KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 30, 2021 – As a first-year student, Audrey Visscher knew she wanted to try on as many hats in theatre as possible. So, she made a list.
Midway through her senior year at the University of Rhode Island, Visscher has checked off a play program’s worth of jobs. Even with the pandemic reducing the number of URI Theatre productions, she’s worked as crew, costume crew, painter, light board and sound board operator, sound designer, house manager, assistant director, director – to name a few.
“I really like being a part of every show we put on here at URI, in any capacity,” says Visscher, a theatre and film media major from Piscataway, New Jersey. “I’m working to have as many different roles on productions as I can before I graduate.”
This fall, Visscher’s list got a major checkmark when she was selected as lighting designer for Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” URI Theatre’s first production of the 2021-2022 season. Her work on the show also was the basis of a poster that took top honors among presenters in the social sciences, arts and humanities category in the Showcase 2021 of Undergraduate Research, Scholarly, and Creative Work.
“I had a blast. I only wish the Showcase was longer because I had so much to say,” said Visscher, whose presentation included a table of sample lights and her lighting design draft to explain the process of lighting design. “I went into the showcase just excited to talk about lights. I didn’t expect an award.”
The role of lighting design is in a way simple – illuminate the actors, convey the mood, set the time and place of the scene. But the job is far more demanding, she says, including numerous readings of the script, breaking down and understanding the lighting needs of each scene, creating keys for the color and direction of the lights, creating a draft of where the lights will hang, and ensuring that the design works.
Visscher got her introduction to lighting as the light board operator last fall for “Miss Nelson is Missing!” and as the student master electrician for fall 2019’s “She Kills Monsters.” As a design and directing student in theatre, she immediately knew she wanted to add lighting to her jack-of-all-trades approach.
Knowing lights would play a vital part in “Silent Sky,” a true story about women astronomers who made breakthroughs charting the stars, she applied to be assistant lighting designer. But the department instead offered her the position as lead designer.
“I had never light designed and it seemed extremely daunting, but I was also excited they were offering me this position,” she says. “And I knew that we have a really great support system.”
Visscher had taken a lighting design class with Assistant Professor James Horban, and he served as her mentor for the play. Horban walked her through the entire process. She also collaborated with the show’s director, Tracy Liz Miller, and scenic designer, Renee Surprenant Fitzgerald.
“As her first lighting design, I was impressed by Audrey’s ability and determination to stay focused throughout the entire process,” says Horban. “Creating a lighting design takes a lot of mental stamina, as one must quickly switch between an artistic eye and technical prowess, and Audrey was able to rise to that challenge.”
One of Visscher’s proudest moments from her design came when the story’s lead character, Henrietta Leavitt, and her love interest, Peter, start to unite and can envision a future together. In a dream sequence, they are sailing on an ocean liner under the stars. But the daydream is broken when Henrietta’s sister bursts in to tell her their father has had a stroke.
“At that moment I had to break everything. I had to break their dream. I had to break their secrets and bring the scene back to reality, but harshly,” says Visscher. “I had all of the main lights go dark immediately. And we had little chandeliers hanging everywhere – we called them planets – and each of them went out split seconds apart, which made the scene shattering.”
“Silent Sky” also gave Visscher another opportunity. While she’s worked on almost all the department’s mainstage productions and numerous student plays in her three-plus years, she had not worked a full-length show from start to finish and been a part of the rehearsal process. She got that experience in her dual role as the play’s assistant director.
“That will definitely help me as a director,” she says. “No director is going to graduate and say, ‘I’d like to be a director but I’ve never been part of rehearsals for a show.’”
While the pandemic reduced her theatre opportunities, Visscher has been busy playing catchup. This month, she’ll assist with props on the production of “Clue: On Stage.” In April, she’ll check off another big box as assistant stage manager for “The Wizard of Oz.”
Her numerous backstage roles have fed her different interests and introduced her to new ones. When she started at URI, Visscher was mainly interested in scenic design. Now she’s experienced many other design opportunities, which have also given her the knowledge to help her effectively communicate with designers as a director.
Looking beyond graduation, Visscher sees career options as plentiful as the jobs on her check list.
“Between designing and directing, theatre and film, I am sure I will be jumping all over the place, keeping it fresh every time I accept a new role,” she says. “URI Theatre offers so many opportunities and forces you out of your comfort zone. Unlike most conservatory programs, URI encourages and even requires students to experience something outside of their chosen concentration in order to fully understand and appreciate theatre. It’s such a great push to find a niche you never would have considered.”
(URI)² (The Office of Undergraduate Research & Innovation) runs the annual Showcase for Undergraduate Research, Scholarly, and Creative Works, and also offers grant funding to students with independent projects across URI. The next application date is March 28, 2022.