According to Linda Blase, it’s impossible to make a living as a stage lighting designer in Dallas. That’s why she’s also a teacher and a photographer, and even after juggling multiple jobs for more than four decades, she doesn’t see retiring as an option anytime soon.
If you’re looking for money, get out of regional theater. Blase acknowledges that neither she nor anyone in the arts is in it for the money. If they were, then they wouldn’t have stuck with it for as long as she has. She’s in it for the art, the community, and because for her it’s about conveying, through light, what’s going on in an actor’s head — not just saying, “OK, the lights coming from here and here and here, let’s turn them on.”
Blase moved to Dallas from Seguin, a town of fewer than 30,000 people, and thought she would perhaps last six months in the city. Forty-two years later, she’s still here.
The city didn’t offer a lucrative career in the backstage of Dallas’ theater world, but it did offer work. The last time she had to look for work, Blase said, was decades ago. Here, she says, she works way too much. It’s the money that’s missing.
“I bemoan that I work harder and harder,” said Blase, who is currently working with Dallas Children’s Theater, Shakespeare Dallas, and teaching as an adjunct professor for SMU during the school year. “I’ve reached the limit of my productivity because I don’t have any more hours in a day.”
Blase recalled working on a show with more than 200 lighting cues, and after having 20-plus years of experience to her name, she was paid the same fee as her 23-year-old assistant who was hired to do a show that she described as a “lights up, lights down kind of show.”
“You’ve got a basic design fee and that’s what you get paid,” she said. “And it’s extremely hard to break that. I have not been able to break that.”
But Blase is content with sleeping in her free time and having a social life she describes as “nill.” She doesn’t want the Tony. All she wants is the house, the yard, and the dog. That’s why she took a job at SMU teaching a lighting practicum class. Sometimes, she says, her classes are filled with actors who show no interest in lighting. But then there are the graduate stage and photography students who want to work. Or as Blase puts it, “They want to GO.”
So in order to stay ahead of her students, Blase has to prep at least four hours a week on top of the two to three hours she spends in each class. But as she talks about her students — where they’ve been, where they are now, and their plans for the future — what started as a job to provide extra money to cushion her lack of a steady income grew into something she’s proud of and people she cares about.
And for Blase, it’s that “bigger picture” that makes sustaining her life as a lighting designer worth it. Even after haggling with directors who want to pay a ridiculously low fee only to end up with a paycheck that is moderately low; even though she’s spending her summer dividing her mornings at Dallas Children’s Theater and her nights at the Samuell-Grand Amphitheater; even though it may only be her and the electricians at 2 a.m. making sure all the focuses are right; in the end it’s worth it because it’s not about her. It’s about the play.
“My world is not a ladder, my world is a wheel,” she said. “It’s all trying to serve the play, serve the production, serve all of that. And it’s not trying to please a director, not trying to please a producer, not trying to please somebody else. It’s basically pleasing myself within the concept of the piece. And to please myself I have to serve the play.”
It’s the depth of her passion that puts her in danger of leaving life’s other luxuries behind. She finds fulfillment with the people she works with.
“We feed each other’s ideas, notions, and concepts,” she said. “We feed each other’s souls.”
Photo: Desiree Espada