From AV nerd to illustrious lighting designer: a Q&A with Allen Lee Hughes

With the national tour of A Soldier’s Play launching this week at the Kennedy Center, lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes has special reason to be pleased — because this Broadway production for which received a Tony nom has come to his hometown.

Since graduating from DC’s McKinley Technology High School and Catholic University, Allen has had an illustrious career, lighting theater and dance productions on Broadway and beyond and inspiring young minds as a professor of the arts at NYU Tisch. In addition to A Soldier’s Play, his Tony-nominated Broadway credits include Once on this Island and K2. The recipient of two Helen Hayes Awards, Allen has designed 70 productions for Arena Stage, where his namesake fellowship and intern program has enhanced the careers of over 700 theater professionals to date.

Allen Lee Hughes. Photo by Kate Lord/New York University.

Other major theaters where his work has been seen include Seattle Rep, New York Shakespeare Festival, Guthrie Theater, Shakespeare Theater, Goodman, and Lincoln Center Theater. His dance designs include works for the American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Ballet Tech, Hartford Ballet, and Pilobolus Dance Theatre.

Here he talks about how his career began, how he got to Broadway, and his inspiring advice for up-and-comers.

How did you get started in theater?

Allen Lee Hughes: When I was in ninth grade, a guy walked into my homeroom and pointed at three of us, and said, “Come, you’re going to run a follow spot.” We protested, of course, and said we didn’t know how to run follow spot. He insisted, and said, “I’ll teach you.” And he did. I liked it, and started doing follow spot.

Over time, I became an audiovisual nerd. I can say that, because, I think by this time, I’ve proven I’m interested in and able to tell a story, and know how technology relates to that. So I don’t mind saying that I once was a nerd.

In high school, I had the choice of joining the AV crew or backstage crew for theater. I chose theater.

My high school, McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC, had a stage comparable to a Broadway stage, as well as the equipment of a Broadway stage — a fly system, an autotransformer lightboard, lights, etc. During my second year of high school, I was given the task of asking a company that came to use the high school theater if there were any professional tech rehearsals that we could attend, as students. Their response was that they could do better than that, and may even have jobs for some of us. (Little did I know, that meant jobs for no money.)

So for my last two years of high school, I ran a lightboard one night a week for this company in Georgetown, called the Garrett Players, which was run by a group of Catholic University alumni. When they went to Summer Stock [Stage], I went and became an apprentice where I learned to build scenery and lit my first Actors’ Equity show.

I went on to study at Catholic University, which had a great reputation for drama. So I got a liberal arts education there, with a focus on speech and drama.

The 2019 Broadway Revival Company of ‘A Soldier’s Play.’ Lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. Photo © Joan Marcus.

How did you know that lighting design was for you?

I’m still wondering. Every time I do a show. I never take what I do for granted.

I always say I’ve done every job in the theater except professional costume design. (Even directed and did some producing on a show during college.) I was one of those people who grew up putting on shows in my basement. As a kid, I once played the wizard in The Wizard of Oz.

After Summer Stock, I met the resident lighting designer at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I was fortunate — he offered me jobs. In those days, they did overnight changeovers. They closed the show on a Sunday and previewed the next show on Friday, so they would hire extra people to change over sets and lights overnight. I used to do that during my college days for extra book money.

So, after I finished college, I was, as all graduates do, wondering what I would do with life. Then I got a job running follow spot at Arena Stage.

Once there, I asked if there were any permanent jobs, thinking that would mean I would be in lighting. Instead, they asked me to work in the shop. I worked in the shop for a year, and there I learned all about stage machinery, and building scenery. The second year, Arena Stage did a three-week tour to the Soviet Union, and it really was a once-a-lifetime opportunity. From there I finished that second year in the shop and was ready to move on. When the Lighting Associate position (what we would call a Lighting Supervisor today) opened up, I went for it, and ended up working with some wonderful people, including Billy Mintzer, Arden Fingerhut, and Hugh Lester, to name a few, in that role.

My relationship has been long and rewarding at Arena where I’ve designed 70 productions.

How did the fellowship in your name start at the Arena Stage?

The Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship and Internship Program [now the Allen Lee Hughes BIPOC Fellowship Program] was started by Zelda Fichandler around 1990. It started out as a desire to diversify the theater. Zelda wanted to diversify the audience, the acting company, and creatives, and also start an intern program for minorities. The program includes playwrights, directors, administrators, lighting people, costume designers, etc. Over 700 people have been called fellows through that program, and serve and work in theater around the country.

Did you always know you wanted to teach?

Actually, no. I spent 15 years freelancing, making my living just designing. It’s hard to do. I kind of fell into teaching, in that an adjunct position became open at NYU Tisch in 1997. Someone suggested I apply. I ambivalently applied, and got the job.

In 2001, ML Geiger and I were up for a fulltime position at NYU Tisch. Susan Hilferty, the Department of Design for Stage and Film’s Chair, decided to hire both of us. We also teach with Robert Wierzel, so there are three of us teaching lighting design at NYU. Lots of mentorship opportunities there.

The primary class I teach is called Lighting 2, and it is taken during the second year of graduate studies. I also advise on second-year productions, and dance productions. I’ve also been fortunate to teach a course called “Play Reading” with ML and Robert, which is a course for all three years of the lighting designer program, in which we read a play each week and discuss it from a dramaturgical point of view.

The 2019 Broadway Revival Company of ‘A Soldier’s Play.’ Lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. Photo © Joan Marcus.

How would you describe your lighting design aesthetic?

I would say that I’m a storyteller. I’m very much a performer-based designer.

I like to see the actors, dancers, and singers. I feel lighting should enhance the story, but the first function of lighting is selective visibility. Then you get into the other elements that deal with storytelling, mood, revelation of form, naturalism, and others.

I would say that is the best way to describe my aesthetic.

Who or what would you say inspired your aesthetic, or way of working?

I’ve been inspired by so many; this is certainly not the whole list. I would say John Gleason, Arden Fingerhut, and Jennifer Tipton. Those are the three designers I assisted.

Then people I observed include Gilbert V. Hemsley Jr., Tharon Musser, and William Mintzer.

And Shirley Prendergast. She’s in a class of her own. The first African-American woman lighting designer on Broadway. She took all the minority lighting designers under her wing and provided guidance. Her dedication to building the profession still inspires me.

What inspired you to make the move from DC to NYC?

After doing a mainstage show at Arena Stage, I decided to move to New York and to get a master’s degree, in case I ever wanted to teach. I applied and was accepted at New York University.

I’ve lived in NY since I went to school here, in 1976. I say that I even drive like a NY taxi driver!

How did you get to Broadway? What was your big break?

My big break was definitely a show I did at Arena Stage called K2, which moved to Broadway. Ming Cho Lee designed the scenery and won the Tony for his famous mountain. I was nominated for a Tony but lost to Cats.

What were some of the favorite projects you’ve worked on, along your road to success?

Whenever I’m working on a show, it’s my favorite. I did A Soldier’s Play back in the 1980s, and I did it [again in 2020] on Broadway.

That was fun. Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of people, and it’s been fun. But when I’m working on a show, I do take it very seriously. It’s all about bringing the story to light.

I once shocked Jennifer Tipton by saying that my favorite part of the process was the opening night party. It’s because if we had done our jobs right, we have something special that the audience enjoys, and a show we can be proud of.

As the world of theater reopens, what would you like to see?

Certainly more diversity. We need to really look at diversity. This is a country-wide problem. We need to decide to do the right thing, and accept and embrace diversity.

Do you think that theater will be different in a post-COVID world?

I don’t know that I have the inside answer here. I have no idea as to the future of theater, and what that’s going to be. In a certain way, I’m waiting for the people I teach to invent “the new theater.” Theater is changing. The demand, the requests by people, even the working habits in the theater, are on the plate. We’ll see what happens.

Is there any advice that you offer your students and colleagues, that you would share with up-and-coming lighting designers?

My advice is, everybody’s career is different. Just be ready when your opportunity knocks.

A Soldier’s Play will play December 13, 2022, to January 8, 2023, in the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45–$135) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Running Time: Approximately one hour 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.

For more information on Allen Lee Hughes, watch his I AM THEATRE video on YouTube, or visit his webpage at NYU Tisch.

Interview excerpted from the City Theatrical newsletter and reprinted by permission of City Theatrical.