video and lighting worlds. Now we are talking about total integration.”

So how has the emergence of LED video walls changed the way you design?

“It has changed our world as designers dramatically. I work on so many festivals and when I was doing them back in the day, anyone but a headliner having a screen would be unheard of… today; the 3pm act has a screen! The issue is, again, education. As Jeff Ravitz would tell you a thousand times over, that imagery is the biggest thing in the room. They aren’t going to look at the small guy onstage, they are looking at the big one the screen. Because of that, you have to have an understanding of the basics of how to light for camera.”

How about pixel mapping – what are your feelings about that?

“I love the opportunities that it gives you. However, it can be a dangerous tool and prone to overuse in a show. Too much flash of anything for 90 minutes can be overwhelming.”

Your teaching at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts emphasizes concert design. Can you talk a bit about the different approach you take to concert and theater lighting? Also are there any lessons you can take from one genre and extrapolate it to the other?

“The basis of the Concert Design program at Webster is that “design is design”. Though the industries and operations are vastly different, the art, style, and approach of a good lighting or scenic design is the same. You have to know your role, you must understand the piece you are creating (be it artist or musical or install), you must understand the overall vision and you must support the work without overpowering it.”

You’ve done work for a diverse range of touring artist with widely different styles and personas, so do you have to get to know an artist first before you can design? How do you do this?

“In one way or another you MUST understand who you are designing for or what the point of your design is. It is different with each act. Selena Gomez and Barry Manilow were built on communication; sitting down in a room and over time developing a concept. Someone like Toby Keith likes to see a few ideas and then gives us a direction to follow from there. Whether by meetings, research or both you have to get into their head. The first time I met with Don Henley I brought art books, Opera coffee table books, and we literally looked at pictures for hours. He would say “love that”, “hate that” and I would slap a post it note on the page and use that later on to build a concept that fit his persona and style.”

Do you have to like an artist’s music to create a successful lightshow?

“Do I look like your typical Selena Gomez fan? No, you don’t need to like the music at the initial outset. I have found I became fans of my artists as we progressed in the process and I spent so much time immersed in their work. Every time I hear one of my acts on the radio I now have a visual stamp in my head for that song. So, yeah, now I’m a fan; I’m connected to that music.”

When you go to a show like LDI or encounter a new kind of fixture – one that isn’t like any other you’ve ever seen before—how to you go about evaluating whether or not it will find a place in your show?

“I walk the LDI floor with whatever projects I have on the plate in my head. I tend to focus on the vendors I have relationships first. For me that is the key. Everyone, for the most part, has something similar to everyone else’s something similar. However, if the company has supported me in the past, helped us when we were in a jam, kept up with tech support; those are the things I look for in a new fixture. The other thing I like to do is go down the quiet hallways and find the guys that are working out of the garage and just getting started. Some fun things have developed in those conversations.”

What do you like to design in?

“I fight with my students – they are all Vectorworks-kids today — constantly about this. I live in AutoCad and 3DS Max. The Autodesk platform is something I’ve honed into my workflow over many years, and I can do anything I need out of those two programs.”

How do you get new ideas for designs?

“I’m a big fan of architecture websites and books. I also keep my eye on regional theatre designers. Often times they can be so inventive with the various spaces they work in that I can find a lot of inspiration for my side of the fence.”

You’ve done quite a bit of broadcast lighting. How does that compare to your touring work?

“Aside from picking up the phone and calling Jeff Ravitz?! The simplest, dumbed down, six word answer to adjusting your touring show to broadcast is “watch the monitors, not the stage”. You are no longer lighting for the people in the room. If the levels aren’t balanced between followspot and background, if the color temperatures aren’t in the same working arrangement, if you don’t fill the normally empty space with light so the camera has a background, you won’t be happy with the end product. The show will be over, but the video will last a lot longer! Oh, and as I often fight with my artists, ‘YES, you have to light the audience!’”

You’ve designed all over the world, do tastes in lighting vary from region to region?

“In the 90s I would have said “yes”. Equipment availability varied greatly, and we weren’t as connected with social media and the internet. Today, everyone is connected on a global scale. I can watch YouTube of an artist in Beijing and see the same show live the following month in LA. It has come a very long way.”

How much of a lighting designer’s personality come out in his or her work? Would two LDs with very different temperaments come up with two very different designs for the same artists work?

“Absolutely. The creation of a touring design is all about collaboration and any change of a component will affect the outcome of that work. To use a theatre example, how many different ways can a director do Shakespeare?”

What was it like working on the Star Wars Concert and collaborating with other designers?

“Star Wars in Concert was most likely the high point of my entire professional life. Steve Cohen set such a vision for us, and then invited us into his process. Myself, Mark Haney (Video), Bryan Barancik (Assoc. LD), Curtis Cox (media) and Steve spent hours together crafting this show frame by frame before rehearsal. We had such a high level of excitement and energy that just carried us through the whole process. We laughed a lot! We all became eight year olds working for the universe that defined our childhood. We rehearsed at Elstree Studios where the films were made! Then I took the tour on the road, and spent the next 152 shows just not even believing I was getting paid to do this. I still laugh when I see that I have C-3PO’s cell number in my phone. My inner eight year old geeks out at that one; ‘yeah, I hang with 3PO’… HA!’”

Who were the big influencers on your career?

“As I have said, first and foremost, Steve Cohen. The first time I saw Billy Joel as a teenager I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Over the years, his continued mentorship and friendship has meant the world to me. I would also credit Jeff Ravitz and Marc Brickman. When I was a college student, I wrote these guys letters asking to work for them, hang around them, whatever. I wrote many, but these two responded and we have remained friends ever since. Brickman still says he has the letter and threatens to publish! The other key person is Valerie Groth Hovenden. Valerie was the designer for Kenny G and was one of the first designers to leave the par cans at home. After a few years of programming various things for her, she handed me the keys to Kenny G; it changed everything for me.”

What do you regard as the significant milestones/turning points in your career?

“I would say that Valerie giving me Kenny G was huge. It opened up the world to me, put me in a different league and allowed me skip about 15 career steps into the upper end of the field. It was an incredible risk on her part and I wasn’t about to let her down.”

So, how do you want to be remembered as a lighting designer?

“I want to be remembered for the relationships and the people I encountered, not the designs. I would hope that people would say they enjoyed working with me, that I was always a “we”, not a “me”, and that I passed down and mentored those that came after, as so many did for me.”