Interview: Kevin Adams

During our trip to New York for the College Media Association spring convention, Noel (Blog Editor) and Madeleine (Managing Editor) met with University of Texas alumnus Kevin Adams.

Lighting plays a role in every visual experience, but most people don’t see a light bulb as an art object. How do you transform such seemingly basic parts into features of a dazzling theatrical experience?

Kevin Adams’ work on American Idiot

How do you create anything? Not necessarily with a wrench and screwdriver, which is what some people think I do. You meet with directors, computer programmers, technicians to decide what the story is, support that vision, hang all the equipment, and focus it to the tone you’re going for. The whole process is collaborating and a million little steps of pushing this minutiae into something that supports the story. And the poprock shows I work on give me the space to create design that’s a little more kinetic, a little more of a spectacle that pushes out at the audience. It’s hard to miss. I use theatrical L.E.D. lights, but a lot of what’s in my design is what you’ll also see at hardware stores, like Lowes, Home Depot. Other people use those things, but I use them a lot. I like taking things that we live with and then putting them into a show. It makes you see those things in a new way, and I think it makes you see the way you live in your home in a different way, too.

You’ve worked with such a wide variety of shows – everything from Spring Awakening to the Cher Show. What’s been the most creatively challenging show you’ve worked on?

All the shows I work on are challenging in different ways. I always try to pick shows that turn me on and interest me creatively. I did Spring Awakening, first off Broadway and then on Broadway, which was a great experience…. You know, each show is different. The sets are different and the process of making the show is different, so the obstacles are always different. And lighting design is like any other craft. When you spend your life doing something and you get older and get more experienced, you get to really understand your work and you do it better. Last year, I worked a lot and I turned 56. And at the end of that year I thought, ‘Wow, I really think I understand what I do now.’ It’s an interesting journey. I didn’t even notice lighting when I got my degree in set design.

Kevin Adams’ work on The Cher Show

So what got you to notice lighting? How does your design work to get the audience noticing the art to your medium?

It was other forms of art that led me to writing specifically. I would go to the student union almost everyday, to that theatre where they showed three or four movies a day. Everything they screened was old, and you couldn’t really find that stuff elsewhere. That was where I first started to notice music and light and their own forms of storytelling. And once I moved to Hollywood, my friends and I went to galleries and openings and museums all the time. And they all had a lot of art and space work in their collections that got me to first experiment with little sets. My work is very sculptural-based as a result, so you see the light bulbs as scenery. Again, it’s hard to miss, so audiences don’t have trouble noticing. They’re lighting tools, but they exist in the space independently. When they’re not on, they’re interesting to look at, and when they are on, they’re interesting to look at. I build my designs as both objects and systems that produce light.

Fast Company named you as something of a leader of “post-incandescent lighting.” What does that mean?

20th-century lighting was all about incandescent, tungsten. When that feature was written I had just done three big light bulb shows that combined higher tech L.E.D. products with flourescent tubes and CFLs of different kinds No one had really done that before, and I mean, the government put out a mandate to phase out all flourescent bulbs by 2020. So it probably won’t happen much more again. You just can’t find flourescents, even in these 60-feet aisles at hardware stores. They’re just like 8-track tapes; you use ‘em for 12, 15 years and then they’re just gone.

Kevin Adams’ work on Hedwig and the Angry Inch

So you worked with theatre in college and did set design. What kind of art did you engage with outside of theatre during your years in Austin?

Dancing and the live music in Austin. I’d go out to clubs – not sixth street, though. That’s where all the square people and tourists went. But almost every place in Austin had an alternative music night, and the same queer, funny, neat, smart people would go to those places. It was a lot of fun. The queer punk bands were around. Bands from LA, New York, and internationally would come through Austin and play live shows – just one amazing band after another. Austin was the big live music scene.

So what was the queer music scene like in Austin compared to elsewhere?

You know, the word “queer” wasn’t really taken back until 90, 91, 92. So we just went out to hear fun music. We’d wear fun clothes and go to hear punk and alternative music…alternative wasn’t the word then. It didn’t really have a name. It was just weirdo music. And then when I lived in Hollywood from ‘86 to ‘89, there was no scene like that. Austin was a fun time.

Bonus question: If you could do absolutely anything in lighting design, what would you most like to do?

What I would really like to do is have a van, full of light bulbs. And because I’m good at this, I’d go into people’s homes and relight their homes. And what I would really like to do is relight their homes when they have parties. Because you know, people just turn everything on and it’s a bit too bright and everything is just white light. It’s not very fun. I know lighting design and the first thing I’d do is turn things off. But I’d make this business, still do stage lighting. Why can’t I do both? Get my van with the light bulbs….

Kevin Adams’ work on Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical

About the Author

When Noel Larcher is not taking care of their four chickens, he’s probably writing poetry about butts. Or busy analyzing Ru Paul’s Drag Race through a Foucauldian lens. They’re also a consultant at UT’s writing center and a security guard at the Blanton Museum of Art.