LD Spotlight Interview: Al Crawford - Lighting Designer


Al Crawford

Founder, CEO, Lighting Designer - Arc3design

Al Crawford grew up surrounded by the arts, a unique upbringing that was highly influential on his career to come. It included tours with his father, an award-winning musician, growing up around The American Dance Festival and attending Interlochen Arts Academy for high school to study dance, art, theater and ultimately lighting. As lighting director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 1998, dance is his special passion and something he uses as a springboard for the other genres of lighting he is involved in.

Meet Al

Jennifer Hudson, New Jersey Performing Arts Center Spotlight Gala

What is it about lighting dance that appeals to you?

I grew up in the arts and was really interested in all different types of art forms. In my early youth, I was particularly surrounded by music because of my father. I was immersed with music and really unique people at all times. Eventually being around local Dance Companies like Chuck Davis’ African American Dance Ensemble, I found dance to be something that I loved not only doing but watching. I had the opportunity to work at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC, and as a young person seeing so many companies, theaters, choreographers and diverse art, it really made an impression on me. Not only was I learning about dance and theater and taking classes, I was enamored by the designs of all of this. As I was very much interested in performance of all kinds from opera, visual arts, non-traditional productions, and dance, dance did become a huge piece of why I became a lighting designer. I saw the Ailey Company early on and was blown away by the aesthetic and the performers and immediately wanted to know everything about it. Eventually I found my way there.

Does lighting dance differ from lighting other on-stage genres like theatre and opera?

In many ways, it is the same. It’s part of my design aesthetic and approach in general that I look at all these genres in a very similar perspective and light. For me, dance is like living architecture. It often has a music or acoustic element and it has strong ties to visual fine art. Dance brings these genres together in a way that can be powerful as an art expression. For a lighting designer, that is really exciting because it often gives us incredible amounts of creative space to craft environments for these dances to happen. It’s why I fell in love with it and ultimately I still use my work in dance as my springboard for all the other things that I do.

You are a big believer in cross genre design and at Arc3design you work in a variety of genres - dance, opera, architecture, broadcast, live events. Is that a conscious strategy?

It is now. I think originally it wasn’t as I was just curious and exploring all kinds of things. Now, in terms of a business and at the development of my art, it really is quite specifically a strategy. We love working in all these different areas because they bring a variety of challenges but what we’ve learned is that while we’re working across all these different kinds of spaces and genres, they’re all constantly influencing each other. You can’t help but work in dance or architecture or theatre or opera and not take something from one and apply it to the other. It’s just natural.

I often hear that design ideas start in theatre and spread to other genres. Do you think that’s true?

I think they’ve all shared and influenced each other. I feel there are things in the concert industry that have been developed over the years that have directly affected live event production, fine art light and installation work. As an example, the tight beam fixtures we see everywhere were developed for the concert industry but now you see that in all types of art installations and theatrical productions. Whereas the idea of sidelight, a more sculptural light that came from the 1930s and 40s at the beginning of the real construct of lighting design for dance, how you light performers, came from dance. Now you see it in the concert industry. People love cross lighting the band. It looks great…and it came from dance!

Awakening, Robert Battle Choreographer, Photo by Paul Kolnik

I recently did a piece where the designer said he felt people are craving more ‘light as art’ type installations, whether they are stand-alone or part of an event/festival. What are your thoughts on that? Is that a genre that you think is growing?

Yes, for sure, its exciting times to tell stories with light and it has become quite popular. There are some amazing artists that focus on light-centric fine art. Olafur Eliasson and James Turell are two of my favorite artists who are making installations that are really challenging a viewer’s perception of everything that we see and feel. More and more, light is used as a story telling tool in fine art. The construct of light as architecture is a trend that is wonderful to experience. As long as an idea developes from an artistic vision and not from a technical capability, then I’m excited about it. I hope that we push the trend toward artistic expression and not technical wizardry.

You have said that the move away from tungsten and incandescent light into LEDs is a transition that makes our everyday work incredibly challenging. Can you expound on that? What challenges has it created?

There’s a continuing conversation amongst colleagues, engineers and artists about where we’re going in terms of light sources and how it will affect the future of the art form but also how live performance is experienced. In my generation, it all started with tungsten and halogen fixtures and that creates a very specific experience to a viewer. Because of the incandescence, because it’s a fire, it connects us back to our most pure moments of storytelling…those moments when we were sitting around a campfire or amongst candlelight or laying in the sun. There’s real true love to that light. A true human connection.

Fast forward to our present scenario, the new technology gives us flexibility and efficiency, but what we’re missing is the truth and the fire of those original sources. That’s not an easy thing to replicate. The work looks different, the work feels different.  It’s the subtle line between it having depth and being superficial.

