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Art & Life with Andrew Schmedake

Today we’d like to introduce you to Andrew Schmedake.

Andrew, please kick things off for us by telling us about yourself and your journey so far.
When I was a Junior in high school, I had to give an oral presentation on George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. As a 16-year old kid, I loved horror movies. The living dead didn’t scare me. But public speaking did. Even today, I still talk about a million miles a minute, so you can imagine how bad it must have been for a nervous kid about to talk in front of 30 of his peers. My heart was racing. But about thirty seconds into my presentation on the grandfather of zombie movies, two-actor friends of mine burst through the door screaming and snarling. Nick moaned like the undead and chased a shrieking Allison across the room. My presentation got some serious applause when they came back to take a bow. Folks didn’t remember how nervous I was. They remembered that we brought a zombie movie to life in a high school classroom. That’s production value.

The same way that Nick and Allison brought Romero’s living dead to a little San Diego high school, I work to bring the stories of people’s experiences to life by designing an environment for those stories to exist in. My collaborators on a design team and I are professional storytellers. I just happen to tell that story with light. But if you’d asked me ten years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have expected my story to turn out this way.

I went to college undeclared. I dabbled in everything from anthropology to oceanography until I found myself volunteering to run the lighting console for the University’s theater department. I figured, “If I’m doing this as a hobby in my spare time, why is this not my career?” and turned it into my major. After graduation, I made my way out to Pittsburgh, to grad school at Carnegie Mellon University. “A stopping point on the way to Broadway,” I thought. Right in the middle of my thesis, in my third year in Pittsburgh, I had a change of heart. I realized that I didn’t want to put down the foundation of a career a whole country away from the support system of the family and friends who I grew up with. So I packed my car after graduation and drove back to California, to Los Angeles.

Since arriving here five years ago, I have and still design regularly for theater. But I keep on finding myself lighting across a whole variety of mediums. There would be a stand-up show here. A rock concert at the Whiskey a Go Go. A cocktail party for the TCA on the roof of a Beverly Hills restaurant. There don’t exactly appear to be a whole lot of clear opportunities for storytelling in all those mediums at first glance.

I would disagree though. I may have a master’s degree in lighting design for theater, but I believe that all forms of live entertainment: theater, dance, concerts, opera stand-up, and even a cocktail party are all mediums for storytelling. The narrative of a play is implicit in the text. Characters with different goals and ambitions are thrown about for two acts of conflict and tension. Some fall in love. Some fight. They need an environment that shows where they are in space in time as much as it reflects who they are. It needs to transport you, the audience member, into their experience. The same way, an industry reception for a television series release has a narrative. The guests are the characters. Their experience that evening is the story. What’s going to transport them into another world the minute that they walk through the front door? How can we design an environment that’s going to help tell their story? Those are the questions I ask myself for every project. And I try to answer those questions with lighting.

We’d love to hear more about your work?
When a team comes together to devise the aesthetic and environment for a project, my role is to determine how we’re going to reveal it with light. I’m constantly putting myself in the place of the audience and asking myself three questions: “Where should we be looking?” “What are we seeing?” “How should we feel about it?”

Light’s a quirky medium. You can’t build a set or costume a character with light. It can only reveal what’s already there. It has the transformative capacity to affect how we perceive the world around us. A horrible villain revealed by the cool-white flash of a lightning strike is immediately and implicitly recognizable in a vastly different way than the slow pinky-gold beams of a sunrise gradually revealing two unlikely lovers who’ve spent the night together. I look to identify the story that we’re telling on any project, from a play to a rock concert, and determine how lighting is going to elevate the experience our audiences are having while also reinforcing the message that our performers are spreading. I think of it as a visual megaphone for the themes of a project.

What would you recommend to an artist new to the city, or to art, in terms of meeting and connecting with other artists and creatives?
I came into Los Angeles hardly knowing anyone in the theatrical community. I made it a point to dive right in and looked up every company that looked like it was doing inspiring work. I made a list of their lighting designers and reached out to them, offering to buy coffee for a chance to learn about their careers and the industry in town.

The best advice that I can give is to go out and do the same. If someone is doing something inspiring, reach out and tell them. Our artistic community is here to support one another and I have yet to meet someone who isn’t willing to talk over coffee for a few minutes to connect with young and old artists alike. We’re all collaborators working together here.

What’s the best way for someone to check out your work and provide support?
Given that my primary medium is a live performance and live events, you’re going to have to be there to experience it. Our current era of social distancing has my career on pause as well as those of my fellow designers, directors, actors and technicians in the live entertainment industry.

I’m inspired though by the tremendous steps that we’ve taken as a community to pivot our tools and our workflows into live-streaming a previously exclusively-live artistic medium. We may not be working with the automated lighting fixtures that you see at concerts or onstage at the major venues around town, but we’re still designing lights by remotely coaching actors on how to use a scarf to change the color on a floor lamp for a performance that they’ll give through their laptop to audience members all around the world.

The latest project that I’ve worked on in this medium is for Twitch.tv channel Pixel Playhouse, where we adapted Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” into entirely digital performance, with remote performances by nine actors across NYC and Los Angeles. I didn’t limit myself to the lighting on this one; I designed the aesthetic and camera layouts of the broadcast. We’re still looking for ways to elevate storytelling, even amidst the adversity that our community is facing together. You can find this particular broadcast on-demand for a limited time at https://www.twitch.tv/videos/596136273

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Image Credit:
KJ Knies, Victoria Tahm, Craig Schwartz, Tod Seelie.

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