As a young boy, Boston native Lap Chi Chu grew up thinking he would one day have a career in the sciences. It seemed like a logical game plan: chemistry and computer science came easily to him. But when he took a theater class in his junior year of high school, it planted a seed that would ultimately change his life.
Today, the new head of lighting design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is an award-winning professional with Obie, Ovation, Lucille Lortel and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards under his belt. And like so many people, Chu has seen his professional life disrupted by the pandemic. His most recent projects, “Man of God” at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A., and “Darling Grenadine” and “72 Miles to Go,” for the Roundabout Theatre Company, and “Richard II” for Shakespeare in the Park, all in New York City, have all been put on hold because of COVID-19.
Previously faculty and the head of lighting design at California Institute of the Arts, where he worked for 19 years, Chu assumed his current role in July and admits it has been a bit strange to start a new job in the middle of COVID-19. Nevertheless, he is finding positives in the circumstance that have caused everyone to stay home.
What prompted your move from CalArts to UCLA TFT?
I was really excited to be part of a public institution. I do a lot of new plays and many of the stories I am attracted to involve underrepresented people, subjects and places. At UCLA TFT, we have the ability to better attract and retain students from an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse population.
How are classes going?
While I’d love to have students see and touch a light again, there’s actually an advantage in this time of remote learning in that they aren’t distracted by handling them. Sometimes physical lights become a crutch. Now we have this tremendous opportunity to focus on conceptualization and composition.
What are your goals for the lighting design area at UCLA TFT?
My goal is for students to become complete artists, not just theater artists. Yes, we’re rooted in theater but the lighting skills learned here apply to a lot of different areas. There are increasing job opportunities in video game design for example, and of course, we’re in the center of the film and television industry here in Los Angeles so we train in lighting for the camera, too. Because light exists as a fundamental compositional and temporal tool across disciplines, learning its language is vital.
What skills are needed to be a successful lighting designer?
It never hurts to be smart and adaptable! Technology keeps changing and every couple of years there’s another new thing you have to pick up. You need to learn to learn.
Before the pandemic hit, what were the job prospects for lighting designers?
Jobs have sprung up that I couldn’t have even imagined when I first started teaching 19 years ago. Concerts are a much bigger industry now. It’s not just stadium-size concerts, either; it’s intimate ones, too. A more robust video gaming industry has popped up as well — not just video game design, but competitive video gaming live events. People are looking for a lot of lighting help, both technically and conceptually.
It must be so hard for designers right now.
It is, but during downturns people often go back to school to weather the storm. Times like these can end up being times of invention and reinvention in many cases.
Let’s talk about you. Where are you from?
My parents were from Hong Kong and Macao. My first memories are in Hong Kong. Shortly after I was born — just outside of Boston — we moved to Hong Kong because my parents wanted my sister and I to grow up more Chinese. English was my second language. I ended up doing my K-12 schooling back in the Boston area. I went to Northwestern for my undergrad where I started as a chemistry major and then ended up in theater.
What prompted the change from chemistry to theater?
There were expectations when I was younger where I thought I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer. I was good at the sciences but by the time I got to high school, I was curious about what else was in the world. Up to that point, I hadn’t learned much about the humanities and I was not a very good reader. However, reading plays and dialogue in a high school theater class really made me understand language in a different way. Descriptive language and narratives made more sense after that. It was an “aha” moment and I wanted more.
Did you ever perform in high school?
No. I was too scared and I didn’t have the skills. I did take acting classes in college because it was a requirement. It was a very rewarding experience and I feel that having taken that class is one of things that has made me a better designer.
At what point during your college experience did you realize that a career in lighting was the path you wanted to take?
Senior year! I came to that realization after having taken a variety of other classes, everything from acting and speech to costume design. I learned that lighting was the medium in which I could best express my thoughts and contribute to storytelling.
What was your first move after graduation?
I made a point to intern at the big theaters in Chicago — Steppenwolf and the Goodman — to see what lighting professionals did. It didn’t take too long for me to gain confidence that I could do the work because my undergrad experience had given me the foundation to be a good thinker. I learned to learn. Soon after that, I was fortunate to land the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. I learned the importance of mentorship there and it informs my teaching even now. That eventually led me to graduate school at New York University.
What was your first professional gig as a lighting designer?
“Shopping and F**king” at New York Theatre Workshop. I was still in graduate school and got a lucky break. They hired me as an assistant set designer, and it turned out they didn’t have a lighting designer yet. So, I told them, ‘Hey, you know I can design lights’ and they liked the idea. I was just at the right place at the right time! Fortunately, my skills had me prepared to be ready for the opportunity.
What do you like best about your job?
Working in theater allows me to keep learning about everything, because every project you do is a new place or thing or time in history to explore. That doesn’t get old.