PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 38, Landings: Joey Moro
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Edy Kennedy: Hello everyone, I hope you are all doing well. Welcome to the Landings podcast. I'm Edy Kennedy and I'm joined today by Joey Moro. How are you, Joey?
Joey Moro: I'm doing all right. Do you really hope I'm doing well?
Edy Kennedy: I really do.
Joey Moro: Huh.
Edy Kennedy: Somebody once told me not to say that. I don't know. I'm not going to name names.
Joey Moro: Okay.
Edy Kennedy: But I really truly hope you're doing well.
Joey Moro: Oh great. That sincerity is present.
Edy Kennedy: Yeah.
Joey Moro: All right.
Edy Kennedy: I'm going to get started by asking you a very personal question. Which car most describes you? If there was a car out there?
Joey Moro: Oh come on. That's a slam dunk. That would be a 1986 Chevrolet El Camino because it is half car, half truck.
Edy Kennedy: Is that the car you showed me before?
Joey Moro: Uh it is, it is, yeah. So a bit of a giveaway, but something about the mix of utilitarian and comfort. Something about the ability of the everyday working class, blue-collar worker to have something to haul, something to work, but then haul ass when they need to step on the gas too. The hot rod for the every man, something that's sort of fallen apart. The ability to adjust, create, customize and build our own rides, which are an expression of self. And so today, where every car or I'm going, I'm just drifting...
Edy Kennedy: It's beautiful.
Joey Moro: Where every car, in a world where every car is so automated and so computer driven that not anyone can work on it. It's sort of, we lose that contact or that personal connection that I think is key to car culture. Are we talking about cars today?
Edy Kennedy: We are, no, we're not. That was just a nice little ice breaker.
Joey Moro: That was a little opener? Okay.
Edy Kennedy: Okay. So tell the people what you do.
Joey Moro: When?
Edy Kennedy: For a living.
Joey Moro: When, so...
Edy Kennedy: Right now. [laughter]
Joey Moro: Right now, so at the moment a, what is it, a visiting assistant professor of design at the Cornell Department of Performing and Media Arts. Yeah, so I teach lighting design courses and I teach a course called image design. Which was trying to be a more generic naming of a projection design course. And projection design also often confuses people because it's a new-ish name for a discipline that's, we'll say new to the theater, though it's been with us since the very beginning of time. If you want to think of shadow puppetry and lights on cave walls all the way through 1920s Yiddish theater and much later video and image are a part of storytelling, whether it's in live performance, in theater, opera, ballet, or any other media form. If it's the advertisement at the bus shelter or if it's television videos, film, podcast, YouTube ads, blinking graphic ads at the side of every webpage. You know, that's all telling a story. So we have a class in that where we try to talk about what that means to convey a story or an idea through image and specifically through the lens of live performance in theater. And that's what I do here.
Edy Kennedy: Very cool. So my question is when did you know you wanted to be either a lighting designer or image designer? Like, was that the original plan or how did you get into it?
Joey Moro: How far back should I where, where...
Edy Kennedy: The very beginning.
Joey Moro: The very beginning?
Edy Kennedy: Or however far back....
Joey Moro: I went back pretty far back there for a second. Okay. Let's start with my first theater-ish internship. Internship is probably a strong word. I was 11 years old and I found myself at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca because I am from Ithaca. And I was there for a summer program where I started strong with sweeping the floor. And I instantly learned that it was called a push broom because you were supposed to be pushing it, not pulling it, as I was repeatedly reminded. And soon I graduated to the mop.
Edy Kennedy: Wow.
Joey Moro: I got a nice sort of hip sway going, getting it going back and forth, wringing it out, got the floors very clean. And then eventually they asked would you like to run the light board or the soundboard? And I said the light board because it was closer to the exit...
Edy Kennedy: That's how it all started.
Joey Moro: And I haven't looked back since, no.
