Into the Light

From Broadway to ballet, lighting designer Ben Pilat has gathered the tools necessary to becoming a valuable teacher.

December 5, 2014  | 4 min read

Think of the last time you enjoyed a theatre production.

You may have remarked at the talented performers, the sophisticated set design, or even how the particular adaptation of the play or musical compared to versions you had seen before. Perhaps you didn’t notice the way the lights cast ominous shadows during a tense scene or flooded the stage with whimsical bravado, but chances are they influenced how the show made you feel.

Ben Pilat, visiting assistant professor of theatre at Seaver College, claims he “fell into” lighting while studying theatre at Emporia State University, a small, liberal arts college, much like Pepperdine, that emphasized the development of a diverse set of skills instead of specializing in one particular field. His first lighting assignment was The Laramie Project.

“The subject matter was tragic and gut-wrenching,” Pilat says, “and I watched those rehearsals in a plain rehearsal room, not in a theatre. It was powerful, but it wasn’t until we got through all of the rehearsals in the theatre and the show was finished that I realized the power that lighting had on the way an audience receives the show.”

light-1As a lighting designer, Pilat has the unique ability to affect the arc of a show, shape how a story begins and ends, and play a part in the way audiences see a piece of theatre—sometimes just as much as the actors in the show. On set, he is the last person who gets to do his job. In order to visualize the final product, the sets need to be built and painted, the costumes need to be made, and the actors need to be on stage.

“I can present ideas, I can communicate with words and images as well as I can, but at the end of the day, there’s still an integral part of the process that requires sitting in a theatre, going over all of the light cues, discussing, making some changes, and then moving on.”

After receiving his MFA from Boston University in 2008, Pilat was drawn to Los Angeles, where, for the past five years, he has been the lighting designer for the Los Angeles Ballet and has worked on productions of Swan Lake and the Nutcracker. He has also been tasked with designing the lighting for eight world premiere ballets in collaboration with major American choreographers.

“The kinds of productions I like the best are when the performers and the light are working together to tell the story,” Pilat explains. “The light is not just something that rains down from above and tells us what day it is, but the actors are interacting with it and it becomes another character on stage.”

The hardest part of his job, he says, is time.

“It’s knowing that the show will absolutely open on a certain date whether we are ready or not, and that date gets closer every day,” he says.

Between stints at the Attic Theatre Company, Juilliard, Yale, Commonwealth Opera, and Manhattan Theatre Source, Pilat has also been a member of the lighting design teams for the Broadway productions of Master Class and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

“Many people view Broadway as being the pinnacle of a career,” says Pilat. “You have access to all of the resources, etc., but one of the things I enjoy most about ballet is that there tends to not be any words. The challenge is how to tell a story through movement of the human body and through lighting and through music. In some ways, it’s a much freer form.”

At Seaver College, Pilat incorporates his love for the abstract in classes including lighting design, stage management, drafting, and drawing and rendering. Each course is a mix of lecture, demonstrations, and hands-on experiences. His students keep lighting journals to jot down details they notice in the world around them and others are tasked with breaking down the elements of photographs and recreating them in the theatre on stage. In lighting design, he covers both the technical aspects of optics and electricity, as well as the artistic side of telling a story through light.

light-2Pilat’s desire to pursue teaching theatre at the college level came easy, and he has been credited with helping Seaver College’s theatre program double its number of production/ design majors. While teaching was something that he considered to always be on the horizon, it was important to him to gain work experiences that would make him a more valuable teacher.

“One of the things about teaching that I enjoy most is the moment when a student realizes, ‘I can actually do that thing I’ve seen you do, the thing that used to look like magic. I get it. It’s not unattainable.’”

On the first day of classes this fall, Pilat and a crew of students began building the set for Into the Woods, the theatre program’s fall musical that debuted at Smothers Theatre on November 13.

Pilat has designed lighting for Into the Woods once before in New York at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, on the third floor of a building of a tiny theatre that housed only 24 lights. The musical is a modern retelling of classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales and one of the theatre department’s biggest shows yet. A student cast of 20 and a crew of more than 50 students, faculty, and staff spent most of the fall semester building the world in which Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella exist.

“Something I occasionally struggle with is wanting to give my students all the knowledge I have and wanting them to be experts in particular areas of theatre,” he admits. “I always have to remind myself that that’s not really the goal. I am far happier if students are well-rounded and can have an opinion about a play or a light cue or scenic design and be able to articulate it,” he explains.

“I want my students to have that kind of a background to be educated, well-rounded citizens of the world who have an intense curiosity about the world around them,” he says. “I would be much happier about that than if they were experts in every particular field of theatre.”