The Man Behind the Magic Curtain
By Fran Tirado
Christopher Bowser, known simply as Bowser behind the scenes at our Spring Street events, is a Tisch School of Arts alumnus with an impressive resume, which includes lighting, production, and scenic design for many ambitious productions on stages across New York (ours included). But before that, he was a bit of a production savant at the ripe age of thirteen. You see, in eighth grade, Bowser started a theater in his parents’ basement.
Bowser in the Spring Street studio, spring of 2018.
“I screwed in temporary floodlights and taped colored plastic over them to light my sisters,” he recounts. These makeshift stage productions would be seen by his friends, then his friends’ friends, then his parents, parents’ friends, and neighbors. This toe-dip into the lighting design world would serve as the prototypical renditions of large full-scale productions he would go on to produce much later.
But between then and now, “lighting design sort of fell into my lap,” Bowser says. After studying directing at NYU’s theater school, he found himself working on a student project as an assistant. When, suddenly, the guy who was designing lights for that particular show suffered a breakdown and backed out, Bowser stepped up to the plate.
It's no easy feat lighting a totally raw space, but with Bowser's impeccable eye, the resulting look seems effortless and polished, as at our American Express Ambassadors dinner and at Secret Supper: The Musical, pictured here.
From then on, Bowser taught himself drafting, computer skills, and the logistical know-how required to run lights. He started taking on lighting projects as he could, and out of school produced a show in an experiential raw basement space, wherein you got a beer, a shot, and a show. The experience of watching that basement show come to life, he says, was “magical.” According to Bowser, it felt great to make something out of nothing, which is exactly what lighting does.
But when it comes to crystallizing, clarifying, Oprah-esque “ah-ha!” moments, Bowser describes our Mermaiden Play, staged in the fall of 2015, as one of those. In one of our more ambitious projects, we loaded up a raw commercial space in the Penn Station complex with 50,000 pounds of sand to create a musical set that would transport guests to a desert island. Bowser recalls the overwhelming lead-up to opening night; through perseverance, grit, and maybe a little bit of crying, however, the final product was something he was immensely proud of.
“It’s kind of like having a child. You push this thing out, you make it the best it can be, then later you put it in a dumpster.” Bowser pauses. “Well maybe that last part isn’t necessarily like having a child.”
When asked about the ephemeral nature of his work, Bowser acknowledges that though there is certainly a bit of melancholy in creating a production then taking it all down, he finds comfort in knowing that, if all goes well, he’ll get to work with his favorite collaborators again.
Part of what makes him one of our favorite collaborators to work with is his painstaking attention to detail and his extra-thoughtful anticipation of things going awry, since things inevitably, always, go awry. “I’ve learned the more prepared I can be, the better,” he says. “I call it ‘anticipating hiccups.’”
Lights, camera, action: the scenes Bowser has set vary wildly, from evoking a faux-Poconos resort in an abandoned retail space to recreating a tropical beach in raw commercial space.
An early lesson in this came when he was designing a set for a musical; he painted the most beautiful blue floor, taped on an elaborate tile grid. After many hours of on-hands-and-knees labor, the lighting designer told Bowser there was no way to light the brightness of the blue floor. “It wasn’t the end of the world, even though my knees hurt,” he recalls. “I realized this was a lesson in taking ownership of my creative process.”
Bowser has been rolling with the punches ever since, which is what makes him a fixture in the cast of Spring Street collaborators. Through events like Secret Supper: The Musical, Camp Cabaret, Club Confidential, and our Veuve Clicquot Harvest Table dinner in San Francisco, he always makes sure that the lighting looks exquisite for that most-coveted photo op. As he puts it, part of this art is in trusting your impulses, and that your instincts will lead you to where you need to be. Where you might push back initially, you should allow your ideas to grow with your collaborators as well.
“I’m doing the thing that I dream,” he says. And taking ownership of those dreams is an even greater lesson we can all agree on and admire.