As lighting designers, we work in the subconscious. Our work is harder than it was 25 years ago because light has become more of a surface treatment. Not that we’re not all creating great lighting design or designers aren’t crafting beautiful and powerful things that move people, but there’s something about that fire that’s inside of a light that can touch people’s emotions in a different way.

I think the LED fixture is a great tool but now we’re getting to a place where rental shops literally do not own a tungsten product and that is forcing the way we approach projects to change.

Vice Music Brand Launch

Do you think LED will reach the point where we can get back to that more emotive feeling?

I know that some manufacturers are working towards creating fixtures that give us much more broad color spectrum capability, and that’s a huge piece of it. Fixtures that have incredibly smooth dimming curves is also important. We need to meet the output in some of the color ranges that we can with legacy tungsten source and LED fixtures haven’t quite been able to match. There are some key points and goals for the manufacturers that I hope they are focused on and that it’s not just about brighter and faster.

My hope is that responsible design is taught to young people about the craft of lighting design. It is important that schools around the world are teaching young designers why the use of tungsten light, and continuing to use a broad range of source types, is powerful for their work.

Do you get the chance to work with up and coming designers?

I’m currently a Visiting Artist at the North Carolina School of the Arts, my alma mater, which continues to be one of the best lighting design programs in the nation. Clifton Taylor, who runs the lighting design program there, is in my opinion one of the greatest lighting artists and lighting educators of our generation. Beyond my team at Arc3design, I love being around these incredibly curious young new designers and offering them the tools and little tokens I’ve learned that they can take to enhance their artistic expression and turn it into a successful career.

I think it’s important that the manufacturers don’t forget about these young new artists coming in because they’re the ones who will be specifying gear in the very short future. The more investment we give to these programs around the nation, the more energy and focus the manufacturers get back - everybody wins.

A successful lighting designer needs to have both a technical and artistic side. What percentage would you place on each?

The joy of this art form is that it’s a mix of the technical craft and the visual art. As a young LD, you’ll probably be supporting others before your own career takes off so it’s important to have that technical background. When you first come out of training, I would say 70% technical and 30% artistic but then it may shift as your career grows. Where I’m at now is about 80% artistic and 20% technical.

What’s the most challenging part for you of the lighting design process? How do you deal with that?

It changes from project to project. Often the most challenging part of the process is time, particularly in America where theatrical productions are forced to do it faster and faster. European productions have held on to their ability to create and spend time digesting the work so they can continue to craft. American art in general is rushed but it’s the nature of economics.

Do you often get the chance to use Elation products?

Over the last few years, I’ve been using a variety of Elation products on different types of projects particularly in the themed entertainment sector. I currently have them on an interactive, immersive, theatrical children’s show in Times Square called Pips Island where we use a variety of Elation lights throughout the show, including the Artiste series, as an integral part of the design.

Any of Elation’s newest lights you’d like to get your hands on?

I had a look at the Artiste Monet when it was still in development and it was really interesting then so I look forward to seeing the more finished product. For me, much of what I do requires a tool that gives me significant output but maintains smooth color rendering, speed and accuracy and most importantly is incredibly reliable. I’m excited about that particular fixture because it appears to meet those particular requirements. Many of my colleagues are integrating them into repertory scenarios which is an exciting step for Elation.

Ailey II Splendid Isolation II, Jessica Lang Choreographer

You are currently working on The Snow Queen ballet at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen Denmark, which debuts in December. You are working with the Danish Queen on the project. What can you reveal about that project?

I’ve had a two-decade relationship with Tivoli Gardens and went there a lot travelling with the Ailey company. During my time at Tivoli, I built a love for the people that work there and with the place itself. They are a big lover of the arts and its truly a special place for me. This year is the 175th anniversary of Tivoli Gardens and this production of The Snow Queen is the culmination of a year of celebration of events. Queen Margrethe is the set and costume designer and as you might imagine that makes it particularly unique from a design development perspective. It’s been an amazing experience to work with her as we develop some new approaches to traditional theatrical design. I was first a bit apprehensive as she is royalty but she’s been amazing at treating us all on the design team as true collaborators.

What’s something about Al Crawford that people might find surprising?

I think that people think that I never stop, that I’m constantly working. There’s definitely a perception of that and in this world of social media it’s easy to think it’s all encompassing. I do work a lot. I love my career and my craft. I love travelling around the world and working with so many people that I’ve become close with. The reality is that I do actually really enjoy my personal time and take quite good care of myself when I’m off. I’m a ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of guy. When I’m in it I’m focused on the work and when I’m off I really focus on me, my wife and my family. I cherish that time and it’s super important to me.

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