- This is Poly
A familiar face returned to light up the recent Winter Concert. Tom Simpson ’15, who learned the craft of professionally illuminating a performance under the guidance of David Higham in the Richard Perry Theatre, is now a lighting designer himself.
Simpson works full-time at Design One Lighting Design, a firm that provides lighting for architecture and entertainment led by principal designer Christien Methot. But Simpson’s professional career had its start backstage at Poly, where he was a mainstay on so many Poly tech crews, working on productions such as A Chorus Line and Les Misérables.
“I was so happy to come back to work on the lighting for the Winter Concert,” Simpson said. “The Chapel is a beautiful space but difficult to access the lighting because of its high ceilings. After making a few replacements and changes up in the rafters, the lighting was brighter and smoother on the risers and stage for the concert.” He added, “It was fantastic to see how Mr. [Dan] Doughty [Director of Music] has grown the program since I was his student, and I was impressed by the musical talent featured. Seeing familiar faces and catching up with teachers I haven’t spoken to since graduating was also very heartwarming.”
“As our production needs have grown, it has been increasingly clear that the music concerts need lighting and sound support,” explained Doughty. “Tom was an integral part of the Performing Arts student community while at Poly—assisting Mr. Higham, doing his own design and implementation for student productions, and the Afternoon of Student Choreography. I knew he was working professionally in the city and thought it would be fun to collaborate with him again!”
David Higham, Poly’s Theatre Manager and Technical Director, said that Simpson started helping out with theatre tech in Middle School and continued until he graduated. As Simpson recalls, “I started just pushing buttons and holding tools for Mr. Higham, and by the end of my senior year at Poly, I was running shows on my own, and even doing lighting for rental groups who used Poly’s stages during the summer.” Middle School drama teacher Jill Bolstridge also supported Simpson “from day one.”
“I developed a curiosity for the technology behind the scenes at Poly, in particular lighting,” Simpson recalled. “Since about seventh grade I wanted to be involved in almost every show or school function making things happen backstage. Mr. Higham, who is a professional lighting designer, gave me a fantastic foundation of knowledge over my years at Poly and a sensibility with design. He also taught me a lot about responsibility and seeing a project through properly, although that took a little longer for me to get the hang of!”
“Stage lighting acts as a hidden force driving the emotion and feel of the show…”
“Although I did sound, videography, and stage management at Poly,” Simpson continued, “it was lighting that I took the most interest in. What attracted me to lighting was how it totally shapes the atmosphere and mood of whatever stage or room we are in, often without our awareness. Stage lighting acts as a hidden force driving the emotion and feel of the show it’s illuminating, and requires a lot of technical know-how to make the artistic side happen. The mixing of the technical and creative knowledge fascinated me, and the adrenaline rush of fast-moving tech rehearsals setting the lighting to the action of the show was fun.”
Higham recalls, “Although he worked helping with different areas of tech, he became very interested in working on lighting and became so proficient that I asked him to help light some of the pieces for the Afternoon of Student Choreography. Eventually, he progressed to pieces for the Dance Concert. Tom showed a real aptitude for not only the mechanics of lighting, but also the aesthetic of lighting, which in my experience is unusual for someone of his age at the time.”
Additionally, Simpson credits Upper School drama teacher and director Sonya Baehr and former Poly set designer Carlos Aguilar as “formative figures to work with” at Poly’s Performing Arts Summer Camp. Baehr, Aguilar, Poly actors, and Simpson took a show, Americans in Breshkistan, specially commissioned for Baehr’s acting class, to present at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015.
“When you give highly talented and intelligent young people the opportunity to function in the real world, they rise to the challenge and do brilliant work!”
“When the opportunity to go to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe came up,” Baehr said, “I knew I could take only a very few students. I asked Tom to design the lighting for the show as we presented it at Poly, and then to coordinate our lighting needs with the professional crew in Scotland, and to adapt that design to the theater where we presented our show in Edinburgh. Essentially, I asked Tom to take on the professional responsibility of designing a show to go on tour. Not an easy ask! Tom was totally ready, not only to meet the technical challenge of figuring out how American lighting equipment might translate into British and European equipment, but also of working collegially and calmly with adults and young people in situations of high stress, where quick fixes were sometimes required to get the job done. I’m so proud of Tom’s work on that show, and of how he blossomed at Poly under David’s tutelage. When you give highly talented and intelligent young people the opportunity to function in the real world, they rise to the challenge and do brilliant work!”
At Emerson College in Boston, Simpson studied Production Design & Technology. “Arriving in the program was a revelation since I had previously thought I was the only person who would voluntarily stay late at school and come on weekends to do technical things — and suddenly I was in a class full of them. I chose Emerson because its production program is fully integrated with the City of Boston’s art scene, meaning that Emerson’s theaters are not just for school shows, but also bring professional touring groups in from all over the world for the public to see. This meant I got to work in beautiful and well-equipped theaters from my freshman year including Emerson’s crown jewel, the Cutler Majestic Theater, which is like being inside of a massive 1,200-seat Fabergé egg.”
“Between school years at Emerson, and equally as influential,” said Simpson, “was my time as the Lighting Designer at the College Light Opera Company (CLOC), a popular summer stock venue on Cape Cod. CLOC is this one-of-a-kind place where about 70 college students in musical theater, stage design, and music put on an entirely new show each week through the summer. The insane schedule there makes every other production feel like it moves at a snail’s pace, but somehow everything manages to just come together at the last second while still having a good time. The experience, speed, and critical problem-solving I developed there I can apply to nearly any project now.”
In addition to working for Design One Lighting Design, Simpson works freelance on smaller shows. Like most people in the theater, Simpson was impacted by COVID’s limitations. “During the pandemic being able to go into architectural lighting was life-saving, albeit slow-moving compared to what I was used to,” Simpson said. “In that time I worked on lighting for a lot of building lobby renovations around the city, two 28-story high rises in New Rochelle, and most notably the new façade of the Gershwin Theater. When the entertainment scene started to reactivate, I was overjoyed to be working at the fast pace again.”
“I also do outreach and publicity for Design One which involves a lot of writing, a skill I have to credit Poly for instilling in me despite how much I dreaded essays in school.”
“Since then,” he added, “ I am fortunate to have worked on lighting design for fantastic clients including the Tribeca Film Festival, US Open, CBS Sports, Maker’s Mark, Fortune magazine, and Victoria’s Secret to name a few. Currently, I am working on a special surprise concert at a fashion brand in the West Village; and in the planning stages of lighting a jewelry pop-up experience for Van Cleef & Arpels. I also do outreach and publicity for Design One which involves a lot of writing, a skill I have to credit Poly for instilling in me despite how much I dreaded essays in school.”
“I am so proud of Tom and his work,” Doughty said. “I taught him since he was in Grade 5 and was always impressed by his creativity, intellect, and maturity. It has been a joy to watch him grow into a successful young artist and to have the opportunity to bring his talents back to Poly.”
“I highly commend Tom for what he has been able to accomplish,” Higham added, “and wish him all the best for his future endeavors, whatever they may be.”