Saturday, March 23, 2019

Backstage Passes: Nick Von Hagel Managing Director of Westminster Arts Center

An interview with Nick Von Hagel, Lighting Designer

for Mosaic Dance Theater Company 

    You may not know Nick Von Hagel by sight, but if you've seen our productions at Westminster Arts Center (WAC), you know his work! His sorcery with light gives Sir Isaac Newton pause. As Managing Director of WAC at Bloomfield College, Nick is responsible for the technical aspects of the theater.  In addition he is "it" for managing the countless operational details necessary to keep this popular venue at the ready, not only for Bloomfield College, but for the many arts organizations which, like MDTC, call WAC "home."  Here's your chance to get to know "the guy in the booth."

How did you become involved in technical theater? 
   I became involved in theater about mid-way through my sophomore year of high school.  A number of my friends were assisting with our production of Little Shop of Horrors, so if I was looking to hang out with them after school, I ended up with only one option -- working on the show with them. From building sets to working on lighting crews,
Nick Von Hagel at the sound console at WAC.
I became stoked for every new production we put on. My father, who was a hobby woodworker and built a number of pieces of my bedroom and our living room furniture, instilled in me an enjoyment for working with my hands. Using some of those skills taught by my father for theater was a catalyst for me.  I had never had much desire to just make things out of wood beyond spending time with him and assisting my father, previous to my high school introduction to theater.
What drew you to lighting design?
   Necessity! Though I design lighting for Mosaic, my primary expertise is in live mixing, skills and practice brought on after attaining my position as the Technical Director of the Westminster Arts Center.  Many people will be okay with a simple lighting design, lights up/down, but most people can't stand bad/unclear audio.  For many events that require both lighting and sound, I'll generally fulfill the sound mixing role for those reasons.  But as live reinforcement is not needed by many dance shows, and minimally even for Mosaic, I get to do the other thing I love -- stage lighting.
Can you note any differences working with dance theater vs. theater?    

   I think dance theater sometimes has more impact than a standard theatrical production.  Dance theater is so much more about conveying mood through lighting and music.  Which is not to say those things are not conveyed using those disciplines in other arts forms.  Narration/exposition are simpler in a dance theater piece so you require a little more from the other technical/artistic aspects to flesh out such pieces.
Is there any piece in Mosaic’s repertory that has particular meaning for you, and why?  

 I particularly like Ubar, The Lost City of Brass, maybe because it lets me lean on a color palette that I usually shy away from for many other lighting needs I fulfill. Ubar also runs the full gambit of storytelling and emotion from slow and sneaky mysterious action to "run for your life." 
(At left are the many moods of Ubar, The Lost City of Brass, from MDTC's production of Tales from the Arabian Nights, with examples of Nick's exquisite lighting. Photos by Gary Heller.)

What are the challenges for you, working in technical theater?  
    The moment of having to accept the technical limitation for what my artistic vision may be for a given moment.  Sometimes having to sit back and realize that I don't have the twenty thousand dollar magic bullet light, or the perfect lighting angle to get it the effect I want.  In the end, working with your space with the  equipment you have available to you, while still creating something amazing is something a technical artist needs to come to terms with.  
(A special lighting effect achieved in Fo(u)r Women. Photo by Gary Heller.)
How has your time with Mosaic changed or enhanced your experience in technical theater?   

Mosaic was one of my first ventures into lighting and working on dance theater.  I had designed and worked on many productions through my college years, but Mosaic was one of my first times delving into "artistic" lighting design outside of the safe "higher education" world.  I'm grateful to Mosaic for their patience with me and that first show in 2008, as I fought the terror of what I feared
may end up to be horrible lighting (it wasn't),  but terrifying nonetheless.  Ten years later, I look forward to the next time Mosaic is on my calendar, and what new story piece they may have for me to play with. 
(At left, two pieces from MDTC's 2008 production at WAC, Red Desert  and The Boating Party. Nick's lighting design captures just the perfect quality for the particular moment in each dance.  Photos by Gary Heller.)