Walking into the black-box theater in Coleman to meet Chris Fleming, our scheduled interview was momentarily postponed because Chris was spontaneously aiding a repertoire class by allowing them to create movement in the midst of one of his lighting designs. Per Fleming’s design, boxes of soft white light were cast onto the floor in the theater from above, and side lights illuminated the dancers in a vibrant blue. “Just a little inspiration for this beautiful Wednesday,” Chris noted as we left the class and walked outside to begin the interview in the midst of an uncharacteristically sunny February day.
Chris is the dance department’s resident Technical Director. Every dance major at UNCG will work with Chris in some capacity during their four years in the program, whether it be in his production classes where he teaches students the art of lighting a stage, or when he is bringing lighting design dreams to life to complete the visual aspect of works that students have tirelessly worked to create. Anyone who works with Chris in this manner can attest to his love for light and the natural world. The magnificence and authenticity of his work in lighting design stems from this inspiration.
Chris’s interview began with one simple question, “What is it about light that you love so much?” The question did not merit a simple answer, but rather an endlessly complex and beautiful mess of love and light in itself.
“Let’s start at the very beginning,” Chris laughed as he began to tell me the story of his mother’s difficult labor when he was born. “Believe me, it’ll circle back around.” There were complications that deprived his brain of oxygen for an extended period of time, leading to difficulties in school later on. Because of this, he spent much of his early life outside. He would watch the sun go up and go down, and genuinely invest in every moment in between. Fleming noted that he never noticed that the light was such an integral part of his world, but that “it just kind of happened that way.”
His mother had bought him season tickets to see local theater productions when he was a bit older- though not necessarily to expose him to the art- and this absent minded gift would change the way that he saw the creative world and his role in it. Fleming recounted that he attended every single show, and that he was captivated by the idea of manipulating the stage. Little did he know that the light that shaped him as a young man, would be integral to his career a few years later.
Fleming consequently realized that all art was reliant on the light that he had grown up observing. The perception of every creative medium- visual art, theater, dance- was entirely dependent on the way that the work was illuminated. “How we see the world philosophically is how we grew up,” Fleming pointed out, “but how we see the world visually is how it is lit.”
Fleming is also a lover of language and- almost disdainfully- noted that the English language is a noun-based language while other languages, like most Native American dialects, are verb based. Having been raised by the vitality of the natural world, Fleming seeks to approach his work with a reverence for life, while letting the fruits of that admiration flow as they will. “What kind of world would we live in if we saw the world as being alive?” Fleming asks.
“If I could require every student that I encounter to sit outside and just watch the world from sunrise to sunset- by a river, in the woods, anywhere- they would learn everything that they need to know about lighting design. It’s all right there.”
Having attended Catholic school for the entirety of his schooling, Fleming had been constantly surrounded by nuns, one of whom challenged him to build her a photography lab. “Did I have any clue how to make a photography lab? Not at all. But she believed I could, so I did.” Fleming later graduated high school and immediately left for California, where he landed an apprenticeship doing technical design work for a dance festival- for the first time- and nailed it. “I don’t know how it happened necessarily, it just clicked for me. It was my first design job, but I felt like I had been doing it for thirty years.”
“Because people like that sister and that choreographer took a chance on me, I had the opportunity to succeed. Nuggets of people like that will come into your life if you’re open to the possibility of them being there.”
These are just two of the many people that launched Fleming into the world of masterful technical design for the dance stage, and also sculpted his teaching philosophy. “The best thing that I could ever do for a dancer who enters this theatre is to give them permission to try whatever they can dream up,” Fleming says. “I’ve never been a very good capitalist, I’m not in this for the money. This craft is bigger than steps. I want to send people who believe in people and believe in themselves into the world so they can make art that matters.”
Fleming added that the students that he sees every day teach him so much about a world that is so different than the one that he grew up in, and that he wants to learn from the world that is right in front of him; the one “walking the halls of the dance department.”
As the interview came to a close, one final question was asked- “What is your wildest dream for yourself in the world of technical production?” Fleming answered “This! What I’m doing now. That’s my wildest dream.” What was intended to be the unearthing of a new perspective on the dance department from the technical director’s point of view, had somehow turned into an inexhaustible account of the care and counsel that Chris Fleming pours into the students who come through this program and the art that comes onto his stage. He also so articulately and intentionally passes along an immense amount of technical knowledge to empower students’ eventual venture into the artistic field outside of UNCG. Fleming adds that he just wants to “show students the art-part of tech work.”
Fleming considers his work with the UNCG dance department to be his contribution to the common good, and he consciously takes it upon himself to practice authenticity, to consume knowledge through every medium, and to always be curious. “My job here is to love these people and to love this work. Is there anything more important?”
Chris wonders what the world would be like if everyone saw light like he does, but I wonder what the world would be like if everyone saw people like he does- worthy of the opportunity to be better than they are right now, to acquire more knowledge than they have right now, and to be loved and appreciated more than they are right now. He has set a standard of transparency and generosity in the department, one that will surely be an integral part of the culture of this program for years to come.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment