DONALD HOLDER :
Living in Light
By Matt Bauer
Photos Courtesy of Donald Holder
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With multiple Tony Awards , a Drama Desk Award and work spanning theatre , opera , television , architecture , and dance , calling Donald Holder a lighting design expert is an understatement . His credits speak for themselves : Broadway smashes like The Lion King , the 2008 revival of South Pacific , the 2012 revival of Annie , and Prelude to a Kiss , among many others , as well the critically acclaimed NBC series Smash , and not to mention his role as Head of Lighting Design at the Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts . Donald Holder has truly made his passion his life ’ s work .
Born in 1962 , Holder grew up in Rockville Centre , Long Island , NY , about 35 miles from New York City and he credits the proximity to Broadway as well as his mother for his early interest in theatre .
“ I was very interested in theatre and music and the outdoors ,” he says via zoom from Rutgers , between classes . “ My mother in particular loved the arts , even though she was the biology teacher in the city of New York . She particularly loved opera and the symphony and musicals . And so we got an early exposure living so close to New York , I saw a lot of shows , a lot of ballets and all kinds of things with my brother . And I think that really sparked an interest . I seem to have always been
26 | Summer 2023 interested in lighting . Even when I was in Boy Scouts , I was the person building campfires along the ceremonial trails . I started working backstage , maybe when I was 12 or 13 years old . And lighting was kind of an interest in mind from the very beginning . So for me , I feel where I am today was kind of an inevitability as opposed to a long circuitous path .”
He didn ’ t get there immediately , however . Holder attended undergraduate school at the University of Maine , receiving his degree in Forestry in 1980 while also studying theatre and pursuing his musical interests . He says it wasn ’ t until he went to the Yale School of Drama that his career trajectory came into focus .
“ I started working with dance companies as a lighting supervisor ,” he explains . “ One project led to another . I made a lot of really good connections , and I just kept my nose to the grindstone . Eventually , through happenstance , I met one of the longest collaborators I ’ ve had in my life , which is Julie Taymor . I had been pursuing Julie trying to get her to come to see my work , and she completely ignored all of my attempts . Out of the blue one night I got a phone call asking if I could take over a project that was directed by Julie . It was an off-Broadway production of Titus Andronicus , at St . Clements church , and that led to a 25 year artistic collaboration that led to my work on The Lion King , which really changed the trajectory of my career . And that ’ s a project that I ’ ve been working on since 1996 . Really , we ’ re still mounting new productions . Because the show has enjoyed such longevity all of the original equipment that we use has been either banned or phased out or no longer supported . So the show is under a constant state of evolution . We have nine productions worldwide that all need attention , kind of all the time , we ’ re doing the slow moving from Tungsten into LED sources . So that ’ s been a really interesting endeavor , because I ’ ve learned a lot about the products that are out there . And we ’ ve learned about how to manage the logistics of keeping a show running while completely changing it in small , incremental pieces .”
As the phenomenon that is The Lion King has evolved , so inevitably has the technological landscape of theatre and Holder admits that the most difficult thing to do as a working professional is to continue to educate oneself , yet he stresses its importance .
“ It takes discipline and hard work to stay on top of changing trends , and also sort of embracing the idea of risk taking instead of being afraid to try new things . It ’ s always about pushing yourself , to be creative to find new solutions to reinvent yourself . And if you do that , then you embrace new ideas and new technologies . I ’ ve always believed