Monday, 25 February 2019 15:18

Lighting the Way: A light designer’s subtle work affects everything

Written by  Kayla Sosa
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above: Ragtime at Grand Rapids Civic Theater Below: Catie Marlett Dreher. above: Ragtime at Grand Rapids Civic Theater Below: Catie Marlett Dreher. Courtesy Photos

Many moving parts work together to make a complete theatrical production, but one of the most subtle arts is the lighting. 

At the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, Catherine “Catie” Marlett Dreher is the production manager and resident light designer, so she’s responsible for creating feeling through light design in every production. 

Growing up in the theater, Marlett Dreher could have chosen any specific theater path, but there was something about lighting that drew her. 

“I found a real connection between the art of lighting and the emotion, that kind of deep down feeling you get from art,” she said. “It just had such a strong connection to the material.”

She always suspected she would end up working in the theater world. After all, her father was Paul Dreher, former managing director at Civic and a leader in local theater. She was in her first show at age five, and spent the years growing up in shows and helping her father behind the scenes. 

“I would often run the light board, so I could see what he was creating and the impact it would have,” Marlett Dreher said. “I learned that you can change the feeling of a scene for the audience, for better or for worse, with lighting. Bad lighting can ruin a scene and good lighting may not be noticed, but it can also enhance a scene.”

From a young age, Marlett Dreher began doing freelance light design. At first, she didn’t know it was going to be the path she would go down for three decades. 

“I just knew that everything about theater made me happy,” she said. 

At age 19, Marlett Dreher designed her first professional show for Robeson Players, a former black theater company in Grand Rapids. After that, she knew it was what she wanted to do. She would end up doing freelance light design for the next 30 years across West Michigan at various theaters and venues. 

After almost 10 years of freelance work, Marlett Dreher became the theater systems technician at Spectrum Theater. Located on Grand Rapids Community College’s campus, the theater houses three professional theater companies — Heritage Theater, Actors’ Theatre and Jewish Theatre — and a student troupe, the GRCC Players. There, Marlett Dreher was excited for the opportunity to work with so many different theater groups and help teach students, who are the future of theater. 

The love for theater arts, but even more so for the community, is what has kept Marlett Dreher in it all these years. 

“I think the theater community here is unmatched anywhere in this country as far as professionalism and the quality,” she said. “Because the people who started this theater community were seeing shows in New York and were seeing shows in Chicago, seeing the professionalism, and that’s what they went for. No one who was doing community theater in Grand Rapids ever — at least not in my 47 years — ever treated it like, ‘Oh, it’s just community theater.’”

Over the years, the theater community has grown in all areas. What’s also developed over time is technology. In traditional lighting setups, a filter would be needed to change the color, but with that, some brightness would be lost. 

These days, Marlett Dreher’s getting used to using LED lighting and color, which is electronic — an actual colored light source where a filter is not needed. 

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“All of the sudden, you can get really intensely bright colors that you couldn’t do before,” she said. “That has changed things dramatically.”

This month, Marlett Dreher designed the lights for Civic Theatre’s Mamma Mia! 

Her next projects include Actors’ Theatre’s The Wolves in April and Circle Theatre’s Freaky Friday in May.

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