PwJ Team Member Spotlight
Finding My Light
Author: KC Wilkerson
- I oversee the creative implementation of lighting and visual effects (including lasers, fountains, fire, and atmospherics) by providing leadership for my team. Together, we design, implement, and program creative visual elements for shows, parades, and projects in California and Hawaii.
- I provide creative direction for our fireworks program, overseeing all of the creative elements for the seven different shows we perform.
- I design projects. If you’ve been to Disneyland in the last 10 years, you’ve seen my work or the work of my talented design team.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a rock star (always a great career plan). My parents gave me an electric guitar for Christmas one year, and I tried to teach myself to play but I was undisciplined. I eventually abandoned it because I realized I didn’t have a passion for playing music – the passion was for listening to music, collecting records, and going to see concerts.
My second passion was art. I dove deep into art classes and as I learned more, my passion for art and artists grew and I found myself expressing things I couldn’t say in words. There was, however, the nagging realization that while I was deeply passionate about art I couldn’t see it as a career.
Then there was architecture. From an early age, I was always trying to figure out how things were built. In junior high I took drafting classes which taught me how to be intentional and precise. I took Shop which taught me how to build what I had drafted. However, I had significant struggles with math and without math, architecture would not be possible.
What I realized, years later, was the common bond between my passions involved the act of creating. Art, music, and architecture were the manifestation of my core desire: to be creative. I had no idea how what to do with that much less how to turn it into a career. Then, in high school, a friend of mine who knew my art background asked if I wanted to come to a “paint party” in the school auditorium to paint the set for their upcoming show. I showed up and almost immediately realized I loved the inclusive, creative environment. I hadn’t previously experienced that camaraderie, that shared sense of purpose. It wasn’t about the set, or the acting, or the lights; it was about all of us working together towards something bigger.
I can’t write something about my career path and not acknowledge two specific teachers who were instrumental in connecting me to my creativity.
In addition to introducing me to design principles, art teacher Martha Doyal pushed me. Her simple demand was “show up to the canvas”. She forced me to challenge myself. She insisted that I not allow anyone to place limitations on me. Perhaps most importantly she inspired me to kill my excuses. Those are eternal lessons that I use nearly every day of my life.
As my first theatre director, Ken Dyess taught me the power of elevation. The idea that there is a bigger picture, that it was important to understand that picture, and the only way to see it all is to get out of the weeds. He gave me the opportunity to use my passions and skills by designing sets. He was the one that connected the dots and pointed me down the road to becoming a set designer.
The summer I graduated, I went to see The Police in concert. There, I saw moving lights (which were in their infancy) for the first time. It was magic as far as I was concerned and I fell hopelessly in love with light. In retrospect, it’s still surprising to me how one experience can crystallize everything and shoot lightning bolts deep into your core and fundamentally change your life. After that night, I no longer wanted to be a set designer.
So off to college I go, and since I was a scholarship recipient I was required to audition for all of the shows. Much to my dismay, I got cast. The more time I spent onstage, the more convinced I was that I wanted to be backstage. My college years were filled with design work, acting in shows, and being on stage crews.
After graduation, I bounced around the local theater scene in Houston (where I was living at the time) taking the typical odd jobs just to make ends meet. I had the opportunity to move to southern California with my family. I worked in many small theatres, and even though there were more gigs it was still tough to make a living. Then, on a whim, I applied for a summer job at Disneyland.
After a year or so, I was getting opportunities and enjoying the working environment. One of those opportunities was a series of promotional tours which allowed me to travel across the U.S. and Europe over a span of three years. In those short three years, I rose from being a tech to crew chief to technical director. While being on tour is exciting, it’s also exhausting so I decided to come back home and put down roots.
Returning back to the park, I began to seek out other opportunities. I said “yes” to everything, including an offer to be assistant technical director for a new Disneyland fireworks show. It was there that I fell in love with larger-than-life spectaculars. It was (and continues to be) great fun working at such a grand scale. That show was a huge hit and shortly afterward I was offered a job as one of Disneyland’s technical directors.
You’re thinking, “Wait, why are you a TD? Didn’t you want to be a designer?” The answer is yes, but one of the most important lessons I have ever learned is that the path isn’t straight. It includes curves and dips, each one of which contains opportunities. At the time, the company did not have design roles within the organization and being a TD was the closest I could get.
Once I was a TD, I realized I could do some of the design work myself. I began doing larger projects where I was fulfilling both the TD and the design role. That got the attention of my leadership and over the course of the next several years, my role evolved to include more design work. When the company restructured our organization about 10 years ago, they created new positions and I was moved into the lighting design role. I am now part of a larger group of designers (lighting, audio, video, show control) and technical directors.
I’ve also continued to work in theater, designing lighting and projection for a variety of shows (and picking up a slew of design awards), in addition to corporate work and museums. Along the way, I discovered that I love sharing what I’ve learned with students so I’ve participated in the California Thespian Festival and the International Thespian Festival; conducting workshops and mentoring design students. With Disney Performing Arts, I’ve developed a series of technical theatre workshops that allow students a peek behind the curtain to see how we create some of the magic they see in Disney parks. I’ve given keynote addresses to students and spoken with teachers around the country about the arts, creativity, and design. I love doing all of those things but nothing really eclipses the moments I can stand in front of a new rig and see it light up for the first time. After 38 years in this business, it’s the one thing that makes me feel like I’m in high-school again; and it never ceases to bring up a sense of wonder and give me the feeling of so many possibilities waiting to be realized.
About The Author
KC is an award-winning designer who leads the team that designs, implements, and programs entertainment lighting for The Disneyland Resort and Aulani. A professional member of the Association of Lighting Designers, he has been published in Live Design, Stage Directions and Teaching Theatre among others. He develops and presents technical workshops for Disney Performing Arts and is a speaker for high school and college tech students.