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Mary Shabatura is behind the spotlight of top Twin Cities productions

(c) SHAPESHIFT/Pierre Ware

(c) SHAPESHIFT/Pierre Ware

Lighting designers see the world in a particular way.

“There’s an amber light hitting your face,” says Mary Shabatura, during an evening interview at a table outside of a Hennepin Avenue coffee shop. “There’s a light that’s backlighting you in white, and there’s this glow.” She gestures at a red neon light in the window.

Just a few years out of college, Shabatura is among the Twin Cities’ busiest lighting designers, working with a wide range of companies here and elsewhere. She’s the resident designer at Dark & Stormy Productions, where she lit the current production of Fool for Love, and she’s illuminated stages at venues such as the Guthrie and the Ritz.

“I don’t want to be on stage,” she remembers thinking in middle school. “I want to run that spotlight.” That early focus gave Shabatura a head start on a career that, by the time she graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2014, already included work with Dark & Stormy.

From beat to beat, lighting sets a show’s tone and carries critical information about where it’s taking place. “Take, for example, Fool for Love,” says Shabatura. “There are a lot of emotional moments tied in with time of day. You start at sunset and you have that really heavy amber saturation, and it slowly gets cooler and cooler. At the emotional climax of the show, it’s this cool bright light.”

The number of individual lights in a production can range from the teens to the hundreds. Lighting designers determine what lights will be hung, where they’ll go, and when they’ll be used. For them, the most intense period of a production’s work cycle is when the cast members take the stage for technical rehearsals, and everyone has a short window of time to get all aspects of the show running smoothly.

“That’s the crucible where you actually set the lighting cues,” Shabatura explains about the culmination of a production team’s long planning process. “That’s when your schedule goes from five or 10 hours a week on a project to, like, 60.”

Shabatura’s now carrying a thick binder of notes for In the Heights. She’s assistant lighting designer for that show, helping with tasks like creating and executing the complex sequence of spotlight cues. “During performances at the Ordway, I’ll call follow spots. ‘Standby spot one to pick up Usnavi at 50 percent [intensity] in a three-count [fade-up time] on his entrance from stage right one [wing location], frame one [color], in a half body shot [size of the light onstage]... spot one, go!’”

After all that work, audience members walk happily out of a show enthusing about the performers or maybe the set, but rarely with the names of the lighting designers on their lips. Shabatura’s okay with that.

“Lighting is this fun thing,” she says without irony, “where if you do your job right, generally nobody notices. You hide when you need to, and then you can show your hand at the right moment.”