1000 Words with Lighting Director Paul Sonnleitner

by Michael S. Eddy
in PLSN Interview
Paul Sonnleitner keeping warm at his console position in Times Square for New Year’s Eve.
Paul Sonnleitner keeping warm at his console position in Times Square for New Year’s Eve.

Well-respected programmer and lighting director Paul Sonnleitner recently spoke with PLSN about how he started his ‘is this really a career’ career, and how he approaches his work. Sonnleitner’s credits range from Broadway to live television, from national historic events, including the Presidential Political Conventions to international sports, for which he shared Emmy nominations with LD David Grill for the 2007 Pan Am Games and the 2014 Central American Games. He also has marked New Year’s Eve for the last 13 years working in Times Square.

PLSN: How did you get started in the industry?

Paul Sonnleitner: I went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison majoring in radio/TV/film. I was there a year and decided that was a horrible idea for a major, so I did computer science for a year, that was a horrible idea, that was followed by physics and then education, both horrible ideas. At that point I just wanted to get out of school and my advisor said, “The fastest way out is to get a degree in theatre.” As I had had a union card since I was 18 years old, because I used to work with the local all the time, the theatre degree seemed like an intelligent, quick way out of school.

Right after college I went on the road with Sesame Street Live for a while, and with some Broadway shows. It still didn’t seem like a career choice to me because it was fun; I was making money, and traveling all over the world. It wasn’t until near the end of my seven-year touring career that I thought, ‘I guess we can call this a career because I’m doing pretty well at it.’

What brought you to NYC?

At the time, I wanted to stop touring and Gene O’Donovan, who owned Aurora Productions, offered me a gig in New York City. It was always a fun place to visit but I didn’t necessarily want to live there; after three weeks not living out of a suitcase I decided to make New York my home. That was 1994 and I’ve been here ever since. I did a couple Broadway shows, a couple tours still, and then [Lighting Designer] Paul Gallo said “Hey, you’re a smart guy, you pick up consoles really fast, how about learning this brand-new desk called Wholehog II.” He was doing the musical Big in 1996; I learned it and we were the first Broadway show to use a Hog II.

I’ve done over 21 Broadway shows but have moved on to live television more now. Nothing against theatre, but I like the challenge of not just being able to program things, but being able to run things live and make decisions that are happening in front of people’s eyes.

What do you think is an essential element in the lighting designer and programmer relationship?

Never to take yourself too seriously, because in the end, it’s only light. You should never be afraid to try an idea. I remember Paul Gallo saying once, “tell you what, make it all UV.” I’m thinking, that’s the worst idea I’d ever heard, but we made it all UV and he was spot on. We would have never gotten there if we hadn’t tried. It’s only a cue, who’s going to get hurt? It’s not like you’re controlling automation where can run over somebody and kill them; it’s just light. So never take yourself too seriously, play around and find the right solution.

Also, communication. Everyone asks, “What does a programmer do?” I say 1% is running the desk. If you know how the desk works like the back of your hand, you’re 1% of the way to being a successful lighting programmer because 49% of what I do is communication. And the final 50% is lighting a show. When the designer says “Give me a backlight downstage in blue,” there’s no backlight, downstage, or blue button on the desk. That means something different depending on the designer, so you need to have really solid relationships. When Natasha Katz says ‘blue’, that’s different than Dave Grill saying ‘blue’ or Paul Palazzo saying ‘blue’. You must take the time to build trust and you must understand what they’re saying before they say it sometimes.

What would you say are the challenges of working on live TV shows?

TV is a little harder than working in theatre, and you learn that fast working in television. With TV, you don’t have an audience member sitting in a chair. When you watch theatre, you’re watching it from the same place. So, all the lights coming from the house are keylight. That’s not always the case with TV. You kind of have to be a little more on your toes and a little more prepared, so when the director says, “Hey, I want to fly the jib from upstage to downstage,” well suddenly everything that was backlight is now front light. You can’t say, “I didn’t think about lighting from that direction.” That’s not an acceptable answer. So, you must light like you light theatre in the round; you have to have fixtures available from all different angles to light people in different positions. Plus, in live TV, you never know what’s going to happen. You must be prepared, have your board organized to grab things quickly. That’s the fun part about lighting live TV.

What are some of the challenges working New Year’s Eve, besides staying warm?

Staying warm is a valid point. Seriously, I’ve been doing New Year’s Eve for 13 years. It has always been an interesting event and each year it’s just more and more. There are more and more networks and acts and things going on, on the stages. When we first started doing it there were three stages and we had something like one act an hour. Now we’re only doing two stages, but we’re a lot busier with more acts and rehearsals from 3:00pm until midnight, non-stop. I run both stages and keep them separated by having each on a dedicated grandMA2 and I roll my chair between the desks. Both desks stay live simultaneously.

I take it you enjoy what you do and glad you decided it was indeed a career?

I absolutely enjoy what I do. You know, this is still a blast for me. I can’t believe people pay me money to do this. I’ve always told my children and everybody I work with, that as soon as it stops being fun, I’m gonna do something else; and I still maintain that. However, it hasn’t stopped being fun yet, so I think I’m doing okay. I still get a big kick out of hearing that first downbeat, whether it’s a Broadway show or a TV show. It’s kind of a satisfying feeling knowing people are getting satisfaction, getting entertainment out of what you’re doing. It’s okay being the unsung hero behind the console and hearing the applause or watching the monitor as you nail something insanely difficult live. It’s an awesome feeling, to do that and to be having fun while making a career out of it.