Bright cotton-candy-colored lights sparkled against Dave Herrman’s silver rings each time he slid a dimmer on his lightboard. As he chose color themes from a digital pallet, the stage inside Portland’s State Theatre changed from purple to blue.
“I call the lights my electric crayons,” said Herrman, 60, who has been the State Theatre’s lighting designer since 1993. “And the stage is like my coloring book.”
Herrman said knew he wanted to work in stage production since he was 13 years old. He recalled a time when he was a teenager and traveled to California to see Alice Cooper perform at the Hollywood Bowl.
“I was hooked,” Herrman said, recalling standing in the audience, feeling tears stream down his face. “I came home to Maine, and that’s all I wanted to do.”
After dropping out of Portland High School when he was 15, Herrman served in the U.S. Marine Corps for five years before joining his soon-to-be-mentor and close friend, Hank Decken, in a local bar band called Rosie. Herrman worked for Rosie as a stage and guitar technician, and would often fill in as the band’s lighting designer.
t was when he began to operate the band’s lights that he decided to enroll in computer classes at Southern Maine Technical College (now Southern Maine Community College).
“When I first sat down at a lightboard, I didn’t know anything about computers, and I realized that a lightboard is a computer, and I immediately knew I needed to catch up,” Herrman said.
Shortly after graduating from SMTC, Herrman worked as the lighting designer at Casino Ballroom in New Hampshire before joining the full-time production team at the State Theatre. It was during his fourth year as the theatre’s lighting designer that he met the Maine State Ballet.
“The ballet fell into my lap,” Herrman said. “I don’t really listen to classical music, and I’m not really a ballet guy,” he joked while fixing the tan baseball cap that held most of his long gray hair out of his face.
It was late-November 1997, and the dancers at MSB were in the middle of rehearsing for their annual production of “The Nutcracker.” Merrill Auditorium, where they typically performed, was closed for renovations that season, so the company had moved into the State.
“My first interaction with the ballet was when they were trying to squeeze ‘The Nutcracker’ onto this stage,” Herrman said as he looked across the State Theatre’s intimate, proscenium-style stage.
While he worked to transform the State Theatre into a winter wonderland for the ballet, Linda Miele, the artistic director of MSB, saw potential in Herrman — enough that she asked him to be her technical director at Merrill Auditorium.
“Watching Dave at the State Theatre, I knew he was capable of more,” Miele said. “So, I asked him if he would join our team.”
When Herrman agreed to manage the backstage crew for the ballet at the Merrill Auditorium, MSB principal dancer and choreographer Glenn Davis said they suddenly had the “dream team.”
“Dave rounded out our crew. He’s a big guy with long hair, and he’s an ex-marine but, he has a heart of gold,” Davis said. “Once we got to know him, we immediately knew we had to have a relationship with him.”
Working for the ballet was unlike any other production for Herrman. He found that while being the technical director was his job, it was also a learning experience.
“I have the whole production’s best interest at heart,” he said. “And it’s my responsibility to take all the pieces of ‘The Nutcracker’ and join them together, so it flows.”
Herrman not only programs the lights, but he also directs and manages the backstage crews.
During each performance, Herrman sits backstage right with a binder filled with cues and notes. Behind him is a table that he covers in hard candy and Twizzlers as a way to get to know the ballerinas.
“He knows all the kids by name, and his candy table helps to keep the environment G-rated,” Davis said.
As Herrman makes sure the dancers are prepared to enter the stage, he also watches the show through the wings while calling orders to the rest of the crew through a headset.
“It starts with calling the cue to open the curtain,” Herrman said. “I then call the cue to bring the curtain warmers down and the lights around the Christmas tree up. I also have to make sure the costumes look pretty, which makes the dancers look good, and if it looks bad, that’s on me.”
Whether there is a small audience or a sold-out house, Herrman colors the stage so the dancers can tell the story. His goal is to have people to walk out of the theatre remembering how beautiful it all looked.
With “The Nutcracker” being a large production with different set pieces, performers, and music than the concerts he typically designs at the State Theatre, Herrman has the chance to experiment with a new style of lighting.
“The ballet allows me to be artistic,” he said. “I can play with more subtle light transitions that go from pink to magenta without the audience noticing.”
While Herrman enjoys the creativity and attention to detail when designing lights for the ballet and directing the backstage crews, he said he also looks forward to working alongside the same group of dancers each season.
“The ballet is a godsend for me,” Herrman said. “Over the years, I’ve been able to watch these little kids grow into young adults, and it’s amazing to be a part of that.”
Portland resident Blair Best is an assignment editor at WGME News 13 and a freelance writer.