Joey Moro: But seriously, that was sort of the first time I got to see lighting transforming a space and transforming the art of telling a story. Certainly I'd been involved in elementary school and middle school plays as an actor. But it was that summer watching the shows as they were designed, as they were created, and going from a rehearsal room, which was a very simple, plain space, to the unknown world of something that then involved lighting starting from darkness. And there's, there's no expectations and no answers when you start from darkness. It can become anything. You have no idea what's there until the light comes up. And so that transformative power was very exciting to me. And worked in it at a, at a young-ish age, still did a fair amount of acting in high school, was also very much interested in physics and then found myself going off to college, not quite sure what I wanted to do, having these two very varied interests, acting, and then also physics. I had a lot of fun in AP physics, B and C. Had a terrible time in math, which is interesting. But those two things were sort of unified for me. I got into college on a BFA acting scholarship, auditioned to be part of a conservatory acting program at the University of Buffalo. And then I got a guaranteed transfer back to Cornell and I came back to Cornell because I wanted to be somewhere where I could do both of those things. And my first year at Buffalo, there wasn't an opportunity for me to really explore the physics and the hard sciences and work in the theater at a high level. But that was something that Cornell always had because it was, while we operated at the level of professionalism of a conservatory acting program, you didn't have to be a conservatory acting major to be part of a show. You could walk in off the street and be involved at any level whatsoever. If you showed interest in it, there was someone there to help you and to provide an opportunity that just wouldn't, wouldn't be there otherwise. Yeah and still got to work on other, the other half of the brain to work on physics, science, found myself taking lasers and photonics courses in applied engineering physics astronomy, astrophysics classes...
Edy Kennedy: Were you in Arts & Sciences?
Joey Moro: Yeah.
Edy Kennedy: Okay.
Joey Moro: Yeah.
Edy Kennedy: And you did both majors?
Joey Moro: Well, math's hard, it turns out. So the, the physics major didn't go too far. But I got to work. I got, I mean I got to take a lot of classes, physics related that you could just walk into and work at a, at a high level. I was one class short... [cell phone chime] Ooh, cell phone. I was one class short of being a classics major. Cause I also took a lot of Latin in high school, so I continued the study of Latin while I was here in addition to ancient Roman culture, which was playing directly into like Colosseum and ancient sport and spectacle. And so that was a foundational way into working on the same sort of entertainment world, but then also just pure study of the classics and language, and beginning an evolution of democracy and you know, all those other fun things that you're supposed to do in collage.
Edy Kennedy: Collage.
Joey Moro: Yeah. Yeah.
Edy Kennedy: As the kids say.
Joey Moro: Yeah, that's how it's spelled, right?
Edy Kennedy: Yeah, I mean, it is.
Joey Moro: Not a good speller.
Edy Kennedy: What year did you graduate?
Joey Moro: 2012.
Edy Kennedy: Okay. Okay.
Joey Moro: From this school? Yes. 2012. Yes.
Edy Kennedy: Yes. So what, what things did you do outside of class while you were at Cornell to get involved... Not outside of class but outside of Cornell to get involved with theater?
Joey Moro: Yeah, so I lived in Risley, which is sort of still in Cornell, but I ran the student theater there, the Risley theater, which was an eighty-five-seat black box, and was the chair of the theater subcommittee that allocated the money for that and worked on season programming. And I hear that, you know, at some point all the risers disappeared and were rebuilt in a weekend. But I think technically it was just repainted because then that would have violated the union shops who were supposed to be, you know, so I think they just got painted by...
Edy Kennedy: Technical stuff.
Joey Moro: Technical stuff. Worked on creating that theater into a performance space that actually worked. And we upgraded the lighting system and ran new power, got more dimmers. So worked a lot at that space, and sort of oversaw like a twelve-to-fourteen show season there for a couple of years. And then while I was doing that, I was also the full-time master electrician at the Kitchen Theater downtown on state street. And did again, eight or nine shows a season as the master electrician.
Edy Kennedy: How'd you get involved with that?
