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UW Student Gains Experience on Set of NBC’s ‘Hairspray Live!’

February 10, 2017
man sitting in chair on TV set of Hairspray Live!
Neal Petz, a University of Wyoming theater student, sits on the set of NBC’s Hairspray Live! Petz interned with the show’s lighting design team in Los Angeles Nov. 9-Dec. 7. (Neal Petz Photo)

A University of Wyoming student helped to light up the set of NBC’s made-for-television musical “Hairspray Live!” that aired live Dec. 7.

Neal Petz, a senior majoring in theater with a design/technical concentration, interned with the show’s lighting design team at Universal Studios in Los Angeles Nov. 9-Dec. 7.

His duties included picking up lighting design materials and gear from off-site locations (and sometimes coffee and food); overseeing two reference cameras so the team could see the lighting as the audience would see it; and assisting the lighting programmers and technicians. He also made a color decision that was used as part of the background lighting.

“A lot of my time toward the end was spent watching what was happening on the monitor and listening to Allen (the lighting designer) on headset discuss what needed to be changed,” Petz says. “I learned from watching him what it means to be in charge on such a large project with a large team.”

Petz says that working on “Hairspray Live!” was a unique experience. Not only was it a live television production, but the show used indoor and outdoor settings that presented different lighting challenges.

The show’s set consisted of two connected soundstages and a large portion of the Universal Studios backlot.

“Because of the noise crew work often causes, the physical work was limited in one soundstage if the cast was rehearsing in the other soundstage,” he explains.

The biggest challenge with the outdoor setting was the fact that the lights could only be seen well at night, he says. Because there was a child actor who had limited work hours, the cast worked during the day until the dress rehearsals.

“We didn’t get a good, consistent look at the cast under the lights until then,” Petz says.

Besides learning some tricks of the trade from the show’s crew, Petz worked in proximity to the show’s cast. He says he had conversations with a few of the stars, including newcomer Maddie Baillio, who played the lead role of Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized teenager in 1960s Baltimore who dreams of dancing on a TV show and ending segregation.

Petz, from Helena, Mont., learned of the internship opportunity a year ago from former Department of Theatre and Dance faculty member Sharon Huizinga. She recently had met the show’s lighting designer, Allen Branton, of Encampment.

Branton has worked in the entertainment lighting business for more than 40 years, designing lighting for concerts, award shows, television specials, reality competitions and other projects. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction for a Variety Special for his work on another NBC live musical broadcast, “The Wiz Live!,” that aired live Dec. 3, 2015.

Before he was selected for the internship, Petz had the opportunity to meet with Branton, and the two attended a performance of the UW Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of “The Night of the Iguana” last spring semester.

Later, Petz sent a letter of application to Kevin Lawson, one of the lighting directors. He wrote about why he chose to study and work in lighting design, outlined his interest in the upcoming project and mentioned his meetings with Branton. In mid-May 2016, Lawson offered him the internship.

Petz says the best part of the internship was making contacts for work after college. Petz, who’s scheduled to graduate in fall 2017, plans to pursue a career as a lighting director on concert tours.

He credits his department with helping him to take his first step into the industry.

“This was an incredible opportunity that I was lucky to hear about,” Petz says. “Department of Theatre and Dance faculty and staff were extremely supportive and helped me work out some of the finer details of my internship.”

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