by Tania Thompson
Forty Years in Lights
This year, Donna and Tom Ruzika mark 40 years of creating the lighting design for South Coast Repertory’s A Christmas Carol. They may be one of the few—if not the only—married lighting designers in the American theatre today, and this year marked the couple’s 47th wedding anniversary. In this Q&A, they talked about what drew each of them to lighting design, to SCR and all about A Christmas Carol.
How did each of you get introduced to theatre and lighting design?
Tom: For me, it was in high school. I started doing lighting because of music, since I played the organ, and that got me into the auditorium, where I started doing lighting and was paid a dollar an hour.
Donna: I was in college as a business major and I was in search of a new major. I had gone through PE and sociology and a variety of other things. I was cast in a short production of Hair for a weekend college retreat, held in the snowy mountains of Big Bear. During the day, I saw this guy pulling a toboggan and I said, ‘Can I ride on that with you?’ and it happened to be Tom. Ultimately, long story short, they were also doing a production of Hair and he said, ‘Why don’t you come and audition?’ So I did, I got cast and changed my major.
You celebrated your 47th wedding anniversary this year—are there any secrets that help keep your personal and professional lives strong?
Donna: I think we like each other, of course we love each other, too. [laughs]
Tom: We understand what the other does and, with all of our travels, we’ve probably only been together for only 20 years. [more laughter]
What other shows have you collaborated on?
Tom: We’ve had a wonderful run. I think it’s now 15 years at the Hollywood Bowl. Every summer, they do a Broadway musical production, so we have one week to try to put the show together. Donna designs the follow spot cues and I design the lighting cues.
Donna: Which is really exciting because we get to work with people we normally would not. Both of us have worked at regional and local theatres. Tom did a Broadway show. I’ve never done one, but we get to collaborate with all kinds of musical directors and actors that are purely Broadway. A New York lighting designer friend of ours said, “Tom is the closest thing to a Broadway designer you are going to find in LA or California!” I thought that was really cool.
Tom: We’ve done other shows together that way and I go see her shows, not that often… [laughing].
Donna: I was the resident lighting designer for the Fullerton Civic Light Opera for 30 some years and I think Tom saw four shows.
Tom: I think six or seven but anyway…
Donna: And I’ve done over 100 musicals…he does come to the Utah Shakespeare Festival and sees all those shows.
Lighting design seems like an unsung hero of a stage production. Can you tell me a little about the power of theatrical lighting?
Donna: Well, turn off the stage lights and see what happens…. [smiles]
Tom: We did a show here at SCR and there was a preshow talk with the audience. When they came in, the preshow scenery lights were on. I turned the work lights on to say, “Here, this is what the scenery really looks like.”
Donna: And then he showed the lighting he had created for a scene and the audience goes, ‘Oooh.’ The power of lighting is to take the audience on the play’s journey. If done correctly, the lighting helps tell the story and helps the audience know where to look and where not to look. It ultimately helps give the play a meaningful impact because the lighting is complementing the story and the scenery and costumes.
What are some considerations as you look to design lighting for A Christmas Carol?
Donna: A lot of the technology has changed since we started this show. Just before rehearsals started for A Christmas Carol this year, Tom got the original 1980 light plot out; it was hand-drawn and had 163 lights. Today, the lighting plot is computer-drafted and we have more than 230 lights, including LED and automated lights. As the technology has come along, we have utilized all the new equipment to enhance what audiences will see.
Tom: This show started out more like a storybook tale—right down to the scenery and props—and it was a young Scrooge [Editor’s note: Hal Landon Jr. was 38 years old when he began portraying Scrooge]. Now, the story of the play has gotten much deeper. One of the reasons why Donna and I teamed up 40 years ago when we got the call to do this show was because, at the same time, I got the call to do A Christmas Carol at the Mark Taper Forum, so I was doing two of these holiday shows at the same time.
Donna: Also, so Tom said if we are going to be doing SCR’s show, we needed to be together for our anniversary.
What’s special to each of you, personally, about this show?
Donna: To me it’s the people, it’s the cast. Every year we walk in and hear Hal say, “The Ruzikas are here!” and it’s just a joy! It has always been fun to do this show because it’s a reunion every year; it’s also the fun of designing the show.
Tom: There are beautiful and touching moments for me in the show, such as when Scrooge is looking from behind the scrim over at Belle. Plus, having done the show for 40 years, we know every word!
Donna: Yes, it’s just so ingrained in us after 40 years! Also JD [director John-David Keller] has been such a joy to work with. It’s a great story; Dickens was a star.
What fun moments from the show pop for you?
Donna: There are so many moments when Hal will say something funny in rehearsal and everyone will start laughing. Moments like that or the audience reaction.
Tom: Rick Doyle [The Ghost of Christmas Present] being stuck in the closet and not being able to get out…those moments bring a smile to your face.
Donna: And, of course, Hal when he does his hat trick. I’m delighted he stayed for 40 years because he’s such an excellent actor.