CAHSS Theatre Student’s Journey Culminates in Designing Lights for Upcoming Performance of “The Taming”
When Ryan Thomas took a class in lighting design with Associate Professor Shannon McKinney second quarter of his freshman year, he knew he had found his true calling. Although he’d started at the University of Denver in fall 2020 as an acting major, the experience unexpectedly captured his imagination and inspired him to change course.
“I just fell in love with lighting design,” he said. “My favorite part is coming up with ideas and then bringing those ideas into one of our smaller theaters to make the lights do what you want them to do to reflect the emotional tone, the arc of the play and things like time of day and weather.”
Thomas currently serves as lighting designer for the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (CAHSS) Department of Theatre’s upcoming performance of “The Taming,” opening February 7 at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts’ Byron Theater.
“In our department, lighting designers can work their way up to designing a mainstage show by their senior year but it requires a great deal of talent, discipline, commitment and work on at least three significant projects,” McKinney explained. [After working with him over the years] “Ryan became my trusted collaborator and I felt strongly that he was ready to design lighting for the mainstage production of ‘The Taming’ on his own.”
Inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Taming” is a political comedy featuring an all-female cast in which a beauty pageant contestant strives to “fix” the American government by convincing a blogger and a senator’s aide to help her amend the constitution.
Thomas has been working with guest professional Director Kelly Van Oosbree and guest professional Scenic Designer Brian Mallgrave. Costume Designer and Associate Professor Janice Lacek and Associate Professor and Department Chair Steven McDonald, assisted by student Stage Manager Annie Mulvihill, round out the show’s behind-the-scenes staff.
“It’s been an interesting process being in on ‘The Taming’s’ production meetings from the beginning,” Thomas said, adding that lighting design starts out mostly conceptual, in this case with a conversation with Van Oosbree about what she wanted from the play and how to accomplish it.
From there, the set designer and costumer began focusing on more concrete ideas and sketches and Thomas started visualizing “how I could apply all this to the physical lighting,” he said.
He credits McKinney with providing ongoing support. “Shannon is usually there in meetings to consult with,” he said. “She’s the reason I decided to do lighting design. I don’t think I would have gotten this far without her.”
He’s likewise grateful for the opportunity to work with Van Oosbree and Mallgrave. “They’ve been doing this a long time and definitely know a lot about theater and the industry so being able to pick their brains has been a very big plus for me.”
Thomas joined the department’s tech shop that handles electrical and carpentry work for the shows under McDonald’s guidance early on in his journey. Soon he began designing lights for the senior capstone productions — fully produced short plays directed by senior theater majors.
He worked his way up to designing the “repertory light plot” — a kind of map of where all the lights will be hung for a particular show — for the capstones last year and handled lighting design for multiple productions.
“I noticed that Ryan’s work was bold and innovative,” says McKinney, who subsequently asked Thomas to serve as her assistant lighting designer for last year’s demanding mainstage production of "Rent."
Thomas assisted McKinney on every aspect of the musical — participating in production meetings, drafting the light plot, hanging and focusing the lights and designing and programming cues for several scenes on his own.
Although much of ‘The Taming’ takes place in a hotel room, a fantastical scene that transports the audience back in time provides an unusual lighting challenge.
“The show has a relatively realistic but also a little evocative kind of lighting and then it has this unexpected shift about half way through that allows me to really have fun with it,” Thomas said. “Figuring out how to make all of that cohesive is exciting.”
Serving as an ongoing paid intern throughout his time in the department’s Theatre Tech Internship Program has enabled Thomas to gain additional hands-on experience and professional contacts while building sets for local theater companies.
"We’re not just building sets for the school but for companies like Curious Theater, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Parker Arts,” he explained.
Tech interns construct sets in the tech shop located in the Newman Center, deliver and install set components in theaters and break down and remove them at the end of each show. Thomas’ favorite sets worked on include Parker Arts production of “The Sound of Music” and “Margaritaville,” that included building a tiki bar and a volcano.
Thomas, who will graduate in June 2024, will also collaborate with McKinney on the lighting for a second upcoming winter quarter show — William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
As for pursuing a path as a lighting designer following graduation, Thomas intends to remain flexible to multiple theater employment possibilities. “It’s hard to make it straight out of the gate as a lighting designer,” he said.
A double major in psychology, he has high praise for DU’s theater program.
“It’s not a BFA, it’s a BA, which lets you explore different aspects of theater to find out what you most like to do. If I was at another school I might still be acting and never have found out how much I like lighting. It helps you discover what you really want to do and then gives you the practical skills, experiences and contacts you need to find a variety of work in theater to help get you there.”
Learn more about and purchase tickets for “The Taming” here.