Maria Shaplin often lights up the room.
Whether inside a warehouse or the Wilma, the East Passyunk Crossing resident has spent the last 20 years mastering the art of lighting design for a spectrum of performance spaces around the region.
Illuminating about a dozen shows each year, Shaplin was recently named a 2019 Pew Fellow by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage for her prolific theatrical contributions.
For more than three decades, the fellowship has recognized exceptional artists throughout greater Philadelphia with an unrestricted grant of $75,000 each.
Shaplin, a Vermont native, informally picked up the craft in the late 1990s while assisting her brother, a playwright, on a tour of his original production throughout the United Kingdom. Featured in a different European city each evening, Shaplin had to swiftly tweak lighting designs based on the new spaces, which ranged from community centers to theaters-in-the round.
“You have to adapt the design to all these different theater setups and it made me start to get really interested in ‘How do you capture the same feeling and the same look but with different methods?’ ” she asked.
Perceiving the paramount role of lighting in theater, Shaplin, who studied anthropology and sociology from Hampshire College, decided to pursue the art on a collegiate level, as she received her MFA in lighting design from Temple University in 2008.
Since receiving her master’s degree, Shaplin has embarked on a whirlwind of lighting design endeavors, working with a myriad of emerging and established theater companies, including The Arden Theater Company, InterAct Theater Company, Theater Horizon, Pig Iron Theatre Company, The Wilma Theater and 1812 Theater Company.
From iconic Shakespeare productions to new politically charged plays, Shapin explains how exquisitely lighting elevates the narrative of any story.
“Apart from just helping describe the locations or times of the day that exists in the play, it also adds to the underlying emotional content,” she said. “Lights really provide a subtle emotional scoring to a piece – much like music. It’s very much a time-based forum. Half of it is getting the lights in the right place but the other larger part of it is making the lights move through time and shifting looks and modeling the actors and the set so that we can just evoke different emotions.”
Shapin, who co-founded Philadelphia-based theater collective Applied Mechanics in 2009, says her lighting practices serve as a “a constant investment in human connection, collective catharsis and revelation.”
As she approaches a potential new project, Shaplin consistently reads the script first, seeking an emotional connection to the text that could spark inspiration for an illumination vision.
Shaplin knows she found a stimulating piece when the production satisfies her ideology that theater “feeds people’s souls.”
“Humans have, I think, a fundamental need to tell and hear stories,” she said. “That’s how we make sense of our lives and other people’s lives and the world around us. (Theater) provides this cathartic outlet…In some ways, you feel like a magician. You’re making whole worlds.”
Shaplin has manifested worlds in unusual site-specific places, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she contributed to a 2017 exhibition, “MPA: RED IN VIEW.” Surrounding the colonization of Mars, Shaplin manipulated lighting over the course of 10 days to create sped-up sunrises and sunsets.
But when producing work in unusual and particularly scrappy venues, Shaplin lets the space’s characteristics lend themselves to her design, as she says you won’t find her installing stage lights in a train station.
“I think theater lights are for the theater, and when you’re in a warehouse, you should be finding solutions that are more appropriate to that milieu,” she said. “I try to find solutions that are just more aesthetically mashed with the location…I let the space tell me what it wants.”
Though the inspiration is her own, Shaplin says the execution requires a team, including electricians and production designers.
Simply observing rehearsals helps to foster the outlines of her visions, as she stresses any lighting design process requires a team effort.
“I love watching actors in process,” Shaplin said. “It really informs a lot of my design decisions…Being in the room and developing a shared vocabulary with the directors and the performers and the choreographer and the sound designer – there are so many elements.”
Just since 2018, Shaplin’s lighting techniques have been seen in more than 20 local productions.
She recently wrapped up “Dance Nation” presented at the Wilma. Currently, she’s working on “An Iliad” at the Arden, which runs through Dec. 15, and “This Is The Week That Is” with 1812 Productions at Plays and Players Theatre, which runs from Nov. 29 through Jan. 5.
For Shaplin, who expresses immense gratitude for the Pew award, working on multiple projects at once doesn’t feel like a hardship but rather a dream fulfillment.
“I just hope that my lights draw people into theater…I just hope that live arts will still have audiences as we go into the future,” Shaplin said. “I think they will.”