Alumni Spotlight: Steven Rosen illuminates the world
December 02, 2021
When Webster University alumnus Steven Rosen was in the seventh grade, his school performed “Annie Get Your Gun.” It was love at first sight--but the play's Annie was not what captured his attention. Rather, Rosen was fascinated by the gigantic lighting control board the size of a small room that was backstage for the performance.
“It was so cool, and the spark was lit--pun intended--for theatrical lighting design,” he said. His career path had been chosen in that moment. But it wasn’t until he arrived at Webster University that he was given the roadmap to his personal path to success.
Rosen, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in stage design from the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts in 1981, today is president and founder of Available Light, a nationally-lauded lighting design firm that specializes in designing lighting for everything from museum exhibits and architecture, to corporate events and trade shows. Among the 117 projects listed on his company’s website are the National Museum of African American Music, The International Spy Museum, Trip Advisor’s Corporate Headquarters, Muzeiko Children’s Museum of Bulgaria, the White House Visitor’s Center, the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, the Prudential Tower in Boston, and yes, even the Walgreen’s in Times Square.
And all the projects have a unique and dramatic flair. That’s not by accident.
“Peel back the onion far enough and a lot of what I learned at Webster is the base of what I know today,” Rosen said. “Peter Sargent, introducing the vocabulary I still think about and use today. Dottie Marshall Englis opened my world to the notion of 360-degree design. Max DeVolder, my scene painting teacher, who with a simple phrase, ‘Excellent, C+,’ taught me humility."
Art, Storytelling & Culture
“When I came to St. Louis [to enroll at Webster], I was totally focused on lighting and lighting alone. At Webster, I learned how all elements of the visual, aural, and emotional world synthesize together to create a work of art, storytelling, and culture,” Rosen added.
He would be challenged with projects that required him to adopt a different perspective and given opportunities for hands-on experience where he was allowed to experiment. The Webster project that stands out the most for his was his work on “Boys of Syracuse.”
Not because it was his best work. Rather, it was his worst.
“That production was quite possibly the worst lighting design—and biggest learning experience—of my career,” Rosen said. “I cannot tell you how important it was to my personal development that Peter Sargent let me fail. He and I had several long, painful, and cathartic discussions about my choices and how several of them--namely my color palette--were a disaster. I remain grateful for that ill-fated opportunity.”
Sargent also opened Rosen’s eyes to lighting as an art form that had practical daily applications.
“Sargent invited an architect to speak to our class on the topic of architectural lighting design, a subject that, until that crystalizing moment, had been completely unfamiliar to me and the realization about the importance of lighting in architecture blew my mind,” Rosen said. “Thanks to Peter, I ended up as a summer intern in an architectural lighting design studio in Massachusetts.”
After graduation, Rosen would earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 1984. A year later, the company he had interned for through his connection to Sargent hired him for his first job as an architectural lighting designer.
That job would lead to a diverse career working by day in architectural lighting, and after hours designing for theater companies all over New England and working on a myriad of corporate industrial projects and trade show exhibits. Through his multi-discipline work, he would be hired to design the exhibit lighting for his first museum, the Virginia Air and Space Center. “It all coalesced for me and I discovered a perfect ‘place’ at the nexus of architectural and theatrical lighting design which ultimately led to the founding of Available Light in the early 90’s,” Rosen said. “We are now 19 people clustered in Boston, NYC, North Carolina, and Arizona. I bet most people who read this feature have been to at least one Available Light project.”
All but one of the company’s designers has a background in theater, he said, because of the “flair” that comes with a background in drama. The need to have dramatic lighting fits the needs of his clients, many of whom are repeat customers, he said. That philosophy for lighting can be seen at the National Museum of the U.S. Army (page 72), a project Rosen was personally involved with. When it opened to the public last year, it was greeted with great applause and praise from historians, museum curators and design experts. The dramatic lighting throughout the museum uses subtle splashes of color mixed in among areas that deploy fiber optics, video and other immersive lighting techniques designed to focus visitors on a specific object or theme in the museum. The result is visitors are drawn from space to space and leave the museum believing they have personally experienced history.
He believes lighting is undergoing a revolution and points to the affordability and abundance of LED lighting now being sold directly to consumers for homes. He urges current Webster students who are studying stage design to take notice.
“There has never been a better time to jump into lighting; there is an exciting revolution of LED sources, lighting controls, and biological research on the effect of light on humans that continues to expand the way we will sustainably approach and manipulate light,” Rosen said. “It is a big tent from designers to manufacturers to everything in between. Be passionate, be willing to do the sometimes not-so-fun stuff, be engaging.”
And for those who are not studying stage design, but still want cool lighting in their homes, he has advice for them as well:
“It amazes me how many people live and work in places where they are subjected to the glare by constantly looking into light sources. Arrange your lighting so that only the light, not the light source, is in your normal cone of vision,” he said. “Also, manage where you locate the light relative to your task. If you are at the kitchen counter slicing an onion and the light source is behind you, then you are working in your own shadow. Stop doing that!”
To learn more about Available Light, visit Availablelight.com.
To learn more about Stage Design Program in Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts, visit webster.edu/conservatory/programs/lighting.php.