Four-time Tony award-winning SpongeBob Squarepants lighting designer shares his theatre career story
Kevin Adams is a four-time Tony award-winning lighting designer known for his work on Broadway's The 39 Steps, Hair, American Idiot and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and now enjoys a Tony nomination for SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical. Here he tells Mandy News how he started out in theatre, details of working on SpongeBob and what aspiring stage crew can do to get noticed.
Kevin, introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved with lighting design and the theatre world?
I was born in Texas, USA and I first became aware of theatre when I heard the original cast recording of Hair, which I just thought was so cool when I was young. When I was 10, I also saw the movie Jesus Christ Superstar a few times and bought the album. So when I was very young, it was rock and pop theatre productions that I thought were cool. When I got to high school, I was in several shows and I had a teacher who gently guided me into designing scenery for shows which I really like doing.
After high school, I went to college and studied set design for theatre and then a grad school in California at an art school. I studied set design for theatre there as well as production design for film because MTV was new and I really wanted to go to California to work on music videos. Around 1984-85, I graduated from the art school and moved to Hollywood and I lived in LA for about 10 years. I worked as a set designer in whatever theatre there was and there wasn’t a lot. I tried to build a career out of that. I also did a lot work in film, commercials and music videos as production designer, art director, set dresser or on props. I did all those related jobs in film for quite a while and they paid pretty well. I could do those and keep working in theatre which paid nothing, especially in LA.
At the same time, I had never studied lighting at all. I had never noticed it or had any interest in it – totally not on my radar. I have always been to museums and galleries, and I had a lot of friends from art school who were artists so I would go to their openings and started to see a lot of work by light and space artists. It was a movement in the US, especially in California in the 1960-70s, and a lot of that light-based work was in the permanent collections of the museums in LA and they would exhibit them. I really liked that work a lot and also followed work by contemporary artists that were using some kind of light in their work. As a result, I started lighting my own little sets with those ideas in mind and the phone immediately started ringing with these really interesting LA theatre artists such as performance artists and directors, whose work I did know. They would say they saw my lighting for a show I did, that’s how they visualised their shows and asked if would I like to light them. I would respond telling them lighting isn’t really what I do as I’m a set designer but they didn’t mind and still wanted me. They explained that if it works then that’s great but if it doesn’t then it totally fine. It was such a generous thing to do.
Consequently, I started lighting a lot of really interesting work by all kinds of different people. In the early 1990s, there was a huge solo performance art scene in the US and I worked with a lot of interesting performance artists, design environments and lighting for them as well as theatre and film. I was doing them all.
In 1996, I decided that I could move to New York and just work as a lighting designer plus I wanted to move to a city where people care about theatre, talked about theatre and where theatre mattered more than it did in LA at the time. So I did move to NYC and I pretty much stopped working in film when I did that. I was also making videos with photography and I stopped doing that too. I worked primarily as a lighting designer and I did scenery once or twice a year for a while but that tapered off too. I moved to NYC when I was around 32 with a lot of work under my belt and I had designed a lot of theatre already so I wasn’t exactly fresh out of college. It made everything much easier. The city was immediately welcoming to me and I really hit the ground running in NYC. It’s been a great 22 years here.
So that’s how it happened, I just fell into lighting. I didn’t have any goals to move to NYC and work on Broadway musicals. My only goal everyday was to work on projects that I liked with people that I liked. If I did that for a day then that was a good day.
How did you end up working on the SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical?
I have known the director of that show for a long time. She’d seen a lot of my work already. In fact, we did a play together 12 years ago and I really liked her a lot. She was nice enough to offer another show that I couldn’t do but then this came around. I know the set designer and costume designer, David Zinn, very well and I have worked with a him a lot. So I think the two of them invited me to this project. It started out as a stage workshop in NYC about four or five years ago and then we did a large production in Chicago two or three summers ago. Usually, you get invited to shows by a director that knows your work or one you have worked with a lot.
What was the process of lighting the show? As the production changed and grew, did the lighting evolve with it?
The first staging was small and simple. It was in a very small space and it was just a presentation for four days with two producers. The next staging was in a 4,000 seater hall and we spent a lot more money on that. The main change was we had a huge amount of money in between the workshop and the first production which was a very large scale realised production in a very large space so we had a lot of space to occupy. As we did the show each time, we found more things to do inside the numbers and they became more complicated with more dance breaks - it basically got more specific each time.
You’ve won several Tonys already and the show has been nominated for 12 itself. What do you think makes the show appealing to everyone?
I know so many people who have gone to see the show and really enjoyed it but were also surprised by how much they enjoyed it. It’s a good piece of musical theatre that people appreciate and like. It’s hard to get people to go there! But once they’re there, they have a good time.
What are the biggest challenges you face working on a project like this?
I’ve done a lot of shows of different kinds such as Broadway and Vegas shows but this was just a really, really big show that occupied a huge amount of theatre space. It was a dense show with a lot of ideas in it and there was a lot of money to support a lot of things that could turn on lighting-wise. The installation of the lights, every cue had to spin 360° and the sheer scale of the production meant it was very tiring and a challenge.
How big is the team that you work with and what is the process like for a typical day on the show?
I had a really smart hard-working associate, Jake DeGroot, who had actually been with the show longer than I have and he was a tireless worker on this project. They would come in every day at 8am and I’d come in at 10am or later and we’d be there ’til 10:30pm - midnight. We brought in a second assistant for around six weeks and they were doing paperwork and stuff but their main job is to talk to the followspots and get them updated with the changes we’re making all the time. Eventually, the followspots became self-sufficient and we would all leave.
The show also has a production electrician and that’s the person we give the drawings to and he and my associate make a shop order and we put an order up for bid. Once a shop order has a bid, the production electrician goes into the shop, preps the order and installs or oversees the installation of it into the theatre - that can take a month or so to do.
There is a programmer too, who sits at a computer and programs the show, as I talk to him, into the lighting console. His name is Benny Kirkham and he lives in Las Vegas and he’s a rock ’n’ roll guy that I’ve worked with a lot. Every Broadway theatre has a house electrician who works there full-time. They hire a big crew of about 12 electricians to come in and install it all. There is another production electrician who stays with the show and he basically runs the show via the console. There are three followspot operators for the show and sometimes there is a deck electrician too.
So all in all, there is a staff of five that actually run the electric part of the show. They do have other jobs beside those too; one of them will likely be a video/projection tech and a followspot operator will likely repair moving lights too during the show. They all have multiple jobs.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into the lighting department and eventually become a lighting designer like yourself?
Work as hard as you can at anything you can and keep getting involved at any level you can. For a designer, I’d say keep working on yourself, learning new things and developing a point of view. People will hire you not only based on the quality of work you do but also your unique point of view, in my opinion.
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