July 24, 2013

Wizard of lighting spins magic for Maine hometown show

Tony-award winner Christopher Akerlind says he's grateful to be back in Portland, working for PORTopera.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Tony Award-winning lighting designer Christopher Akerlind rarely works in the city he calls home.

click image to enlarge

Chris Akerlind, a Tony Award-winning lighting designer who lives in Portland, poses for a portrait in front of the stage of "La Boheme" at Merrill Auditorium Monday, July 22, 2013. Akerlind designed the lighting for the show, the first time in near 20 years of living in Portland that he has worked in the city.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

PORTOPERA'S 'LA BOHEME'

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland

HOW MUCH: $41 to $105

WHAT ELSE: porttix.com; portopera.org

 

CREDITS AT A GLANCE:

These are among lighting designer Christopher Akerlind's credits:

• "The Piano Lesson," 1990, Broadway debut

• "Mad Forest," 1992, Drama Desk nominee

• "The Lights," 1994, Drama Desk nominee

• "Seven Guitars," 1996, Tony Award nominee

• "The Light in the Piazza," 2005, Tony Award winner

• "Belle Epoque," 2005, Drama Desk nominee

• "Awake and Sing," 2006, Tony and Drama Desk nominee

• "110 in the Shade," 2007, Tony Award nominee

• "Garden of Earthly Delights," 2008, Lucille Lortell Award winner

• "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," 2012, Tony Award nominee

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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