How ‘Illinoise’ Lighting Designer Created a ‘Visual Vocabulary’ Using Sufjan Stevens’ Album on Broadway

It was in 2010 at the New York City Ballet when Brandon Stirling Baker, the lighting designer of Broadway’s “Illinoise” met Justin Peck, the director and choreographer. One of the first things they ever talked about was Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 indie folk concept album “Illinois,” Baker says. “And that wasn’t that we had any agenda. It’s just that we were fans of the music.”

Over the past 14 years, the pair have worked on 32 projects together. Their first professional project was in 2012, and it was also to the music of Stevens, but as an orchestrator work called “Year of the Rabbit.” “That set up this amazing and exciting life together, inspired by both music, light and dance, and for us, that’s the world and the language that Justin and I speak,” Baker says.

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The pair brought “Illinoise” to life as it officially opened at the St. James Theatre on May 7. The show is nominated for four Tony awards this year including Best New Musical, Best Orchestrations and Baker and Peck both receiving noms in their own right. Baker’s nominated for Best Lighting Design of a Musical, and Peck was nominated for Best Choreography.

While the 90-minute dance show “Illinoise” has been described as a silent film told through dance, the lighting tells its own story. Orbs, stars and color are all at the center and speak to the show’s music to take the audience on a journey through a no-dialogue story about friendship, first love and grief.

“As a lighting designer, we have this great responsibility, we control what you see and how you see it. At every single moment, every beat, every musical note, every choreographic gesture, lighting has to decide how we want to view this work. We provide a point of view,” Baker says. “Once we listened to the album and understood the song order and the setlist, I created a visual language almost like a visual vocabulary that only exists for light. Every song had its own logic, its own rules.”

The song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a murder ballad Stevens wrote that’s used in the show during one of the campfire stories, and is based on a real-life figure who was a serial killer in Illinois known for murdering young men. “He really grappled with his sexuality and being able to be his true self, and it manifested in these monstrous ways,” Peck says. “A lot of that story in that song is about that character working through the trauma of this history, and the effects it had on the queer community.”

Baker says to set the stage for the ominous scene, “It was all lit with clean, cold white light. Something that was almost like a black-and-white Hitchcock film.”

He continued, “There’s also a song about zombies and that was leaning into a comic book, stylized B-movie version of a zombie movie but somehow still has the electricity of James Turrell exhibit.”

“I try to blend in different genres that speak to the music, but using the medium of light, in my case: color,” Baker says. “I consider myself an artist that just works with color, just as much as an artist who works with light.”

The first elements of light were orbs seen throughout the show going back to early workshopping days. This is because in Stevens’ song “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois” there are lyrics that say: “In the spirit of three stars” which represent the show’s three main characters: Carl, Shelby and Douglas. “In a way to highlight that even further, both from a narrative point of view and also design. We designed these bright, star orbs that become like sort of a constellation,” Baker says. “I feel like they’re [orbs] an anchor to our storytelling.”

Peck collaborated closely with both Baker and the set designer Adam Rigg to create a precise set design. One of the biggest challenges was to pull off dramatic scenes like when the Sears Tower falls, replicate the feeling of being outdoors at a campfire and design urban settings like the New York scenes all within the show’s frugal budget. However, this challenge “pushed everyone to use their creativity” according to Peck.

Peck describes the set design as a “Rubix’s cube,” while Rigg compares it to a “jungle gym.” “Everything is designed within an inch so that we can maximize the dimensions of the space since it’s such a big dance show. We wanted to make sure we had as much space, depth and proportions for the movement expression to take place,” Peck says.

The set compliments the light that emphasizes nature like with the upside-down trees. “There’s a few moments in the show where the light trickles through the branches of the trees and it’s so mesmerizing and transports the audience to the feeling of nature and the feeling of the woods and that sense of place all just using a lighting gesture,” Peck says.

The singers in “Illinoise,” are the orchestra band that hangs overhead the stage. “A big priority of the show was to maintain the presence of the band, we had to put a lot of thought into how to light them, how to organize the space and allow the audience to take in the storytelling but also see and feel the energy of the band themselves in the outer crust,” Peck says. “I also wanted the show to feel like a hybrid of musical and a rock concert, so there’s moments in the show where the lighting feels more akin to what you would see at a Sufjan Stevens music concert as opposed to a musical.”

The band also wears light-up butterfly wings, which represent moths at a campfire. According to Rigg, the design choice was inspired by Stevens, who is known to wear butterfly wings at his concerts

Rigg believes that it’s because of Baker and Peck’s close collaboration and their experience in dance and light that made”Illinoise” resonate with audiences and understand it even though it’s told without words.

“It’s so impressive, because it’s so hard to do, because the core of the story they [audiences] completely understand and the core of the emotional arc, they completely understand,” Rigg says. “People are weeping to people just dancing — it’s crazy. That doesn’t happen.”

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