March 29, 2020

Lighting the African Savanna> UM grad brings light to ‘The Lion King’

Four cups of coffee disappear before Don Holder shows up at the Broadway Diner on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. We had arranged to meet there, but Holder called me early to say he’d be late. And now he was.

Since we have never met, there is the problem of recognition. So every single man gets assessed by my reporter’s eye: That one’s too old. That one’s too GQ. Too preppy. Too manicured. I take a chance on another but he says, no, his name isn’t Don, and goes back to eating his scrambled eggs.

Then there’s a blustery entrance and I know — perhaps because of the red flannel shirt — that it’s Don Holder. We nod at each other, and he winds his way to my table. He went to an address on Park Avenue, he says breathlessly as he drops a black shoulder bag onto the floor beside his chair and wags his head with frustration. But he shifts gears with Yankee quickness.

“Did you see the show?” he gusts.

The show is “The Lion King,” and Holder, who has a forestry degree from the University of Maine, is the lighting designer.

Since its opening in November, “The Lion King,” which is a musical adaptation of the 1994 cartoon feature by Disney, has been wowing audiences and critics alike. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “one of the most memorable, moving and original theatrical extravaganzas in years.” Better yet, children have been agog at the rattan elephant walking down an aisle of the New Amsterdam Theatre at the opening of the show, and at the giraffes poking their heads into the audience, and at the cloth birds flying overhead.

Following in a long tradition of Broadway phenomena, “The Lion King” is sold out for nearly a year. But ask any of the luckies who have already seen it and they’ll tell you: The wait is worth it.

And, the fact is, there’s no mistaking Holder’s contribution to the radiance of the show.

“He proved himself to be an exceptional lighting designer,” says Jennifer Tipton, lighting guru in the design department of the Yale School of Drama, and Holder’s former professor. “He has a wonderful sense of color, space and rhythm. `The Lion King’ is very beautiful and I’m in awe.”

Holder’s mission was to create the lighting nuances of an African savanna, and then to punctuate young Simba’s coming-of-age story with the shades of fun, fear and love. He also had to work with the many theatrical techniques employed by Julie Taymor, the show’s director and artistic visionary. Taymor brings the inhabitants of Pride Rock to life with Indonesian masked dance, Japanese Bunraku, and the wizardry of puppets and dance. Holder animates them with light.

“`The Lion King’ was a challenging project because we had to live up to what was already one of the most successful films of all time,” says Holder after ordering cereal, poached eggs and coffee.

“The movie is a beautiful film. It’s intimidating. The question was not about competing with the film, but telling the story in a completely unique way. Julie makes me do my best work. She has a great sensitivity for light. She understands the power of lighting and what it can do to a production. We never wanted to be literal. We wanted a vastness that seemed as if it went on forever — the sunlight, the moonlight that goes on forever and evokes the majesty of nature.”

Holder has a gentle voice and a shy manner. His friends characterize him as industrious and clever, but there’s also the sense that he might be a bit of a loner. When he was working at the Theatre at Monmouth here in Maine, he sometimes would hang back on nights when the hall was dark and play his tuba in the echoing hall. There’s something woodsy about Holder, too — more lumberjack practicality than New York spiff.

In a recent phone chat, a colleague who had just been to see “The Lion King” and speaks easily of a New York “in” crowd, told me that Don Holder really IS somebody in New York.

“He’s a big name,” she added. “Everyone knows him.”

The important connection, of course, is with Taymor. Holder has worked with her on five projects, including a production of “Salome” for the Kirov Opera in Russia.

“If I do a project, I will always go to him,” said Taymor, who called from New York. “The collaboration is really wonderful now. He knows my taste and goes ahead and creates exquisite lighting. He’s resilient, he’s strong, he’s very talented and versatile. `Lion King’ is just genius. He had bravado and ambition. No one has done what he’s done. `The Lion King’ is ground-breaking.”

Taymor may be Holder’s champion these days. But years ago, there was another. Holder still carries a torch for the late Al Cyrus, who taught theater at UM from 1960 until his untimely death in 1993.

“Al has always been my major mentor. He was a major influence. That’s where I learned the foundations of lighting,” says Holder, whose day-to-day work is with nonprofit and resident companies across the country.

Holder grew up in New York City and Long Island, but didn’t have the same Ivy League aspirations as his neighborhood buddies. When it was time to apply to college, he decided to study forestry in either Montana or Maine. He chose UM because the theater department was strong, and he had learned as a young drama junkie in high school that he wanted to keep the arts in his life. At UM, he pursued the forestry degree, but also became an apprentice to Cyrus, whose technical work is renowned at the university.

