October 22, 2022

It’s not every day first-year MFA students get to shadow a renowned lighting designer while he’s working on a Broadway-bound show — but that’s exactly what Hyejung Kang and Drishti Chauhan did on a whirlwind trip to Chicago this summer, thanks to Tony-nominated lighting designer Ben Stanton ’99, ‘22G. Over 7 days in August and September, Kang and Chauhan, who are studying lighting and scenic design, respectively, in the MFA program of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Theater, attended technical rehearsals with Stanton and the design team of the musical The Notebook. This new musical, with music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson and book by Bekah Brunstetter, is based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, and it's running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater through October 30, with plans for a transfer to Broadway.

*Hyejung Kang shared this photo taken inside the Chicago Shakespeare Theater during technical rehearsals, with design and technical staff at work.

“It was really awesome,” said an enthusiastic Kang. She enjoyed the chance to see the state-of-the-art lighting technology Stanton and his team worked with, but what struck her most was how Stanton worked with fellow theater-makers in the high-pressure environment of a technical rehearsal. “He’s a person who can keep calm. He’s a very open person to questions and suggestions,” she said.

Chauhan, meanwhile, was fascinated with how, even as The Notebook’s team polished the performance for Chicago, they were already making plans for what changes they would make in the transfer to New York, where the theater will have a different layout that will affect how certain set-pieces work.

“I’m very thankful,” Chauhan said, for the experience.

Kang and Chauhan first met Stanton last year, when they were in their first year in the program and he was finishing up. Stanton, who studied lighting design as an undergrad at UMass Theater, has won multiple awards for his work and has designed lights for Broadway shows including Junk and Fun Home, both nominated for Tony Awards. During the early days of the pandemic shutdown, he decided to go back to school to get his MFA with Professor of Lighting Design Penny Remsen, who was also his mentor as an undergrad.

With two decades of professional experience under his belt, Stanton was as much a mentor as a classmate for Kang, particularly as she assisted him on several productions for the 2021-2022 season.

“I’m really lucky to have been here before he graduated,” Kang said. “I learned a lot from what he is doing and how he collaborates with other designers.” It was something he carried through into his professional work on The Notebook as well, Kang added. She and Chauhan are both relatively new to the USA and know that cultural differences can affect how interactions are interpreted; Stanton’s demeanor with colleagues and assistants was something they observed closely. “We want to know how to say things politely,” Kang said.

Chauhan first worked with Stanton during the Fall 2021 production of Dance Nation; she was creating her first scenic design, while he was lighting the show. Though Stanton they were responsible for different elements, his insights nonetheless helped her during the process.

But even as he was designing and mentoring students at UMass in Fall 2021, Stanton was re-engaging with his professional commitments, including The Notebook, which had been nearly ready to open before the pandemic shutdown in spring 2020. 

He showed Kang the plans for the show at the end of the Fall 2021 semester, “and Penny was like, ‘ok, let’s make something happen!’” Kang said.

According to Chauhan, Remsen and then-chair Harley Erdman secured graduate travel funds for her and Kang and the trip was planned for March 2022, only to be postponed due to the Omicron wave going on then. In late summer, it was finally time for them to go, Chauhan said, noting that the city of Chicago, which has a vibrant theater scene, held special significance for Remsen because she started her career there.

For Chauhan and Kang, it was their first time in Chicago and both liked the city. Kang, who is Korean, laughed as she noted that she attended her first-ever K-pop (Korean music) concert in the city. She also swam in Lake Michigan, and she and Chauhan took the obligatory photo in front of the famous “bean” sculpture, aka Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. Chauhan visited the Institute of Fine Art, as well.

Of course, they spent most of their time in tech, which is the stretch of time when the various design and technical elements of the show are integrated into the production right before the show actually opens.

They toured the backstage area and got to see the lighting technology currently in use. Kang marveled that for the production of The Notebook, the spotlights, which are typically operated by people who physically move the lighting fixtures to follow the performer onstage, were being operated remotely by joystick by technicians. 

Stanton also gave Kang a headset so she could follow the conversation between him and his assistants and other crew members.

“I learned a lot about the separation of work on the team,” Kang said, explaining that she observed how Stanton delegates tasks to keep the workload manageable for everyone. “I was relieved about it.”

Chauhan was fascinated by the effect of the light: "The designer had to make different choices about the intensity of the lighting fixtures to make sure actors' faces are visible depending on an actor's skin tone. Not being a lighting student, that's something I hadn't thought of before," she said, explainining that in The Notebook there were three actors playing the same character at different ages, and they were often together on stage. She also noted that lights were used to alter the look of certain elements on the set from scene to scene. After initially shadowing the lighting team, she was invited to join the scenic team. 

Once home from their Chicago adventure, Kang and Chauhan jumped immediately back into a busy schedule of classes and designing for Fall 2022. Both are involved with the department’s production of Orlando, and they took time to prepare a presentation that recapped their experiences in the theater for introductory lighting students.

Reflecting back, Kang marveled that she and Chauhan got the opportunity during their first year in the program.

“We were in a professional theater with a really famous designer!” she adding, “I told my family about this and they said ‘Oh my gosh, you are in the right place!’”

Heyjung Kang and Drishti Chauhan had to make a stop at Chicago's famous "Bean" sculpture. Photo courtesy of Hyejung Kang.