Focus & Balance: Lighting Designer’s Dual Career
For lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller, technology was the spark that first inspired his career path…a path that continues to diverge, merge and intertwine.
“I loved the technical aspects of theatre, even in high school,” he recalls.
Hackenmueller was raised in the Minneapolis suburb of Chaska and became the resident assistant lighting designer at the Guthrie Theatre at age 18. There he developed friendships with lighting designers from across the country, including Allen Lee Hughes, Ken Posner and Robert Wierzel among others.
While working at the Guthrie, Hackenmueller earned his undergraduate degree in technical theater at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He also pursued his technical interest by interning with the local dealer for the Vari-Lite Series 300 stage lighting system, Visual Horizon Communications (VHC).
Hands-on Learning. “As their intern, I spent one day a week in VHC’s shop, setting up their Vari-Lites and operating the lighting boards,” he recalls. “I learned how all the technology worked at the same time I was at the Guthrie with leading theatrical designers; the technology fascinated me.”
Eventually VHC sent him to Vari-Lite’s technical training center for full luminaire and control console training, for which Hackenmueller received college credit – a first for the University. He worked with VHC throughout college; their bread-and-butter is large corporate events for clients like Target.
“It was a great opportunity to get the best of both worlds,” Hackenmueller says. “I realized that while technology was my love, hands-on technical work was not in my wheelhouse: I was more of a big-picture person. That’s the job of a designer – to define an arc of storytelling as they collaborate on a larger creative team and implement that vision within the lighting department.”
Several years after completing his undergraduate degree, Hackenmueller’s professional mentors encouraged him to apply to graduate school; he accepted the full scholarship offer from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and moved east.
Balancing Act. Since completing grad school, his dual track – corporate work and performing arts – has continued successfully for 17 years. Today Hackenmueller designs lighting for a variety of theatre, opera and dance works across the country, including on Broadway. He also serves long-term corporate clients in the U.S. often in partnership with VHC and through his design firm Spark Design Collaborative, a business he launched in 2014 with Wierzel to handle corporate events.
Considering his career, Hackenmueller believes himself very fortunate for the wide variety of assignments he’s able to tackle. He also appreciates the larger technology budgets that corporate projects tend to afford. Ever since the 1990s he has seen a shift to more sophisticated corporate event aesthetics requiring the newest technologies.
“Corporations are always using the latest gear,” he explains. “In the performing arts, we get equipment that is 10 to 15 years old.” Even today’s blockbuster Broadway shows typically do not have the newest gear on the market. “If they have ‘cool’ technology,” Hackenmueller notes, “The vendor likely provided it for free in exchange for customer feedback and media exposure.”
Knowledge & Equipment Transfer. Illustrating the varying levels of resources between the performing arts and corporations, Hackenmueller says he knows Broadway lighting designers who would never put more than 50 lights on a show because of the weekly rental expense. Corporate events, on the other hand, often have the budget for 200 lights if necessary, which provides him the hands-on opportunity to use and learn about utilizing a larger rig.
“Eventually I can transfer my corporate knowledge into performing arts projects,” Hackenmueller explains, “Even though I may have to beg, barter and steal to get such equipment!”
He sees LED lighting as the next wave of technology trickling down from corporate events to the performing arts. He says rock-and-roll bands were on the forefront in developing LED fixtures meant to be featured – not hidden – onstage.
As technology evolves, transitions can be difficult. For example, Wybron scrolling color changers are giving way to digital-mix LEDs. Since Wybron went out of business in 2013, finding spare parts is challenging for many organizations striving to maintain their scrollers because the LED technology is still cost-prohibitive. Hackenmueller adds, “We’re sort of stuck at the moment until the LED costs begin to drop.”
Shared Love. His performing arts experience and corporate work are complementary, Hackenmueller believes, adding that he knows “just a handful” of lighting designers who operate ambidextrously in both worlds.
“I love how the two actually serve each other,” Hackenmueller notes. “Things I learn on one project I can bring to others.” For example, his theatre background enabled Hackenmueller to quickly break down a musical number for a corporate event where Justin Timberlake was singing. “I provided cues for him before his sound check similar to how I would approach a musical,” he explains.
The varied skills and experiences come through, without his conscious knowledge. Because theatre and performing arts are so comprehensive and detailed in their process of creation, he believes a lighting designer can easily edit out parts of that process that are not necessarily needed to realize a corporate meeting or event.
“It’s always about learning to see – stepping back and understanding what you’re looking at and what you need to do in order to shape and deliver the story or message,” he remarks. “Robert [Wierzel] talks and teaches about the language of light and its rhythm. I think theatre, opera and dance are the most detailed, most beat-specific type of lighting work we can engage in.”
Concludes Hackenmueller, “Learning to constantly re-assess and engage that language allows us to apply it to any event in which we apply cued lighting – it’s very powerful.”