PORTLAND – Tony Award-winning lighting designer Christopher Akerlind rarely works in the city he calls home.
The Portland resident helped Good Theater a few years ago with a show at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, where Akerlind serves as a board member. Otherwise, he hasn’t worked professionally in Portland since he left his stint as co-artistic director at Portland Stage Company in 1998.
In the years since, his career has taken him around the country and overseas. He’s been honored with, and nominated for, the most prestigious industry awards for his work on Broadway hits such as “The Light in the Piazza” and “Porgy and Bess,” and books his schedule a year in advance.
This week, the visual evidence of Akerlind’s skills will be on view in the PORTopera production of “La Boheme,” which opens Wednesday and continues through Sunday at Merrill Auditorium. Akerlind, who lives on Munjoy Hill, designed the lighting for the company’s new production of the classic Puccini opera.
A lighting designer can set the mood for a show by choosing how to illuminate the action on stage. Decisions about the use of color, direct spots, overhead lights or backlights, among other things, affect how an audience interprets what it is seeing.
“He sits there and works his magic,” said PORTopera artistic director Dona D. Vaughn. “He makes the whole stage and the characters come to life with a dimension that is not often seen. He’s a great lighting designer, and we are thrilled to have him.”
“I rarely get to work in Portland anymore,” Akerlind lamented before a dress rehearsal this week. “I’m usually not available. But this week is the exception, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”
Akerlind, 51, approached Vaughn after watching last year’s PORTopera production of “Madame Butterfly.” He loved the show and appreciated the talents of the singers on stage, but didn’t love that PORTopera rented sets for the production.
Many theater and opera companies rent sets because it’s cost-efficient. Akerlind believed PORTopera deserved better, because rented sets sometimes create what he called “an energy lag” by diminishing the unique characteristics of a performance and failing to distinguish one production from another.
He recruited scenic designer Judy Gailen, a Portland-based professional designer who teaches at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and studied theater with Akerlind at Yale School of Drama. Together, they approached Vaughn with a proposal to give the local designers a chance to come up with lights and a set unique to PORTopera.
“I’m a big proponent of uniqueness in theater,” Akerlind said. “I told Dona, ‘I promise you we can do a unique production with your available resources.’“
Vaughn, who has wanted to work with Akerlind since she learned he lived in Portland, jumped at the chance. She had offered him lighting design work with PORTopera before, but his schedule never meshed with the opera company.
His ability to work on “La Boheme” was “just about the most thrilling news I have had in a long time,” she said.
With Vaughn’s direction, Gailen designed a minimal set that suggests Paris in the early 20th century. The opera was written for Paris a century earlier, but Vaughn updated the setting so the action takes place during the height of the Modernist movement.
Gailen’s set conjures Cubist elements in hopes of transporting the audience to the time of Picasso and Leger, while Akerlind designed lighting that helps push the singers downstage.
He’s a big proponent of simplicity, and views himself as a visual artist whose medium involves light and movement.
“Lighting design ultimately is about tailoring,” he said. “The less extreme lights on stage, the sharper it is.”
As a designer, Akerlind works closely with the director in executing lighting choices. His process is collaborative, and he must weigh desires and decisions of not only the director, but also the set and clothing designers.
Akerlind sees his job as more creative than technical. As a designer, he does not run the light board night to night. Usually, his work is completed once the rehearsal process ends and the show opens.
Generally, Akerlind prefers simple lighting designs. Just as he perceives too much makeup on an actor’s face as creating a veil between the actor and the audience, too much light or color may create distance between what happens on stage and how it feels to a member of the audience.
Every show is different. For large commercial musicals in big halls, more lighting may be necessary than in a smaller production in an intimate space. But even then, within those decision-making processes, a lighting designer can exert his tastes and sensibilities to push the action on stage in a certain direction.
Akerlind came to lighting after experimenting with many different creative impulses as a young man, including working as a musician in high school and trying his hand at acting in college. He also worked as a stage manager, but felt most comfortable, and best able to express his creativity, working with lights.
He moved to Portland at the invitation of former Portland Stage artistic director Richard Hamburger, who hired him to design lighting for the play “Accidental Death of the Anarchist” in 1989.
He later teamed with another Yale colleague, Anita Stewart, as co-director of Portland Stage. Stewart is still at Portland Stage, where she holds the dual title of executive and artistic director.
Akerlind made his Broadway debut with “The Piano Lesson” in 1991. He has since been nominated for five Tonys, winning for “Light in the Piazza” in 2005. He also won a Drama Desk award for “Piazza,” and an Obie Award for his off-Broadway work.
He has four shows lined up in New York beginning in the fall, including the Broadway opening of the new stage musical “Rocky,” which is based on the Oscar-winning 1976 film and will replace “Wicked” at the Winter Garden Theater.
In his busiest years, Akerlind designed lighting for as many as 25 shows a year. Typically, design jobs last about two weeks, he said.
He balances big jobs such as “Rocky” with smaller ones. Both bring satisfaction.
“I still like to go down to off-Broadway and do something in a garage with six lights,” he said.
He also relishes living in a community that respects creativity as Portland does, and especially appreciates what he calls the “gritty funkiness” of Munjoy Hill.
Working on “La Boheme” gives him the best of both worlds.
“There is something about working and walking home and going to sleep in your own bed,” he said. “It’s a novel experience, and I’m a novelty seeker.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: