Lighting the way: Behind the scenes with Jacqueline Reid, Dance Dept. technical director

Jacqueline Reid isn’t keen on catching an audience swooning over her lighting designs.

“I don’t want it to be about me,” says Reid, the Dance Department’s new technical director. “I don’t want people to look [onstage] and say, ‘Amazing lighting design.’ Then they miss the dance. You should not be able to pick apart a performance from the lighting.”Jacqueline Reid

Reid, 35, is thoughtful but no-nonsense. In other words, Reid’s declaration that she’d prefer a production not “be about me” sounds utterly plausible.  

Reid danced for more than 12 years as a child and young adult, focusing primarily on ballet. She got her start behind the scenes working high school musical productions.

“I didn’t like to sing,” says Reid, who grew up primarily in Kentucky and Connecticut. “My high school only did musicals, and I wanted to find a way to participate. That’s how I hung around with theater people. It stuck.”

Reid’s passion for the stage “stuck” all the way through her undergraduate work at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in drama and English. And that passion remained steady throughout her time at Northwestern University in Illinois, where she graduated with a master’s of fine arts degree in lighting and scenic design.

Reid says remaining behind the scenes appeals to her creative and practical impulses.

“There’s so much rejection in performance for reasons that have nothing to do with your talent,” she says. With lighting, “it’s a little bit more about talent than how you look next to someone else. I don’t even like getting my picture taken.”

As a lighting designer, Reid taps into both sides of her personality—“the artist and the techno geek. The left and right sides of the brain are firing,” she says. “You have to find a way to express an artistic idea with something technical and functional.”

Reid has worked extensively in various arenas for more than a decade. She served as resident lighting assistant for the Los Angeles Opera as well as resident lighting designer for The Actors’ Gang theater company in Culver City, Calif.

Julia Ritter, chair of the Dance Department, says she and her colleagues were attracted to Reid’s experiences in theater and dance.

“She approaches lighting dance from both the dramatic and physical perspective, which is crucial for designing contemporary dance,” Ritter says. “Her design work is informed by her own training as a dancer, so she understands kinesthetically the three-dimensionality of the body moving through space and time. I find her work to be sophisticated and smart.”

But Reid says she was forced to “fail spectacularly before I figured out dance. I didn’t get it necessarily. Theater is more about seeing the face; dance is about the sculptural quality of the body. We’re making the music visual,” she adds, quoting ballet pioneer George Balanchine: “See the music, hear the dance.”

Reid is keyed in to the emotional resonance of light. With slight shifts in lighting, “you can make something look fat or thin, make a person look sweet or evil, make an audience look over there,” she says, glancing toward stage left to emphasize her point.

But as lush and evocative as lighting can be, Reid recognizes the fundamental distinction between her work and that of, say, a graphic designer or a painter: guaranteed transience.  

“I love that [the work] disappears,” she says. “There’s something beautiful, ephemeral about [lighting design] that you create something you can’t put your hands on. Because [lighting] isn’t solid and still in front of you, people don’t realize how powerful it can be.”

Photos by Larry Levanti