Interviews

Interview: Brandon Stirling Baker on Giving Light to Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise

The Tony nominated lighting designer shares the secrets of his work at the St. James Theatre.

Lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker and choreographer Justin Peck met around 2010 and almost instantly bonded over their mutual affection for the Sufjan Stevens album Illinois. In the ensuing 14 years, Baker and Peck would work on more than 30 projects together, including a few for which the generation-defining musician Stevens would provide music. But if you spoke to them way back when, their younger selves would probably never have imagined that their greatest acclaim thus far would come for a Broadway dance musical based on Illinois.

Baker has created the lighting for four different mountings of Peck’s Illinoise — first at Bard, then at Chicago Shakespeare and the Park Avenue Armory, and now on Broadway at the St. James. He’s a Tony nominee for his work, which builds a campfire out of electric lanterns, goes grey for a zombie attack, and creates a hazy sunrise through the trees, while always taking its cues from the human emotions within Peck’s movement and Stevens’s evocative lyrics. No staging of the show has been exactly the same, and the Broadway production is a culmination of the work of a full year. One thing’s for sure: It’s not nearly as simple as it seems.

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Brandon Stirling Baker
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How does you feel to be a Tony nominee for Illinoise?
I feel in shock. A month ago, this show did not exist on Broadway. It’s pretty wild and surreal, but extremely special. I don’t take any of this for granted. We’ve all been with this show for over a year, so for us, this has been a long process. We didn’t know what was going to happen. You never know. To be here is really beautiful.

What were your goals for Illinoise and its lighting?
As a lighting designer, I’m not really driven by technology. I’m driven by the human experience and how my work can echo what the audience should feel in any production. What’s interesting is that the ideas have stayed true [in each venue]. Even though the lights are different, and the space is different, the show still breathes in a similar way and the spirit continues. I’m really proud of the fact that we created something that can only exist on Broadway in this way. For people who have seen the show before, it is truly different on Broadway. And better, I think. You’re closer, so you can really be there with the cast and the music.

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The lights shine through the trees in Illinoise at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
(© Liz Lauren)

So the show closed at the Park Avenue Armory and then all the materials were just shipped across town to the St. James?
I wish it was that simple. We’ve done the show four times now, and every version has been site-specific, specific to the theater we’re in: the height, the width. The set design has shifted in each version because no space is the same. At the Armory, the space was over 400-feet deep. At the St. James, it’s only 40-feet deep. But the St. James is one of the tallest theaters on Broadway, so we used that to our advantage. Every single idea in this show uses the height of the theater.

There’s a part of the show that really took my breath away, in terms of the lighting. It looks like the sun is actually rising on the stage, with the lights shooting through the trees as you’d actually see in a forest. How did you work that out?
The moment you’re talking about is at the very end of the show. It’s an epilogue that goes into a section called “Egypt” [“Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run”]. A lot of what I do in my work is find inspiration in the music. Sufjan Stevens’s music is larger-than-life, but also very grounded in human nature. I wanted to craft a moment that felt like the light is coming from beyond this room. Beyond the trees. Beyond Broadway. We designed this beautiful collage of light to blast through the trees, a little like an offering.

At the end of the show, Henry [Ricky Ubeda] offers his journal to the audience, and so, in a lot of ways, this moment was my offering.

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Ricky Ubeda (center) and the cast of Illinoise around a campfire made of lanterns.
(© Matthew Murphy)

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Illinoise

Final performance: August 10, 2024

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