Finding a different kind of life in the lights

Al Crawford (IAA 89-91) has his dream job.

But it's a job he never knew existed until he went to Interlochen Arts Academy.

Crawford came to Interlochen as an acting major in the Theatre department, but he dabbled in dance, music and all things visual arts.

"I was really interested in many things," Crawford said. Toward the end of his time at Interlochen, one of his teachers suggested that he take a lighting design class—and he was hooked.

"I realized that this was going to allow me to be involved in theater and opera and fine visual arts, and that was the moment that really changed the course of the next steps of my life," he said.

That "aha" moment, as Oprah might call it, is why Interlochen created a new major called Comparative Arts, which emphasizes the importance of multidisciplinary art—especially for high school students. In Comparative Arts, students study art forms across the different genres.

"Sometimes it takes them down a rabbit hole that they wouldn't even think of, and for other students, it would take them to a new appreciation, a more holistic view of the arts—it's something that we really try to promote here," said Emily Umbarger, an academic and college counselor at Interlochen.

Crawford went down the rabbit hole. And while he was down there, he discovered the Ailey II Company, a younger group of dance performers embodying Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who did a performance at Interlochen.

"I realized, this is different," said Crawford, speaking from his home in New York's Long Island City. "It really spoke to me. At that moment, and for the rest of my high school and college years, I realized that Alvin Ailey would be the dream, it would be the place that I'd push for my entire career."

With that in mind, Crawford now had a strategic plan. He had to go to school and train with the focus on honing his skills on dance and lighting design. He knew that one day he would be the lighting director for Alvin Ailey.

"It set me up on a path to explore this new thing," Crawford said.

And while what Crawford did may seem logical, looking back, what he did was exceptional, especially for someone who was just 15 at the time.

"It shows a tremendous amount of passion for the art," said Rory Baker, director of Interlochen Presents, the arm of the institution that programs all the concerts and presentations at Interlochen. "It’s pretty uncommon for a high school student to know that they want to be a lighting designer because it's a pretty specific job; it's incredible."

Once Crawford knew what he wanted to do, there was nothing stopping him. He returned to his hometown of Raleigh, N.C., to finish up his last two years of high school, and started working at a local community theater doing lighting design.

"I was working at any arts organization that I could get my hands on, anything I could do to learn about the particular craft," he said.

After graduating high school, Crawford went to the North Carolina School of the Arts to study lighting, focusing on dance, theater and unique installation works.

Once he graduated, he was ready to seriously start building his resume so he could achieve his goal of working at Alvin Ailey.

Crawford did this by selecting companies like the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, whose employees had worked for Alvin Ailey so that he could network via work.

Finally, in 1998, a position at Alvin Ailey opened.

"I had read every book about the company and its founders, seen every ballet I could, and I felt like I was super prepared," said Crawford, who was working at Glimmerglass at the time.

But what he thought would be hours and hours of pontificating about the company during the interview ended up being a 10-minute quick chat. They talked about Crawford’s family and his passions.

"Then he looked at me and said, 'Do you want this?' I said, 'You have no idea how much I want this.'"

A day later, 22-year-old Crawford had the job.

Now, Crawford travels all over the world overseeing the lighting for the company, with new works commissioned every year in addition to the classics from the 1950s and '60s. His job is creative as opposed to electrical, and he works with the choreographers to translate their vision and the vision of the music and the movement into the lighting and onto the stage.

They tour 8-10 months a year, and now that Crawford is in his 19th year with the company, he has gotten to light more than 30 ballets and has worked with nearly every major modern dance choreographer, including Judith Jamison, Robert Battle, Garth Fagan, Melissa Hayden, George Faison, Hope Boykin and Matthew Rushing. He has toured to 70-plus countries, many of them many times.

"I've seen much of the world," he said.

But when you get your dream job at the age of 22, you may find yourself looking for inspiration. So in 2005, Crawford went back to his beginnings, where he remembered his love of all arts genres, and founded arc3design, a lighting design firm that creates lighting for everything from high-end weddings to corporate experiences to arts installations and Presidential dinners.

He does projects for more than 100 clients a year in every type of space imaginable, Madison Square Garden, the Park Avenue Armory and the White House.

"For me, it's a continuation of this journey," Crawford said. "I have the greatest job in the world."

—Danielle Braff

Learn more about Interlochen's Design & Production major