Most William & Mary students enjoy getting to learn from the College’s faculty members during the four short years that they spend on campus, but Jeremy Owens ‘12 has had the opportunity to learn from one William & Mary professor for his entire life: his father, Christopher Owens.
Now, the two are putting their knowledge together to light William & Mary Theatre’s upcoming production of Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana,” which opens Feb. 23 in Phi Beta Kappa Hall.
An early collaboration
As a graduate student, Christopher Owens, an associate professor of theatre at William & Mary, studied both lighting design and directing. Since that time, he has acted as a lighting designer for approximately 60 shows. However, he now primarily serves in directorial roles and has not lit a show in 10 years.
“So I'm a bit rusty and there have been at least two ‘generations’ of technology improvements since the last time I did a show, so that's been the challenge,” he said.
“I knew I wanted to work on ‘Night of the Iguana,’ as that's one my favorite pieces by Tennessee Williams, but as to what role I would fill I was still uncertain about,” he said.
When Christopher Owens was asked last year to serve as the show’s lighting designer, he approached his son about working as an assistant designer for the production. It was not the first time that he had looked to his son for help with lighting design.
“Twenty years ago, as I was lighting a production for a
regional theatre, I was having trouble seeing the color balance from one side
of the stage to the other,” said Christopher Owens. “It was in the middle of summer and I was
pretty tan, so my normal process of holding up my bare arm as I
crossed the stage and watching the color change on it wasn't working so
So, Christopher Owens picked up his then 1-year-old son and held him up as he crossed the stage, watching the color change on his son's skin so that he could clearly see where the color balance needed to be adjusted.
"That was my first 'collaboration' with Jeremy on a lighting design,” he said.
Despite that early “collaboration,” Jeremy Owens said he didn’t know his father had done lighting design until he was a sophomore at the College, already immersed in the world of technical theatre and “when I had already caught the lighting bug,” he said.
Last fall, he had the chance to really collaborate with his father for the first time, serving as lighting designer for their production of “The Shape of Things.” His lighting design later earned him a Barbizon Design Nomination from the American College Theatre Festival.
“So we know how to talk to each other as director/designer, though this time as designer/assistant it's really even more collaborative in a very specific way,” said Christopher Owens.
Lighting the night
“Night of the Iguana,” which is set in Mexico in 1940, presented the Owens duo with a unique set of lighting challenges, including a large storm at the end of the first act.
“We have some of the instrumentation needed to accomplish this, but had to rent some specialty things from up in D.C. to get what we really wanted,” said Christopher Owens.
The pair also sought to stay true to the lighting notes that Williams made in his script.
“There's a passage of time to tell, this huge storm of course, and various ways to highlight mood and draw the audience's attention to the story of a particular character at certain moments (without being too heavy-handed),” said Christopher Owens. “There will be some very dramatic stuff that will call some attention to the effect, but hopefully it will mostly draw the audience into the atmosphere of this steamy, tropical environment.”
To come up with the design for the show, the father and son met in the halls of Phi Beta Kappa for quick meetings wherein Christopher Owens would describe his ideas and Jeremy Owens would help him find ways to accomplish his vision or point out unforeseen limitations. Slowly but surely, the two created the final lighting plot for the show.
“The process has seemed very streamlined as he and I are able to communicate so easily. He did teach me how to walk and talk after all,” said Jeremy Owens. “It's also nice knowing that I can help my dad accomplish something he wants to create.”
‘Something we both love’
Despite the challenges of lighting the show, the father and son team said that they have enjoyed working together.
“My father and I communicate very well with each other outside of working together, so it wasn't a surprise when that continued into this collaboration,” said Jeremy Owens. “He has certainly designed more shows than I have, but I've worked in the space more than he has, so we each have something to bring to the table.”
Christopher Owens agreed.
“I think it's been great, particularly as I work on a specific look or effect and Jeremy can help me decide how it might be best implemented,” he said. “Since he is both more informed on all the most modern technical options and has done many shows on the PBK stage as either designer, assistant designer, or master electrician -- his knowledge of what our inventory can accomplish is invaluable for me. He is also a wiz at programing and knows the eccentricities of the space very well so he can often warn me in advance of what I'm likely to encounter as we progress.”
Though Jeremy Owens will graduate in May and move to D.C., he plans to pursue work in technical theatre. Christopher Owens said he hopes to one day bring his son back to the College as a guest designer. But, whatever the future may hold, the two said that they’d welcome the chance to work together again.
“We would absolutely work together again,” said Jeremy Owens. “Whether that's with me designing and him back in his directorial role, or doing this again, with my dad as the lighting designer and me as his assistant, it's been a lot of fun not just because he's easy to work with and is very professional in his work, but it's a time when my dad and I get to do something together that we both love.”