Leaving Lehigh with a National Theatre Award

Spencer Duff began his journey as a chemical engineering major. He’ll graduate with a national theatre design award under his belt and an IDEAS bachelor’s degree.

Spencer Duff’s future is illuminated by possibility.

As he reflects on the last three years at Lehigh Duff, of Newark, Delaware will graduate in May with an (IDEAS), a national undergraduate theatre award and plans to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Lighting Design in San Diego this fall.

Duff credits Lehigh’s flexible and innovative IDEAS program with providing a place to pursue his varied interests and make the most of his undergraduate education. IDEAS bridges the colleges of arts, sciences and engineering allowing students to explore their interests, talents and skills without being tied to more traditional course requirements.

“To have an arts and engineering degree – which is super flexible – means you can design your own major,” Duff explained.

From combining focus areas in mechanical engineering and theatre to taking the stage in Mobile, Alabama in March, Duff received a second place award in Undergraduate Lighting Design at the distinguished Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) Awards. Duff is humbled and thrilled by the possibilities and what comes next.

“The award was pretty shocking in the moment, because I haven’t been doing this [lighting design] for a long time. I was excited to be there, to go to the conference and to get some feedback,” Duff said.

The award honored Duff’s lighting design work on the Lehigh production of Antigonick, a modern retelling of the classic Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. Antigonick was adapted and translated for contemporary audiences by Anne Carson. 

Rendering lighting elements to compliment and amplify a performance goes well beyond lumens. 

“The light on a Tuesday or a nostalgic memory; the heat of a scary place – there is a lot of potential” with lighting design choices, Duff said.

Meeting theatre professionals who judged the entries and listening to their feedback was an important watershed moment for Duff.

“It was a great opportunity to hear what they thought about my work, and to grow my craft. It’s amazing to win an award from an organization that is nationally recognized,” he said. 

IDEAS – merging engineering and lighting design 

After spending time in theatre production classes, including a class in props, and working in scenery and lighting, Duff honed in on lighting design as his niche. 

He said lighting elements are not explicitly experienced by the audience; however well crafted lighting techniques offer nuance and can convey subtle shifts in the narration, anchor a time of day or create a sense of place. Lighting elements have the potential to be dynamic influences in a performance offering up a mirror or a contrast to other facets driving the narrative.

Lighting results “are felt by the audience and have an impact on the experience,” he said.

“I love how it’s a mix of technical and artistic elements. How you sculpt the space and support the story. You are shaping the story” with lighting, Duff explained.

Theatrical lighting design can replicate a time of day – or night – and provide visual context to make scenes “…feel more real. Abstract elements, like motion, mood, tone and pacing transcend the physical environment. That’s what I find most exciting and where I try to spend the most energy,” he said.

IDEAS provided Duff a structure to develop and tailor his degree program, which incorporated his theatre department interests.

Duff logged experience through special project classes. He learned the electrical skills necessary to stage a performance, as well as theatre-specific computer programming technology.

These factors helped to build a broad understanding of how plays and performances are created and presented on a stage.

Degree program parity 

For Duff, lighting design dovetails with his mechanical engineering degree focus.

From scenery to working with lighting designs Duff found mechanical engineering to be a better fit for his IDEAS program than his original focus area – chemical engineering.

Originally a Class of 2025 member Duff said the IDEAS program options – and its benefits – allowed him to change his major during his freshman year at Lehigh.

He took advantage of high school advance placement course transfers and summer session classes to shave a year off the time needed to complete his bachelor’s degree.

Once enrolled in the IDEAS program, Duff changed his focus area to mechanical engineering “as a better fit” with his theatre program. He has been involved in multiple Lehigh theatre productions as well as special project classes.
In addition to main stage productions Duff has worked on One Act festivals and on plays produced by the Mustard and Cheese Drama Society.
Other benefits to the IDEAS program approach include selecting focus areas and developing their path in a complimentary manner. 
“IDEAS breaks through the binary of a dual degree program. You have schedule flexibility and agency in your own education,” Duff said.
He credits great relationships with “amazing professors as the reason I was able to discover this degree, change my path and be supported in it. Having the support and finding people doing things you admire in their work in the world…they help you discover your path,” Duff said.
Other topics he’s been able to explore include computer science and industrial science engineering. Duff took a few architecture classes to improve his drawing skills and complement his scenic design studies.
While he hasn’t settled on a particular career path just yet potential pursuits could include Broadway, working with new, nontraditional and experimental theatre companies to showcase social activism plays and performances. 
Duff said he’s intrigued by the idea of developing environmental arts and storytelling and translating those relationships to theme park experiences – such as a company like Disney.
“There isn’t one specific dream job, which is what I love about the flexibility,” Duff said.
- by Melinda Rizzo