In every artist’s life, there is a moment when he or she encounters an art form for the first time. The creative work — a painting, a piece of music, a live theatrical performance — speaks to them and can change their perspective on the world.
For Stephen Pruitt, an Austin photographer and production designer for dance and theater, that moment of discovery came abruptly and dramatically altered his path.
Pruitt, who grew up in a small town on the border between Ohio and West Virginia, had been drawn to science as a young boy. “I’ve always been extremely into figuring out how things work and why things work the way they do,” he said.
He had a dream of working for NASA, which led him to major in aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. After graduation, he had job offers from defense contractors, but realized that was not the direction he wanted to take. Then, in his early twenties, Pruitt saw three shows that changed the course of his life.
He had never seen any kind of live theater before attending the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati’s performance of “Buckminster Fuller: In and Out of the Universe.” Its subject matter — the legendary American inventor and futurist — was part of the draw, but Pruitt also found the show to be “incredibly creative and super visual and that just dragged me in,” he said.
Pruitt was also wowed by experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson’s piece “Empty Places,” in which Anderson mixed singing with projected slides, music, and spoken word. The third formative show for Pruitt was “Mira Cycle II,” from a San Francisco interdisciplinary dance ensemble called Contraband. The group memorably mixed dance, music, and text, and Pruitt described a particular percussion sequence as being “burned into my brain as one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in live theater.”
Of all three shows, he said “I was amazed that something you were watching in a room could have such an emotional effect on you,” he said. “These shows all put me in a daze for so long after.”
With the spark for live performance now lit, Pruitt started performing and designing and became the resident designer for the Cincinnati Contemporary Dance Theater.
Then in 1997 he moved to Austin, attracted by the city’s creative energy. Pruitt’s first theater job in town was working as a producer for Frontera Fest at Hyde Park Theater. Through that job, he met some members of the experimental company Rude Mechs and began designing for them. He has gone on to design for a multitude of Austin arts groups including Trouble Puppet, Salvage Vanguard, and Austin Film Society, racking up numerous local award nominations along the way.
Eventually Pruitt formed a business called Fluxion Scenic and Light, and began to specialize in design for dance. He is now the resident lighting designer for Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, Forklift Danceworks, and Tapestry Dance.
But his work frequently goes beyond what one might expect from the title of lighting designer. Hamrick, a choreographer, described Pruitt as an all-around artistic partner and collaborator.
“Before I start choreographing any new dance work,” Hamrick said, “Stephen and I meet and I make a miserable attempt to describe the vague movement images and thematic ideas that are floating around in my head. He listens patiently while I flounder and then says something like, “it sounds like you need a very long, narrow space, so how about I build a theater inside a warehouse for you and put risers at one end and the musicians at the other?”
Hamrick continued: “He is able to grasp my vision for a new work and then expand on it not only with lighting, but also with ideas about sound, video, and even set designs. His contributions give each of my works a very distinct look and feel.”
Pruitt also designs for Forklift Danceworks, a community-centered dance company headed by Allison Orr. The company tends to do large-scale, site-specific projects, and Pruitt relishes the chance to create a unique environment for each performance.
“I’m a huge fan of having people walk into spaces, especially if they know them well, and having it be a new experience. [I love] transforming spaces and having people see things in a place where they had no idea these things could happen,” he said.
Sometimes this kind of work presents unique problems. For Forklift’s 2009 show “Trash Dance” which was a collaboration with the City of Austin’s Sanitation Department and featured actual trash trucks, Pruitt had to design for a vast outdoor space — the former airport tarmac.
Faced with the problem of losing power as they ran electric cables across long distances, Pruitt creatively decided to take advantage of the headlights on the trash trucks. Any trucks that were not in use would line up and shine their beams on the performance, which resulted in a unique and memorable image for the audience.
Currently, Pruitt is working on another Forklift project called “Givens Swims,” the third in a series of projects that are based at Austin city pools. He described the challenges of this environment. “The pool was built in 1958,” he said. “It has no underwater lights and no above ground lights. We have to bring in everything.”
And then there’s the goal of making it feel new and different, which is a driving force for Pruitt. “For so many artists, the way you become a known artist is to do things that are very similar and do them again and again and have a style. And the most consistent thing I do is to ask ‘how can we do something we’ve never done before?’”
Pruitt also finds inspiration through travel and photography, which he has been doing since high school. His studio is filled with his photographs, which encompass both sweeping landscapes (Big Bend, the coast of Newfoundland) and intimate portraits of people.
As for what’s next for him, the visually oriented artist currently finds himself facing the challenge of having cataracts. He’ll be having surgery in August to remove them, and then plans to bounce back and continue his design work while expanding his photography. This fall he will jump into another Forklift project created in collaboration with the maintenance and custodial staff at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
In all his work, he will continue to try to answer the questions that have motivated him ever since he saw those first three impactful shows: “How can you show people things they haven’t seen before? How do you give people that same amazing feeling and experience that brought me into this world?”