Joey Moro: I think Ed [Intemann] probably brought me down there for the first show, I think sometime in my sophomore year to be his assistant. And then I assisted on that show and then I ended up master electrician-ing the next show, and then I worked with them for the next year and a half, almost two years. As they transition from their old theater space to their new theater space, there was a whole summer where I was on the team that brought everything over to the new theater. Set it up, made sure everything worked and sort of set a standard for how shows were gonna operate in that space. Cause they're stuck in a place where they wanted to have exciting design opportunities to be able to fully hang a different light plot for every show to really meet the needs of the show, but also short staffed and short budget. And that they didn't necessarily have the time to allocate, to pay to do a full lighting change over for every show, which then ended up in somehow many, many times where I got there at 8:00 PM after class and after work here, hung lights, changed over the whole plot and left by 8:00 AM...
Edy Kennedy: Oh my god.
Joey Moro: So did a full change. The State Street Diner at that point across the street was 24 hours. So I got to take a break over at the diner sometime around three or four in the morning.
Edy Kennedy: I'm proud of you, Joey. I wasn't there for it, but I'm proud of you.
Joey Moro: Oh, thanks. Yeah. And somehow doing thirty credits at the same time. You have me beat though. You got more credits this semester.
Edy Kennedy: Thirty. I'm just taking thirty.
Joey Moro: Just to, I thought it was like thirty-two, with the addition of something.
Edy Kennedy: I had to drop something or... I know, I can't...
Joey Moro: What are you, slacking?
Edy Kennedy: [Laughter] I know.
Joey Moro: Come on.
Edy Kennedy: I gotta step up a little bit.
Joey Moro: Gotta step your game up.
Edy Kennedy: Next semester. Forty.
Joey Moro: Okay.
Edy Kennedy: Um, what was your plan after Cornell?
Joey Moro: Ah you know, I got to somewhere probably the very end of my junior year or the beginning of my senior year and I didn't really have a plan. I had found myself working heavily in the theater, had a lot of experience at this university level, at the sort of regional level for the Kitchen Theater and then kind of at the poor theater, community theater level, working at Risley all the time. But I didn't really know what I should do next. And so I talked to my advisers here and looked at grad school because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do next, but it seemed at the very least like a good idea to apply and practice and see what that next step of education in this world would be like. So I started by applying to URTA, which is an acronym that stands for something. It's a group of graduate school theater programs where you go to a centralized audition and you know, a dozen different theater programs come and look at your work and then they pick you if you want to interview with them for their...
Edy Kennedy: Like a convention?
Joey Moro: Yeah. For their specific school. And it's just altogether in one weekend in New York. So I did that and then I individually applied to NYU and Yale. And then somehow by April first of my senior year, I had gotten into the Yale School of Drama for lighting design where they only take two lighting designers per year. And I was lucky enough to be one of those two people.
Edy Kennedy: Out of, how, do you know how many people apply each year?
Joey Moro: I'm not sure. Probably. I mean, I, I'm not gonna be boastful and say thousands apply and only two get in, but you know, somewhere around a hundred or two people probably apply to the design department. The whole Yale School of Design, of Drama program is only about two hundred people per year. But that includes all disciplines. So you've got actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, stage managers, technical directors. I'm sure I've forgotten someone important, but...
Edy Kennedy: Somebody.
Joey Moro: Yeah. But there's, there's, so there's three or four per every program that adds up from there.
Edy Kennedy: What is your, what advice do you have for a student such as Edy Kennedy who is about to graduate and start a career, possibly in lighting? How would you first, how would you be like, Edy, this is what, you know, this what you should do.
Joey Moro: Yes. Do we, do we speak about this as if we've not had this conversation?
Edy Kennedy: I mean, we can just make up a new conversation.
