Annmarie Duggan: Finding Art in the Theater’s Lights

Issue Date: 
May 11, 2015

Dozens of theater lights shine down on actress Lauryn Thomas, a Pitt sophomore, as she manipulates a puppet and croons her solo: There’s a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend. 

It’s the technical rehearsal for Avenue Q, a musical spoof on Sesame Street, and Thomas, who has the starring role of Kate Monster, basks under a glow of white light on the stage of the Studio Theatre on campus.

The scene looks good—but it could look better.   

Annmarie Duggan, an accomplished lighting designer and chair of Pitt’s Theatre Arts Department, commands sophomore Jessica Schatz to punch a series of numbers into the light board. The changes throw lavender light on the floor and the wall behind Thomas as she hits the high notes. It’s the “money” number, Duggan says about this sparkling scene as she works with Schatz to create the lighting that will make the moment shine.

A week later the audience seated in the theater will applaud wildly for Thomas’ performance. Few in the crowd will notice the mist of purple light that envelops her, heightening the bittersweet mood of a song about unrequited love. It will be just one of the 220 subtle visual cues that Duggan and her student crew will employ to tell a story with lights.

Lighting designers like Duggan don’t get to take a bow at the end of a performance, but the show doesn’t go on without them. As she puts it succinctly, “Without lights, you don’t see the actors.” But she knows there’s far more to her craft than that. 

Duggan is an artist who uses the stage as her canvas and the lights as her paints. She changes the color, intensity, and movement of the lighting to form an emotional link with the audience. “The abstractness of light can bring great clarity to a moment on stage,” she once wrote in an artistic statement.

Ken Goldstein, a freelance set designer from New York who collaborates with Duggan on theater productions around the country, says she’s a stand-out designer who is always coming up with innovative ways to do lighting. “She makes great stage pictures,” says Goldstein, a design professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “There are very few people who are more passionate about bringing stories through the theater to audiences.”

Duggan brings the same passion to teaching lighting design, a subject that can be daunting for students to understand at first. “You can’t pick lighting up,” she says. “It’s not like a costume you can put on your body.” She demystifies the complexities of both lighting design and stage management by sharing the knowledge she has gained during 20 years of working both off-Broadway and in regional theater productions across the nation.  

Though Duggan seems at home backstage, she didn’t grow up as a theater geek. She was an undergraduate psychology major at Worcester State in her native Massachusetts when she took an Introduction to Theatre class as a lark to satisfy a requirement. Something clicked. Duggan couldn’t draw a lick, but deep down she knew she was an artist. Lighting design proved a good fit with her penchant for storytelling and her mechanical savvy. “My crayons can be the lights,” she thought.

Initially, Duggan figured that if she were going to be a starving lighting designer, she might as well do it in New York City, surrounded by the bright lights of Broadway and off-Broadway. It was a good career move. Within a few months, she landed jobs as a freelance lighting designer. Eventually she worked for an off-Broadway production of Jolson & Company, where she discovered that she adored the rush of lighting a large-scale musical. “One little thing can trip everything up. I was up for the stress. I was really fast, and I could light quickly.”

With New York experience on her resume, she received job calls from regional theaters. One thing led to another—productions of Annie, Beauty and the Beast, and Chicago, a show known for the innovative lighting needed for its chorus line. She did Little Shop of Horrors eight times.

Duggan found lighting to be a welcoming career for a woman, but it was no accident. She says she was following in the footsteps of some great female innovators. “Women invented modern-day lighting. In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, women became pioneers in the art of lighting design,” she says, mentioning Jean Rosenthal, Jennifer Tipton, and Tharon Musser.

As her resume and confidence grew, Duggan finally felt ready to become a college professor. She joined Pitt’s faculty in 2006 and rose quickly, from lecturer, to assistant professor, to chair of the theatre department in 2013. 

In Duggan’s Stage Management class, she leads her students through the process as though they had just been hired to work on a professional production. She also teaches the latest technology so they can be prepared to stage manage everything from a two-person show to a mega-musical on Broadway. 

She teaches light design using another approach. Before her students can create lighting, Duggan trains them how to see and experience it. In a project called “The Artist,” students are assigned the name of a painter like Monet, Turner, or Hopper. They research the artist and give a presentation to the class about the artwork and the nature of its light. Then they head to the lighting lab to create the mood in the paintings. “If I were a painter, I would be a modern artist,” she says, probably an expressionist. “I throw light. After I throw it, I mess with it.” She also teaches the rhythm of lighting—the timing and movement of the light that follows or propels the emotional beats of the play—and how it can enhance a story. “All good lighting designers have good rhythm,” Goldstein says, “and she has exceptional rhythm.”

Seated next to Duggan in rehearsal is Monica Meyer, a senior who is the stage manager of this production of Avenue Q. As Meyer announces her commands through her headsets, Duggan tells her, “Say it like you mean it.” Meyer removes the question mark from her voice, and Duggan nods with approval. Meyer, who plans to pursue a career in stage management, has already received work opportunities and invaluable mentoring from Duggan, who is hired for out-of-town stage productions during the summer months and recruits her students to help.

Some students get flustered when they hear Duggan giving them a string of orders through their headsets. “I tell them there is no mistake I can’t correct,” Duggan says. “Just don’t freeze and do nothing.” Under Duggan’s style of on-the-job training, it doesn’t take students long to learn.

By Avenue Q’s opening night, Duggan has done all she can. Everything is now in the hands of her students and colleagues. Often on opening night of a play she paces outside the theater, too nervous to watch. But for this show, she sits in the audience. 

As a professional, she nitpicks the lighting design in a perfectionist way—this or that could have been better. But as a teacher, she is ecstatic. When the curtain comes down and the actors take their bows, the audience roars. Duggan smiles, out of the glow of the stage lights. 

(This story is adapted from an article that ran in the Winter 2015 Pitt Magazine.)