Craig native finds niche in theater lighting, photography |

Craig native finds niche in theater lighting, photography

Brian Smith
Chad Bonaker, 34, stands with three of his photographs that will be on display at the Rackhouse Pub in Denver for a month-long exhibit. Bonaker first picked up a camera 13 years ago to document his work as a theater lighting designer and had to whittle his collection of 6,000 photos to 30 for his display.
Brian Smith

If you go

What: Chad Bonaker photography gallery

When: Tuesday through March 15

Where: Rackhouse Pub, 208 South Kalamath St., Denver

— To view more of Chad Bonaker’s photographs, visit http://photos.lig...

If you go

What: Chad Bonaker photography gallery

When: Tuesday through March 15

Where: Rackhouse Pub, 208 South Kalamath St., Denver

— To view more of Chad Bonaker’s photographs, visit http://photos.lig…

Chad Bonaker once found himself under the spotlight.

It was his sophomore year at Moffat County High School and he was playing the part of the crazy old uncle in “Twas a Dark and Stormy Night” in one of the high school’s theater performances.

He only had two lines in the production, but that was just fine with him. He wasn’t interested in acting. He was interested in a different aspect of the stage.

“(My drama teacher) built the sets on Saturdays and I showed up every Saturday and worked hard all day,” said Bonaker, now 34 and a Denver resident. “It was just where I fit in theater. I was pretty awkward everywhere else, but you know when I was in theater, I had a confidence I didn’t have anywhere else.”

As he found his niche offstage, he learned more skills of how to put on a show.

Chief among those early talents he developed was a knack for lighting.

“I didn’t really understand it as a profession at that point until I went to college and actually realized you could do it for a living,” he said.

Now, Bonaker’s job as a lighting and projection designer for various stage projects takes him all around the world and U.S., from Shanghai to California.

However, Bonaker has found a new way to interact with light.

Instead of creating and presenting it, he now loves to capture it through a camera lens.

After collecting more than 6,000 photographs, Bonaker will host his first photography show for a month starting Tuesday in Denver.

The show, which features 30 framed photographs, will be at the Rackhouse Pub in Denver.

Bonaker graduated from MCHS in 1994 and moved to Denver about year-and-a-half ago. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University in 1998. But, he didn’t do much with that education.

From his continued theater work during college, he decided to focus his talents on lighting theater.

“There were some really lean years, but like everything, you get better and better at it and people want to work with you more and more,” he said.

For five years, Bonaker freelanced lighting sets before deciding to go to grad school. He graduated with a master’s degree in theater design and production from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music in 2005.

He said light and the art of creating it for theater just makes sense.

“It is interesting because it is not creating something out of whole cloth,” he said. “You are not sitting down and creating from scratch every time.

“You are taking what the director has done with the staging and what the set designer has done with the scenery and you are enhancing it and making it better. In a way, I’m an editor.”

His job is part math, part physical labor, part artist and a whole lot of collaboration. But, when he is working to bring out the best in a show, everything seems to fall in line, he said.

“My philosophy about lighting is that you are always in support of the show,” he said. “Your lighting has to reinforce the script, and the direction … and the scenery. Your ego can’t enter into it.”

Successfully lighting the stage is a multi-step process that involves getting to know how the theater is set up, creating light plots, and successfully cueing lighting changes to the mood and theme of the show. It is a process he does about 20 times a year, usually without an assistant.

“So if you are doing a musical or something, when they start doing a song, you want to change the environment of the stage in some way,” he said. “You usually do that with lighting to help reinforce whatever the mood of the song is.”

There is, of course, one place Bonaker naturally would like to work.

“I want to be invited to Broadway,” he said. “It is not something I want to go and knock on doors and try to do because New York eats people alive, the theatre scene does.”

Bonaker first picked up a camera 13 years ago after graduating from college.

It was because of his love of theater that the two passions mixed.

“I bought my first camera so I could take portfolio shots,” he said. “I had to figure out how the camera works, and then took that expertise out into the field and started taking other photos.”

Bonaker found a subject in the vast and sprawling landscapes of the Midwest and those of Western Colorado. He said whether it is on a road trip or a hike, it is hard not to train his eye to the art possibilities around him.

“I think my color sense in my photography definitely comes from my color sense on stage,” he said. “Really, lighting and photography are bookends of the same thing. (With) lighting, you are putting light on the things, and photography you are taking light off the stuff.”

It wasn’t until about three years ago that Bonaker started to get serious with his photography and take on a professional workflow.

And although he has shot weddings and other subjects, Bonaker is sticking to landscapes, many of which are from areas in Moffat County or Western Colorado.

Growing up in Moffat County, Bonaker said he gravitated toward exploring the area, but it wasn’t until he came back that he realized the beauty of it.

“When people think of Colorado, they think of the Rocky Mountains and forest, and Moffat County isn’t really like that,” he said. “It has its own sort of rolling beauty.”

Although Bonaker thinks the landscape photography market is already saturated in Colorado, there might be room for him amongst the professionals.

“It is always a tough thing when you want to transition from being an amateur to something a little more formal,” he said. “Do you really have the talent to do that? It is like being an actor and moving to New York or L.A. — you might be really, really good in your small pond. But, are you able to hack it in a larger pool?”

The decision to show his work in a gallery was an easy one, he said.

“If that takes off then that’s something,” he said. “But, if it doesn’t, I’ll be satisfied to have shown off my work a little bit.”

Bonaker said he is unsure what people think about his photography. But then again, he doesn’t have trouble giving away his calendars.

“That is probably where I am most insecure is what are people going to think in the end,” he said.

Whatever the outcome, Bonaker said he wouldn’t stop the creative and technical interests that have shaped his life.

“It was just looking through them and … saying, ‘Hey, maybe their beauty is worth putting out there to see if anybody else thinks they’re as good as I think they are,’” he said of his photography. “I have never been one to do one thing. I have never been satisfied to do one job — I want to be doing a million things.”

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