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Putting a spot on lauded lighting designer's Portland

By Peter Weed
Portland is home to many artists with successful international careers who value the city’s zeitgeist. We recently talked with lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, who was nominated for a Tony Award (Rocky) this year, to find out why he chose Portland. 
Akerlind bought a house on Munjoy Hill in 1996 and along the way he has earned an Obie Award and six Tony Award nominations–with one win (The Light in the Piazza). 
With stage work in a wide range of genres that takes him around the globe, the one constant is that Akerlind always returns to Portland between jobs. Here’s his take on the lure of Portland and how our city fits into his art:

On coming to Portland

I moved here in late July 1996 after getting the job of co-artistic director (with Anita Stewart) at Portland Stage. I first lived at the Eastland (now the Westin) – with a cat.
Until moving to Portland I had never imagined I would ever own a house. But then I had a regular salary coming in, and I thought. “OK. Why not?” So I bought my house on Munjoy Hill in December of 1996.
Three years later I left Portland Stage when I got a little antsy to freelance again. By that time, theatrical lighting had decentralized. Before, you had to live in New York. Part of the change was because of cheaper plane tickets, so I found that I didn’t need to be in New York to do a project in Chicago, or wherever.
I figured out that I didn't need to move back to New York to stay connected. I could stay here and have my career – which keeps me out of town from nine to 10 months of the year.
The travel can be a pain, but not always. For example, I can fly from Portland to Kennedy via a 50-minute flight, and I can get in to D.C. or Chicago very quickly.
But getting to another mid-sized city can be a challenge. Small market to small market from the East to West Coast can take all day. But, still, even after a rough travel day, getting back to Portland in the summer or winter is still getting home.

On city life

I think Portland is the best little town in America, and, of course, there is Munjoy Hill, which I like a lot. The city felt like the right proportion for me.
I am not oriented toward the suburbs, nor am I oriented to rural living. I like the density of population here and the amenities: the Portland Museum of Art, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and the gallery and restaurant scene–the presence of the food here is very intoxicating.
Portland felt like home to me.
And I love the cultural aspect, especially the First Friday Art Walk, or any moment when MECA students are around. I find it thrilling that young people are coming to our city to train and think about what they are making with their hands. I like that you can look into windows and see someone working on a pot or sculpture, or painting–especially in this digital world.
In 1996 there was something exciting about Munjoy Hill that you could sense. When I bought my house what is now happening to Munjoy Hill hadn’t quite started yet. It has really become a home for artists like me who like an urban context for their lives.
I get my fill of big cities when I work in Boston or Chicago, or wherever. So I haven’t sacrificed that experience, but I am able to live in a place where the quality of life suits me, and it suits what I earn. And I am living in a 3,000-plus-square-foot house that I bought for what would get me a closet in New York.

On the landscape

There’s nothing quite like seeing Portland from the top of Portland Observatory to get a sense of the city. I am keen on the geographic rationales for cities and seeing where those rationales come from. To see the city from the observatory is to understand why Portland is where and what it is.  
And there’s also the view over Back Cove from the Deering side of Baxter Boulevard. That’s a ravishing view and tells you about the stature of the buildings. The peninsula looks like a spine of an animal. I thoroughly endorse the idea of contemporary architecture, however I very much respect the issue of the stature of buildings that we shouldn't violate. 
I can’t imagine violating Portland’s vertical scale, the city’s style of proportion. However, the idea of putting a contemporary building next to a 19th Century building can work beautifully. I think that can create great creative contrasts and associations, and it stimulates our appreciation of both to put one of astride another.
So, I appreciate the instinct to keep Portland a “low” city, while I also endorse the idea of contemporary architecture.
I would like to see more creative use of the outside of old industrial buildings. I like the idea of outside skin that relates to the sky and other buildings. Commissioned murals such as the (Whale Wall) on the pier can bring energy to a particular neighborhood or corner. For example, I find the mural at Tommy’s Park incredibly uplifting.

On the people

I have managed to carve out a comfortable life here, and have made good friends outside of the theater – people in various fields, whose first point of conversation with me isn’t always about the theater. While in New York I am surrounded by theater talk that is gossipy and dishy, which is fun. But in Portland my friends run the spectrum, which makes for lively conversation.
There are a lot of people in the performing arts here, designers, Portland Stage Company and the wonderful faculty of Bowdoin College whom I know via New York connections.
I don’t think of Portland as being off the national grid. I think of Portland as a dot in a matrix of dots that represent what is happening in theater in the U.S. It has little to do to proximity to New York. It just feels like something is thriving here. 


Christopher Akerlind has designed lighting and sometimes scenery for over 600 productions at theater, and opera companies across the country and around the world. Broadway credits include: END OF THE RAINBOW, THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS (Tony nom.), SUPERIOR DONUTS, TOP GIRLS, 110 IN THE SHADE (Tony nom.), TALK RADIO, SHINING CITY, AWAKE AND SING (Tony nom.), WELL, RABBIT HOLE, A TOUCH OF THE POET, IN MY LIFE, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (Drama Desk, Outer Critics, Tony awards), RECKLESS, THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST’S WIFE, SEVEN GUITARS (Tony nom.), and THE PIANO LESSON among others. Recent projects include, David Adjmi’s new play MARIE ANTOINETTE (American Repertory Theatre), Martha Clarke’s new pieces L’ALTRA METRA DEL CIELO (Teatro alla Scala), ANGEL REAPERS (Joyce Theatre, NYC), and the revival of GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (Minetta Lane Theatre), KING LEAR (Public Theatre, NYC), Franco Dragone’s KDO! (Foret Nationale, Brussels), DIE ENTFUHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL and the world premiere of Philip Glass’s APPOMATTOX (San Francisco Opera), Janos Szasz’s production of THE SEAGULL (American Repertory Theatre), Dimitri Kourtakis’ KAFENEION (Athens/Epidaurus Festival), Anne Bogart’s production of I CAPULETI ET I MONTECCHI (Glimmerglass Opera), and Robert Woodruff’s production of Rinde Eckert’s ORPHEUS X (TFANA, Edinburgh & Hong Kong Festivals). He is the recipient of the Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Lighting Design, the Chicago area’s Michael Merritt Award for Design and Collaboration, and numerous nominations for the Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle and Tony Awards among many others. He has taught on the faculties of CALARTS, the University of Southern California and the Broadway Lighting Master Class and as a guest teacher for the graduate Design Department of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the University of Connecticut, the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama and at his graduate alma mater: the Yale School of Drama.

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