Joey Moro: We'll start this conversation brand new? Well. I think my overall suggestion is to not be afraid of any sort of level of professionalism. There's no such thing as I'm not ready, I'm not prepared, I don't have the experience. The worst they can do is say no, you need to work a little more, right. You do not get blackballed for auditioning too early and the enthusiasm and the willingness to learn and explore parts of the art form that you know, you don't know are much more valuable than someone that comes into an advanced program asserting that they know exactly how to do it. So I would say to gather as much experience as you can while you're here, while you're in school and you're in an undergraduate level where it is really okay to fail. I mean, the point of school is to try everything you can and fail at it because you have a safety net of professionals and teachers and collaborators that are here for you to support you on that journey. It's very okay to do it now. That's how you learn. It's harder to do it later in the professional world where a lot of budgets and time constraints and actualities are going to get in the way.
Edy Kennedy: How prepared, I mean, I've asked you this before, but like how prepared did you feel going from point A to point B, meaning Cornell to Yale?
Joey Moro: Medium, maybe medium plus, sometimes medium minus.
Edy Kennedy: Where were you deficient?
Joey Moro: So I felt like I had a lot of prac— I knew what I'd done. I've been at these different theaters. I'd worked on a bunch of shows. I had twenty-two professional... Professional. I had twenty-two shows that I had been the designer on by the time I got to spring of my senior year. But I remember I was in the interview at NYU Tisch and I was talking to them about my design for "No Exit," which was the main stage show I did as a part of the AUT... Advanced undergraduate theater program game to design a show. And I was starting to talk about the light, and the head of the department. Susan Hilferty, a very famous costume designer, very famous designer, head of the design program at NYU, designer of "Wicked". You know, she started quizzing me on the characters names, in a very matter of fact... She actually didn't want to hear about the lighting. She was like, and what was that character's name? And I really should have known, because there are only three people in the show and I really should remember now. But I was like, Oh, you know the, the the other one that's, that's not the one but not the girl, but the guy, the other guy. And she was like huh, I see. And so it was partly in that moment that I realized, Oh, this is more than just experience about, I've lit the show, I put the light in the right place, I picked a good color and I turned it on. This is about being the complete well-rounded artist. This is about being a citizen of the theater. This is about understanding theater, life and creation in a larger context. And you can tell me about the gel number all day long, but if you don't know what happens in the play and you're not able to express the fears and emotions and the tribulations of those characters in the moment, you're not ready. Um I did of course leave the room and remember their names. I was okay talking about the play itself, but I had, I had spaced them, the names, probably because I had been up all night or had been hanging a plot somewhere until three or four in the morning.
Edy Kennedy: You were tired.
Joey Moro: I was probably a little bit tired. I needed one more coffee, one more Dunkin Donuts.
Edy Kennedy: The fuel.
Joey Moro: To be, to be ready for that, for that interview. And they did, I did actually get into NYU as well, much later, but...
Edy Kennedy: It was too late by that point.
Joey Moro: Well, I had already accepted Yale, but it was like two weeks after...
Edy Kennedy: Oh, I see.
Joey Moro: After Yale had accepted me. They did give me a later offer to join and...
Edy Kennedy: How many people did they accept?
Joey Moro: I think they have... Three or four lighting designers per year or something like that.
Edy Kennedy: Okay.
Joey Moro: But just practically between those two schools, whether or not Yale is better than NYU for a theater, theatrical MFA design program, at that point, Yale was free, slash they paid me to go there.
Edy Kennedy: Yeah.
And NYU started about $60,000 a semester. So I was not in a... But even, they would have had to have given me a very big grant if I... For me to be able to go there anyway.
Edy Kennedy: What should matter most in a lighting designer’s life? Or their work?
Joey Moro: Okay.
Edy Kennedy: Both.
Joey Moro: Okay. Oh boy. Well I think it's what I just stumbled into a minute ago. It's about....
Edy Kennedy: About knowing everything.
