Q&A with Creative Arts Emmy winner and Penn State alumnus Eric Christian

Brooke Swales
October 23, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Eric Christian is one of the many Penn State alumni who shows current students that hard work and commitment pay off. 

Christian won a Creative Arts Emmy in September for his role as one of the lighting directors for “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” starring John Legend, Alice Cooper and Sara Bareilles, which aired in April 2018. Christian works as a freelance lighting programmer based in New York and has completed myriad projects, such as the Puppy Bowl and the U.S. tour of "Fela!"

A 2010 graduate of the School of Theatre’s Design and Technology program, Christian took the time to share some insight on his career and how his Penn State path got him to where he is today. 

Question: What sparked your interest in the field of light programming? 

Answer: I’ve been doing technical theater for a very long time, originally following in my brother’s footsteps, although he did audio rather than lighting. Over time I’ve found lighting programming to be my favorite obscure corner of the entertainment industry. Much of the job is translating the lighting designer’s art into technology, while maintaining an artistic perspective in order to be a collaborative member of the team. This left brain/right brain switching, while dizzying at times, keeps the job exciting either way you look at it. Programmers also go to a ton less meetings than their designer counterparts!

Q: How did you become involved with “Jesus Christ Superstar Live”?

A: I was recommended to join the JCSS team by one of the show’s lighting directors, Ben Green, who was already involved in the production. We had worked together a few times previously and he thought I would be a good fit.

Q: What were some tasks you had to complete as a lighting director?

A: For this production I was primarily concerned with the close-up shots. I performed a lot of microscopic brightness and color adjustments to the follow spots (via the lighting consoles) to make sure everyone looked their best on camera. I also did most of the interfacing between the electrics team, who did all the actual work, and our two-man programming team.

Q: How does it feel to be so young and to work on a project with this much recognition?

A: Given the amount of hours we work to put up shows within short time frames, I don’t feel so young anymore. Out of our five-person lighting design team for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” two members were in their 20s and two were in their 30s. Our show is not entirely unique with these demographics, either, so it’s very exciting looking toward the future with the current crop. The next generation isn’t looking too shabby, either!

Q: What are some other projects you’ve completed and how does this one compare?

A: “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a melding of a lot of the different types of productions I’ve worked on: live TV, concerts and, of course, theater. There were aspects of them all that we hoped worked together seamlessly to make the final piece. Not one aspect of JCSS was completely new or foreign to me, but putting them all together with some new faces absolutely made this project stand out from the rest in a great way.

Q: What has been your most challenging or rewarding project?

A: Some of the most rewarding projects are when I get to work with the industry veterans that I’ve looked up to for years and have read about in the trade magazines. All of them are where they are for a reason, so learning from them and hearing stories about the “good old days” is priceless to me. 

Last November I was involved in a large live TV production for “Alibaba” in Shanghai. The show would have been challenging anywhere on Earth. After adding in language barriers, unfamiliar gear and an unfamiliar crew, it really made for a stressful and challenging few weeks. However, all other shows pale in comparison to the Puppy Bowl! My career has been a downward spiral since we finished production on Puppy Bowl XIV (2018). In case you’re curious, lighting dogs is actually more difficult than lighting humans! Luckily our same team begins production for Puppy Bowl XV very soon and I can’t wait!

Q: How has your Penn State education influenced your career?

A: The connections I made at Penn State still have a large impact on my career. Design and Tech alumni are spread throughout many aspects of the entertainment industry and across many cities. It’s rare to NOT find a Penn State Theatre alum within one degree of separation from any given production, especially on the East Coast.

Q: Are there any classes or professors that have particularly influenced your career?

A: Though it didn’t exist when I was a student, this past winter I got to participate in the School of Theatre’s STAGES festival, which was a day of master classes and panels given by alumni and other working professionals for current students. Hopefully I imparted some of what I’ve learned since college, and I certainly learned a lot from the other participants! I still stay in contact with the lighting professor, William Kenyon, and make sure to grab dinner with him whenever we’re in the same city and bounce career questions off him.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: Check out the latest project I’ve been working on — “Patriot Act” with Hasan Minhaj will be a weekly Netflix show with the former “Daily Show” correspondent. The first episode is set to release on Oct. 28 and should look really different from anything else on TV.

Last Updated October 23, 2018