A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Steven Rosen ‘84
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
About 26 years ago, I started a lighting design firm called Available Light. Generally, we work in three discrete areas: Permanent Museum Exhibition Lighting, Architectural Lighting, and lighting for Special Events and Trade Shows. I am proud of building, with my wife/business partner, an organization of 17 employees and a bunch of freelancers all working together for one common goal: truth, beauty, and excellence in lighting design. Although there are many award-winning projects in our portfolio, it is the people with whom I work every day that make me feel extraordinarily fortunate.
You graduated in 1984 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
One of my teachers in undergraduate school was constantly opining that we “savor the moment.” We shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. Although every project we work on has an opening night, all we have to enjoy is the process. Stopping to take stock, and yes, savor, the ongoing work is, for me, critical. Although perhaps trite and obvious, is the notion of hard work and dedication. If you are not willing to be the hardest working person in the room then success may elude you. I am a firm believer that it takes 10,000 hours of focused dedication on a task to be considered an entry-level expert.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
Other than attending a design show when I am able, I have not had a lot of contact with the department. But, having learned that the best lighting designers for architecture and museum exhibition come from a theatrical design background, I would enjoy more connection.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
There are four NYU Design MFAs working at Available Light: Ted Mather ’87, Matt Zelkowitz ’97, Alex Fabozzi ’14, and me ‘84. The list of NYU designers with whom I have collaborated over the years goes on and on. The talent that has passed through the Design Department is truly impressive.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
Early in my career, I was the Associate Designer of a giant corporate event. My boss was not onsite in the last couple of very tense days leading up to the opening moment. And, of course, the producer had not made the required contractual upfront payment typically required before opening. In a rage, my boss told me on the phone that I needed to go tell the producer that, unless he handed me a check, we would take our toys and go home. So, I did. All that producer had to do was look down his nose at me like it were a gun sight and say, “Are you threatening me?” That’s when I knew I had probably not done the right thing and I am amazed to report that I am still alive to tell this tale. The lesson: use your brain, think through your actions and the actions of those reporting to you. Honey is usually a more successful strategy than vinegar. It should come as no surprise we never worked for that producer again.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
It is always nice to be acknowledged for your work and we have our fair share of accolades for our projects ranging from The National Museum of the Marine Corps to the domed entryway building at MIT. But one moment stands out above all the awards ceremonies: We had finished a long, complicated, and satisfying design process for the introductory exhibit of the National Infantry Museum in Ft. Benning, GA. The exhibit was an immersive multi-media walkthrough history of the Army Infantry that stretched from the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm. As we were completing the final walkthrough with our client, a retired many-star general, he got all choked up and fervently thanked us for delivering an experience that would make most every American proud. I’ll never forget it; in that moment, the power of theater, design, and storytelling was all brought to bear.
When did you get interested in theater and how?
In the 7th grade I discovered the school play, I think it was Annie Get Your Gun. More specifically I discovered the gigantic auto-transformer lighting control panel that was backstage enclosed by a chain link fence structure - so coooooooool. The spark (pun intended) was lit and I was hooked on theatrical lighting design. By the time I got to college my career goal was professional theatrical lighting designer. For undergraduate school I started at UCLA, transferred to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria CA, and got my BFA in theater at Webster College (now University) in St. Louis. I then headed to NYU and earned my MFA.
What or who were your influences?
One day during lighting class in St. Louis, an architect presented a guest lecture on the topic of architectural lighting - a subject that, until that crystalizing moment, had been completely unfamiliar to me. I ended up as a summer intern in an architectural lighting design studio in Massachusetts and, when my studies at NYU were complete, I was invited to go to work in that office. The ensuing years led to a fragmented career working in an architectural lighting studio, designing for theater companies all over New England, and working on a myriad of corporate projects and trade shows. Along the way, another life-altering opportunity presented itself and I was hired to light the exhibits for an air and space museum in Virginia. I discovered, in museum design, a perfect "place" at the nexus of architectural and theatrical design; this experience led to the founding of Available Light. I have been blessed to have a number of mentors in my life, from college professors to employers to several clients that saw potential in me and took the time to make me see, understand, and appreciate that which was around me. Anyone who does not take the time to listen to their elders is a fool.
As you design and meet the challenges of being a freelance artist, are there any voices that you particularly hear from the aggregation of voices?
From school: Man, “the aggregation of voices,” you got that right. Well, it was never good enough for John Gleason. That was a difficult lesson to learn: no matter how much one thinks, creates, strategizes, and toils, the work can ALWAYS be better. Arden Fingerhut, made me think until my head hurt; the task of visualizing a text or intellectual concept is not for the meek—it’s bloody hard work! Lloyd Burlingame was always encouraging us to stay connected with our inner-child which was fantastic advice! As long as we continue to appreciate the wonderment that can be so outwardly and joyfully expressed by a child, we have a shot at crafting something amazing.
From outside of school: Ha, that producer I mentioned earlier was certainly a profound mentor! Some of my most important mentors taught me how to not do things. Although a contemporary, colleague and friend, the lessons I learned from Tony Kushner when we were young theater artists serves me to this day. Tony is a generous genius; he was never too busy, or too famous, to be a sounding board. And, frankly, the lessons I learned from my fellow students during class all those years ago stick with me. That was a band of brothers and sisters.
Are there any challenges and/or rewards that you feel lighting designers have that are different ones that other designers may have?
Well, it is only once or twice a year at most that I actually design a theater production but the things I find common among fellow lighting designers is that: A) they possess the ‘nice’ gene. Lighting designers tend to be fun, kind, happy and eager to help. B) They will go to great lengths to help one another. Sure, there will always be competition, but I find the generosity among most lighting designers to be a breath of fresh air. C) As the legendary lighting designer and educator, Gilbert Helmsley, used to say, lighting designers are a service organization. Lighting designers are good at making things better, but they are less good at staring at a blank page with nothing to light and making a go of it. That’s why I harbor so much respect for set designers, costume designers, architects, and interior designers.
What are some of your other interests in life?
Although I schlep on to a lot of planes and trains for work, I love to travel. I cannot get enough of seeing the world and learning about how others face live their lives. It is a bit of an obsession. I also love drinking and learning (in that order) about wine, and visiting the places where it is produced. I love the sea and cannot imagine ever being too far from it. I am beginning to take more seriously the problems faced by the almost infinite amount of plastic that is now swirling around in our oceans. The horrifying effect of this phenomenon on our natural world is truly profound.
What was your favorite snack that your assistant brought to you during tech?
Hands down, a bottle of Bourbon.
Do you have any final thoughts?
This is a fantastic time to be a lighting designer! Although there are certainly more people looking to design a Broadway show than there will ever be openings, so many opportunities exist to use lighting skills in other burgeoning industries including architecture. The research going on regarding light & health is amazing and solid-state lighting has completely turned the lighting world upside down. Working towards creating a sustainable world, while protecting the mission of human centric, well-designed environments provides many challenges and demands a plethora of solutions from the next generation.