Joey Moro: It's about, not about knowing everything, but being part of the larger whole. Being, being proficient at your craft as a lighting designer, but being able to communicate and to talk to everyone on the team. That you and all of the designers should be able to speak fluently and clearly about what it is that you're trying to do. Because if you don't have a clear concept, vision and way to communicate about the story you're trying to tell, you're just going to go around in circles. Or you can sit there and you know, turn on the lights and make them a color and say, how's that? Is that good? Do you like that? Did we do something? No, you should never have to ask. You should be able to talk about the play, talk to the director, understand what you're doing in the room and have the right answer and create that world. So what was the original part of this question?
Edy Kennedy: It was like what's most important.
Joey Moro: What's most important? Most important is being well rounded in the field of design and understanding the play and the script and the story you're telling. So understanding what you're talking about, what you read, and then communicating it effectively to your team, because lighting maybe more than any other departments, it is really a team sport. You alone cannot do every part of it yourself. There are lots of people to work with, both on the artistic side to support your work. And then also on the technical side of merely getting that light to turn on, there's a lot of people you need to work with.
Edy Kennedy: Okay. That's good advice. Okay. My next question is so after you graduated from Yale, you started your, your professional career. So like what were the big milestone moments of that?
Joey Moro: One of the main reasons that graduate school was good for me is that it gave me this whole family, this extended theater family that I work with and that I know and that's, like all the collaborators and all the colleagues in the different departments that then go on as soon as we finish there, I'll move to the city or move to theater in some form and work professionally in that field. And so I always have a friend, I always have a colleague and a collaborator that I know that I've grown up with, that I've learned with that I can call on in many areas of the entertainment industry. I mean some are....
Edy Kennedy: And vice-versa.
Joey Moro: Right, and some are in film and TV right now, like a bunch of my classmates work for All Access, which does the Super Bowl every year. So if I ever have like large event questions, I can call up Tommy and be like, all right, how did you make that? How do I, who do I talk to? Where do... I need a guy. You got a guy? I need to talk to someone.
Edy Kennedy: Rig and Tony.
Joey Moro: That's right. So having that, that breadth of knowledge then turns into a breadth of contacts, because the theater industry and the entertainment industry, more than I think most other industries, is really based on personal relationships and knowing people face to face or at least named a name and speaking to them one-on-one. I mean, it's an industry based on the ethos of storytelling and human connection and communication. And then that's the only way that it moves forward. When you get a job, or when you get an offer, you get an opportunity. It's because of someone you know, talk to someone. It's... There are very, they're much fewer cold calls and cold opportunities based on a resume alone. I mean, it's a, it's an industry of connection.
Joey Moro: So yes. What was the directly, how, what did I do next or the steps? I would just be, yeah, I mean, so with that, that's the like the big answers that safety net of people and collaborators and communicators. But then you know, physically what happened next was I moved to the city, I did some work for Jennifer Tipton and Steve Strawbridge who are the professors of lighting. So I assisted them immediately on some shows in the real world in the city. I went on another show that went to LA and toured for a little bit bounced around the end of that year. I assisted on a show on Broadway worked back and forth, assisting on shows for the first couple of years, working for other designers and then doing smaller shows my own. And over the next five years, the, I do a lot less assisting in a lot more shows on my own. And those shows are trying to be bigger and bigger shows. And this this past summer I was offered to do a, a show that's opening on Broadway later in the spring. That's cool. Did you, I mean I'm, I can even get into it, but I was like, that sounds like coolness. Yup. Yup. But I'm, but I'm here with you, ed. That's all that matters. That's all this matters.
Edy Kennedy: So who are you like your biggest mentors, both here at Cornell, maybe in your professional career?
Joey Moro: Yeah. that was another, that was another interesting question that I flubbed at NYU. I remember they said, well, what lighting designers do you want to copy? What do you want to be like? And I, you know, I think that was a very clever question to figure out how much I was plugged into the New York scene and lighting at the big time, the big time lighting on Broadway lighting on major regional theaters to see if I knew the names and I didn't, you know, I knew that half a dozen people that I worked with here and I knew that I cared about the subject, but I couldn't name you, you know, who are the top 10 lighting designers right now. Cause that wasn't something that ed taught and that it wasn't important to him. And I don't know that it's important to the art form itself and the purest sense. So, um, yeah.
