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Lessons in Light: Boise State lighting professor ushers her students into the spotlight

Two actors on a dark stage and spotlight
Photo by Allison Corona

When Associate Professor Raquel Davis works her magic with light, she often has a Boise State University student by her side. Davis teaches lighting and scene design in the Department of Theatre, Film and Creative Writing, but her own design work on Boise State theater productions and with local organizations including the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Boise Contemporary Theater, Opera Idaho, LED and others, provides students additional opportunities to launch careers in theater.

“It’s completely extracurricular,” said Davis. “They just want the experience. It introduces them to professionals in the industry, so if they want to do this, they can see different styles of communication, different styles of collaboration.”

Some students, like Brandon Washington (‘18, BFA theatre arts), turn that experience into jobs before they graduate.

“He came in as a freshman knowing he wanted to study lighting design,” Davis said. “So I gave him every opportunity I could.”

Washington now works at Idaho Shakespeare Festival and has assisted with lighting design on university productions and student projects. His case is not unique — several of Davis’s students, including Tony Hartshorn (‘15, BFA theatre arts) and Laura Sunderlin (‘17, BFA theatre arts) preceded Washington.

Washington also has found lead designer projects on and off campus. Last fall, he was the lighting designer for Boise State’s production of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.” This spring, he will design for Opera Idaho’s “As One” and Ballet Idaho’s “Cinderella.”

“To have a student designing as a professional is amazing,” Davis said.

Davis also brings students into the national spotlight. For 15 years, she’s been the resident lighting designer at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. The O’Neill conference fosters and develops plays by emerging and celebrated playwrights. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded the O’Neill Center with a National Medal of Arts.

Davis credits the center as a major influence on her design work and curriculum. She’s coordinated Boise State student internships there for the past six summers.

Two actors on stage sitting on a couch staring at TV

Caitlin Susen Hartshorn (‘16, BFA theatre arts) is one Davis’ students who did an internship at the O’Neill. Her main interests were acting and directing, but through Davis’ tutelage she discovered a love for lighting.

“She didn’t know she wanted to be a lighting designer until she had the opportunity to design a piece for an end-of-semester student dance concert,” Davis said. “She enjoyed it so much she wanted to learn more advanced techniques.”

Hartshorn won a regional lighting award from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival after documenting her lighting design process for a student-produced play at Boise State. This spring, Washington will compete for the same award based on his lighting design for a Boise State musical.

After graduation, Hartshorn and Amanda Baschnagel (‘16, BFA theatre arts) —another of Davis’ students who interned at the O’Neill Center — launched a local theater festival in Boise. Their three-day Campfire Theatre Festival finished its second season last summer at Boise Contemporary Theater (see story on page 8.) The festival offers emerging writers and actors workshops and readings, and the opportunity to connect with and help grow the local theater community.

Davis said she loves that many of her students stay in Boise and turn all they’ve learned into work in the city’s thriving arts community.

“It’s so good to see them all working and artistically fulfilled,” she said.