|Fall 2003 - Guilford College Magazine|
He Sees the Light - and Changes ItIf Peter West '83 does his job well, no one notices. That's the irony and agony of lighting design: artful lighting can create a particularly memorable production, while unsympathetic lighting can seriously intrude upon telling the story.
"It's ephemeral, it's utterly changeable, you're constantly wiping it away. And you're always opening yourself up to new experiences because the show always closes," West says.
As a boy growing up in Blacksburg, Va., he tromped down to the local movie theatre and saw every low-grade horror movie that came to town. He isn't exactly sure what the lure was, but horror flicks do rely heavily on dramatic lighting. After discovering that he was not an actor during his freshman year at Guilford, the unstoppable West tried his curious hand at the full range of theatrical production. Guilford's intimate classes and the small departments allowed him many opportunities to excel, trying his hand at radio broadcast and even becoming "the person for lighting."
More recently, West's freelance design has lit stages for Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project (with which he toured from 1998-02), and the Julliard School Drama Division, where he spent three years as resident lighting designer for senior year student performances. His other credits include The American Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C.; A Contemporary Theater in Seattle, Wash.; the Chapel Hill Playmakers, Ford's Theatre, and the McCarter Theatre.
Internationally, he designed lighting for dance theatre in Italy and Taiwan and worked as associate lighting designer on Broadway for Kiss of the Spiderwoman, which he recreated in Tokyo, Vienna and Buenos Aires.
"It's about creating an atmosphere where actors can work, it's about helping tell the story," he said.
One hot summer during his junior year at Guilford, he followed the encouragement of professor Sally Reuther and contacted The Liberty Cart, a historic outdoor drama that was produced in the eastern part of the state. The show used a cast of 40 on a stage 85 feet wide, presenting West with a challenge that he thoroughly enjoyed. Even better still was the paycheck signifying his first professional work as a lighting designer.
Leaving Guilford with a bachelor's degree in drama and speech (and a political science minor), West landed an internship in Allentown, Pa., with the Pennsylvania Stage Company, which led to a job in Massachusetts, and so his career has progressed: one thing leading to another. In 1988 he returned to school and studied lighting design for the next two years at the American Repertory Theatre Institute at Harvard University.
"It's not very lucrative, it can be a difficult way to make a living," West admits, ýbut so rewarding artistically. When you create a theatre space with other people, it is a magical experience, a great adrenalin rush and a wonderful collaboration. It's about ideas and feeling. And it's always a challenge."