Joey Moro: That, that wasn't, that wasn't a motivator as to who do I be like, but again, it's that group of collaborators and colleagues that that I worked with every day. And you know, that certainly started with and included Ed who worked closely. I work closely with here. And also maybe the most actually Dick Archer who as we were talking about the other day, if you looked at a Cornell transcript or any sort of paperwork, we have no connection. I never took a class with him.
Edy Kennedy: Right.
Joey Moro: I never, he was never my advisor officially, but he's someone that I would call and talk to all the time. And just as a, as a working teacher and as an industry professional at many levels I would never feel that it would be a problem to call and ask him about anything that I'm working on. Like, I'm assisting on this thing with the New York Philharmonic with Jennifer.
Joey Moro: I don't know how we need to get this here, Rig and Tony is screwing up all the stand lights and I'm in big trouble. Like, what do I do, you know, to have those people that you can call on at any point and have them have an answer and an answer that's relevant. It's just what it's all about. And even if, even if Dick didn't have the answer, you know, three hours later there'd be something in the inbox about, you should talk to this person, you can call them. This guy did this about 10 years ago. I don't know if he still does it, but here's his phone number. And so it's just a list. Even if there isn't the answer or you know, shuffle around in the papers, paper effect, paper effect. And then you come back with, Oh yeah, here, well, here's the drafting of the Hudson theater in 1967 and I think they moved this wall since then, but you can check there and start measuring this.
Joey Moro: And so it's that unstoppable human connection of information. And then, you know, postgraduate school that moved on to a Jennifer Tipton, Steve Strawbridge, Wendell Harrington, Michael Juergen, major, major designers because they were my teachers at school. And then they're also actively working. And then when, when Michael Juergen is doing “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center, you know, two years later and he needs to figure out how to build a very specific model piece. You know, I wasn't a set designer at school, but I was at his classes. I talked to him all the time and you know, he called me to 3D print and help figure out how to make this a scale model for a major production. So it's all about those people and those human connections.
Edy Kennedy: So where do you want to go from here?
Joey Moro: Oh, can I plead the fifth?
Edy Kennedy: Sure.
Joey Moro: I don't, I really don't know. I, I'm I've enjoyed my time here teaching a lot because the students here are like nothing else in that right. And the, as I've blabbed about already, you can come into here without a specific interest and engage at any level of the process you want. And there is not only someone, there are many people that will help you on that journey. No one needs an exact answer from you, but everyone will help you figure out, you know, what it is you want to be when you grow up. And I don't know. I don't know yet. I will firmly put my Peter pan hat on, stick a feather in it and say, I don't know yet. I'm involved in a lot of things that I really like. I love working professionally. I enjoy teaching you. I enjoy doing production photography and creating video content for a bunch of stuff. I even enjoy it when I go off and work for super corporate Nike stuff. I dunno.
Edy Kennedy: Is there like a dream show that you want to do?
Joey Moro: I don't have a specific title. But if there was a show that mattered, if there was a show that told a story that wasn't being told and if that story had the chance to impact a single person and change the way they think about the world, I think that's what it's, that's, that's the show. The show that matters to someone else. The show that changes the course of their life is the reason to do it. And that show may be only comes once you know that that won't be every day.
Edy Kennedy: Right?
Joey Moro: It won't be the show you work on this week, and then the next week. There's definitely some fluff in there. There's definitely things that are just there for the moment, but the chance to impact someone's life forever is, is the reason to try.
Edy Kennedy: Well, thank you, Joey for your time. I really appreciate.
Joey Moro: Thank you. I'm sorry I'm late. Probably will continue to be late.
Edy Kennedy: Thank you.
Joey Moro: Yup. Bye.