William & Mary

Alumna returns as guest lighting designer on theatre’s ‘Baskerville’

  • Lighting the stage
    Lighting the stage  Martha Mountain '86, a professional lighting designer in Washington, D.C., returned to William & Mary to serve as a guest lighting designer on the theatre department's production of "Baskerville."  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Sitting in the side lobby at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, Martha Mountain ’86 said there is no more obvious place to have a conversation.

She knows well from her student days that it’s where everything happens with William & Mary theatre.

Recently Mountain returned as a working professional to serve as a guest lighting designer on the theatre department’s production of “Baskerville” that opens April 20 in the venue. She is a longtime freelance lighting designer in Washington, D.C.

Her return to W&M was a whirlwind of memories, running into old friends and working with the technical aspects of a theatre space she became familiar with more than 30 years ago.

“I like that I’m providing some continuity,” Mountain said.

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She has been a guest artist at other universities, so the teaching experience wasn’t new. But doing it at her alma mater was.

W&M formed her work ethic, focus and intellectual curiosity about the world while giving her great preparation for navigating the working world, she said.

“It’s pretty wonderful to be back here where I started,” Mountain said. “William & Mary is a huge part of how I became who I am. And so it is an honor to be asked to come back and light a show as a professional now, as a guest artist.”

After graduating in 1986, she completed a master’s degree in design at Northwestern University before moving to Washington. Her freelance career has included a variety of assignments, especially special events mostly at the Kennedy Center as well as lighting pops concerts for the National Symphony Orchestra.

She has worked for Washington National Opera and is resident lighting designer for Bowen McCauley Dance. Her theatre clients, many of which had her light plays for young audiences, include the Kennedy Center, Adventure Theatre, Imagination Stage, Theater J and the now-defunct Theater of the First Amendment at George Mason University.

She has served as the Mid-Atlantic business rep for her union, United Scenic Artists, for about 15 years.

Christopher Owens, director for “Baskerville” and chair of theatre, speech and dance, asked Mountain to work on the production. He said that guest artists help students in a couple of ways.

“We’re always pleased when we can get guest artists from major urban areas — Martha of course from D.C. and others we’ve brought in from New York — to come down and work with us and for our students,” Owens said.

“Particularly to work with them both to see how somebody else does it that’s a little different than how our program does it here. And likewise to make that contact — as their first networking sense of their world begins to expand and they think about moving to D.C. or moving to New York and working — to know one strong working professional.”

Mountain said that as a theatre professional, her W&M degree and experience were tremendous grounding in not just the craft and art of the work, but the history.

“I came out of this program knowing theatre history in a great amount of detail,” she said, “and also how that connects to the larger history of the world, and I’m sure that has informed my design decisions over the years.

“But I’m always trying to connect whatever the play is with its place in its time — what else is happening.

Not just this individual story, but how does it fit with all of the other stories that are happening at that time.”

Mountain not only knows the space in PBK Hall, but has worked with “Baskerville” playwright Ken Ludwig on premieres of two of his plays in Washington, Owens added.

She made one trip down to W&M early in the process to see a run-through but met with other designers working on the show through Skype until arriving April 10.

“What I am selecting is how you see the things that are happening on the stage,” she said. “I’m picking the angle of the light, the color of the light, how bright it is, how much there is and does it have texture, balance — all of those things. Most of the time I want you to not notice that I’ve been at work.

“I want it to seem completely natural that that’s what this world looks like.”

The “Baskerville” production involves several characters playing many roles and is a melodrama in which everything is a little heightened, including the lighting, she said.

“And so some of it you will notice in ways that are a little different from what I mostly do,” Mountain said. “But that’s also fun.”