Hallie Gray gives co-workers the greasy green glow of a fairytale witch, the lurid crimson spots of a careless murderer, the spooky blue of the undead or pasty white of the bloodless – without ever touching them.
If you saw “Lizzie,” last month’s bloody celebration of Lizzie Borden at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, you saw Gray’s work. She’s their go-to lighting designer for anything from tender romances to wonky comedies.
Gray makes good use of the combined drama and psychology degree she earned at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1995. She has the smarts to get inside characters’ heads and the skills to reveal with her light board what they think and feel.
“You’re taught rules when you start: Never put green on someone’s face. Never use amber with black actors, because it’s not flattering to their skin tones.
“But you don’t have to follow arbitrary rules,” she says. “If you feel something within you as an artist, don’t restrict yourself.”
Gray, who turned 45 this month, has designed at ATC for 15 years and around the city for more than 20. Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Carolina Voices and a host of others have tapped her talent. She’s a collaborator who feels comfortable adding ideas after the rest of the show has been assembled.
“I typically consider a design when everything else is done: The set’s up, the costumes have been fitted. I can assist a director, but I can’t get into his space. He makes the final decisions.”
Her work sometimes calls attention to itself: Children’s Theatre used her dramatic hues to recreate a Civil War battle in “The Red Badge of Courage,” while she worked in aquatic blues and greens for fantasy sequences in ATC’s “The Mermaid Hour.” Sometimes, her ideas blend into the overall production unobtrusively. She doesn’t have a preference, she says: “It’s whatever works for a specific show.”
Gray learned the value of stagecraft in a family of artists. George, her father, writes and acts; brother Peter composes and plays guitar; mother Sandra, a visual artist and designer, “trained me how to see art.” She helped her parents in Children’s Theatre’s Explorer program, studied with Eric Winkenwerder of Charlotte Repertory Theatre and got her first important non-family gig lighting “Cabaret” at Theatre Charlotte in 1996.
“Lighting boards then were all manual, not computerized, which seemed very romantic to me,” she recalls. “I think of lighting like music: The timing has to be right, you explore what colors can do, and you’re filling a three-dimensional space from many directions.”
In Charlotte, of course, theatrical designers need other bill-paying jobs. Gray works as assistant master electrician for Opera Carolina and in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that supplies workers for concerts at Spectrum Center and PNC Music Pavilion or Broadway tours at Belk Theater. When called, she hangs and focuses lights for massive shows. “I need to make a grownup amount of money to buy health insurance,” she concedes.
Gray has become so accomplished that she feels “a bit pigeonholed – which I wasn’t expecting, because I grew up in a family where everybody did a little bit of everything in theater. I have a natural inclination for lighting, but I’ve been a stage manager and worked with costumes and props.”
Ask about dream projects, and she tells you she’d like to take her dad to the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, birthplace of drama. Ask about dream lighting projects, and she smiles.
“For better or worse, I’m a take-it-as-it-comes person, rather than a grabbing-my-destiny person,” she replies. “I don’t make a lot of plans.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.