Let There B. Light
Meet Seattle Rep Designer L.B. Morse
By Diana Fenves
You could call this season The Year of L.B.
The 32-year-old lighting and set designer (and Seattle Rep associate designer) helped create the worlds of Dancing at Lughnasa, The K of D, an urban legend, and now the upcoming This— his eleventh show at Seattle Rep. He has worked all over town, including at ACT, Intiman, and On the Boards.
Here’s a look at how he got here… Just don’t ask him what those initials stand for.
A diabetic since the age of eleven, Morse was self reliant from a young age. “It opened me up to experience and taught me how to focus and take charge on following the path I want to take as an artist,” Morse said.
He was immersed in theatre from, literally, the start. His parents met in graduate school; his mother was a scenic painter and his father was a designer. His dad spent twenty seven years at CalPoly Pumona in the theatre department, seventeen of which as the head of the department. Little L.B. was often underfoot during productions. Looking back he said, “ I always tried to help paint things or help building things. Afraid I was more of a nuisance than a help.” Nuisance or not, something stuck. By high school Morse was stage managing and beginning to design for lights.
His heart wasn’t set on theatre, though, when he pushed off for college at UC Santa Cruz. He planned to major in literature. But the theatre department swept him off his feet and suddenly theatre felt right. “I just knew that was definitely what I wanted to do,” he said.
“Graduate School” at the Rep…
After graduating from college in 2001, Morse became an intern at Seattle Rep in the theatre’s Professional Arts Training Program. “I thought of being on staff here as my grad school,” he said. Mentored by artists like Chris Reay (former resident associate lighting designer) and Etta Lilienthal (whose work was last seen as the scenic designer for Dancing at Lughnasa), Morse began to discover who he was as a designer. He wouldn’t say that he has a style exactly, but he certainly has a philosophy.
“I like to think of myself as somebody who approaches each production from a really open standpoint. My philosophy is to design an environment that is really cohesive for the look we’re trying to create, rather than put my stamp on things,” he said. “Sometimes it will lead to a direction that is 180 degrees different from something you might have done the week before. That’s why I like doing it.”
For Morse, his most collaborative theatre experiences have shaped him the most. “I use the words ‘collaborate’ and ‘cohesion’ a lot when I talk about what I do because I really love working with other people. There is something so powerful about all being on the same page and working for a common goal. It’s incredible when all of that can get wrapped up in telling a story or making an offering to an audience that makes them open their eyes a little wider.”
Working on My Name is Rachel Corrie was one of those eye-opening experiences. The play, about a young woman from Olympia, Wash., who travels to Gaza to protest the Israeli Defense Force’s demolition of Palestinian homes, sparked controversy and dialogue in the community.
“It’s not all that often that you get to work on something that has that many challenges associated with it,” Morse said. “It was one of those shows where I thought not only did the artistic team come together to produce an amazing piece of theatre, but the organization as a whole did. Everybody had to get behind working on that play because we knew it would be charged and challenging for audiences.”
Working on theatre that starts conversations is key for Morse. “That’s what it’s about. It’s about [asking], ‘How do we create a dialogue?’” For Morse, that means being open to new ideas not just during the design process but always.
“You’d like to think that as artists we can look at something critically and say, ‘I didn’t like that but I can appreciate it for what it is. I can appreciate that this is important to other people.’ I read a play recently. Personally, I don’t like this play but I can see that it is important to produce. I think that at our best as people of the arts we should have our minds and our hearts open to those experiences.”
This and beyond
Keeping an open mind also means taking on new challenges and rethinking creative processes. As a set designer, Morse has mostly worked on productions that incorporate a level of abstraction, rather than an environment that is grounded in space. This’s literal set will be a chance for Morse to continue to evolve his design process.
“This has been one of the most challenging things I’ve worked on in a while,” he said. “As a lighting designer you tend to collaborate earlier and most often with the scenic designer. I am much better when I have a bunch of people together in a room to talk to. I found that I had more time by myself, and that’s always challenging me. I have a hard time working in a vacuum. But that’s the way that you get better at what you do, by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. I think I’ve been doing that.”
Seattle has afforded Morse ample opportunities to grow as an artist, and for that Morse is staying put. “I think that it is an incredibly vibrant arts community. We have an incredible wealth of talent. I love it here,” he said. “I am more interested in having an artistic home and having people that I really enjoy collaborating with over and over again than going totally blank slate with each new project. It’s beautiful here.”