Jay Skriletz, set designer for Penobscot Theatre in Bangor, hasn’t seen Holder for more than a dozen years, and he doesn’t expect to get to New York to see “The Lion King.” But he is pleased his former UM classmate has made good in the big city.

“I think it’s great,” says Skriletz, who has designed lighting for many a show. “It’s not easy to achieve what he’s achieving. It takes single-mindedness as well as talent to keep rising to the top. He was always very good. He had wide interests and always liked taking on projects. He’s exceptional people.”

While at UM, Holder also played bass and tuba with university bands and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. Once he was performing with an onstage quartet for a UM event, left at intermission to play with the BSO (which then performed 10 miles away at Bangor High School) and was back at UM in time to take his bow with the rest of the cast.

But the footlights weren’t the only twinkle in Holder’s eye.

“I loved the outdoors and the idea of UM appealed to me,” says Holder, who lives with his wife, the director Evan Yionoulis, and their 2-year-old daughter Sarah in an old farmhouse about 50 minutes outside the city. “Deep down, I’ve always wanted to live in the woods. That’s why I went to Maine in the first place.”

When he speaks of Maine, there’s warmth and gratitude in his voice for those formative times in the late 1970s, those years that seem to have led him both directly and obliquely to this current achievement.

“Those were very eye-opening years for me,” says Holder, who is 39. “I was always interested in forestry and thought the arts was an avocation and not a possibility for making a living. In addition to getting a better appreciation for it all, it really did give me the belief that I could make a living and have a good life in the arts.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Holder began a graduate program in theater, but was restless and knew he needed more than he could get at UM. He took off for Portland and worked for an insurance company inspecting properties. He also joined up with the Portland Players and the Civic Center.

“Finally I realized I really needed to do what was important, to go out on a limb, to take a chance,” says Holder between bites of Special K. “No matter what the risks were, it was important for me to go for it. What I had learned from Al and the theater program made me more than qualified. The only training I had was from Al. It put me in a good position to grow and go on from there.”

Eventually, Holder ended up in the technical department at Yale. A lucky break came when a student in the design department left the program and Holder had the chance to light a show at Yale Repertory, which put him in the professional arena. After that, a career began to fall into place. Holder toured with a theatrical company, and later the artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival hired him to light a New Jersey-based production of “Spunk,” an adaptation of short stories by Zora Neale Hurston. Dynamo theater director Joseph Papp saw the show and moved it to the Public Theater, and that was the pivotal professional point for Holder. It established him as employable in New York City.

“I’ve never been unemployed since that,” he says — not with the pride of a star but with that of a craftsman.

Through the years, Holder kept in touch with Cyrus, and when “The Lion King” project was completed after more than half a year of work, he called Sandy Cyrus, Al’s widow. Would she and the two Cyrus girls like to come to opening night?

“I was overwhelmed,” said Sandy, who was also a theater student when Holder was at UM. “The lighting was wonderful. I don’t think Al would have been surprised at all that Don has made such a success of himself. The ethic I bet Al instilled in him was that you stay there until it’s done. It’s that commitment to the work.”

For 14-year-old Afton Cyrus, who is the oldest of Al and Sandy’s two daughters (Hannah is 8), the evening was like a dream. Afton has aspirations to make a life in the theater, so going to an opening night bash — especially one where there’s a red carpet and Rosie O’Donnell, Julie Andrews and Elton John (who wrote music for the show) — was about as good as it gets.

“Oh, it was excellent,” sighed Afton, a performer in school and community theater in Orono, where she lives. “It was the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen.”

Knowing Holder made it all the more thrilling.

“He said to me that what he works with all the time is what my father taught him,” she added.

Sandy put it another way: “I said to Don in November, `I’m sure you learned all the important stuff at Yale.’ And he said, `Every day I use the stuff that Al taught me. It’s that basic philosophy.”‘

The philosophy, says Holder, is one he has used at theaters nationally and internationally — as well as for recent architectural lighting projects at Sony Plaza and the Swiss Center in New York. But “The Lion King” is sure to be both a bench mark and a hallmark in his career. He’s not getting rich on this one, he says, but he’ll be involved with this show in all its possible offshoots.

“It’s been a tremendous opportunity,” says Holder as he prepares to leave for a meeting at City Center Theater, where he’s lighting a revival of “Strike Up the Band.”

“I’m delighted that I’m a part of this thing. It’s really a phenomenon. It seems to have touched people and now it has its own aura. I’m amazed. Maybe a dozen people on the planet get hired to do lighting for Broadway. Now I’m on the list.”

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