Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Designer Lynn Cox sculpts with shadows

Painting with light

“I’ll tell you what’s great about working in theatre — what it does is it examines the intensity to which we live life. It focusses on the full life, fully lived.”

Lynn Cox speaks confidently about her love for the performing arts. A full-time theatre professor at Algonquin College, she’s accustomed to inspiring young people with her life-long experiences in professional theatre. Cox has worked extensively in many areas of the field including producing, direction, stage management, technical direction, scenic painting and set design.

She’s a one-woman phenomenon in Ottawa because on top of all that, she’s also the only lesbian lighting designer in Ottawa, and to the best of her knowledge, one of only three in Canada.

Calling what she does “painting with light”, Cox is currently working with the Third Wall Theatre Company on Empire Builders, a 1967 play by French poet and playwright Boris Vian.

Empire Builders features a family trapped by their inhibitions. They climb a staircase from one set of rooms to another fleeing a nameless terror that pursues them higher and higher in their home. Along the way they leave behind their personal belongings, their memories and even family members. The humour exists in their state of denial, and their trivial, even irrelevant dialogues.

Cox’s work is complex, the majority of it done before opening night. Together with the director, Cox designs the ambiance of each scene, creating emphasis and mood with light. In a play like Empire Builders where an unknown fear lurks, shadows, expertly designed by Cox, are as important as the lighting.

Despite the heavy topic, Vian’s play is darkly comedic, considered absurdist, leading the audience between laughter and horror. Cox appreciates this kind of work.

“I love absurdist theatre — it exists in the present yet it’s illogical. There’s so much you can do with it, so many layers.”

The many layers allow for different interpretations, but most would agree, Empire Builders is a statement on the crippling effect of fear and denial. It represents all that Cox appreciates about theatre, examining and demonstrating the lives of people ruled by fear — a portrait of lives less than even half-lived.

Cox’s passion for living life fully was evident at a young age. She grew up in Ottawa, embracing the theatre community in high school.

“It was the ’80s. I was a punk who hung out with other punks and a few neat hippies in a high school in suburbia. My best friend dragged me off, under protest, to a drama class one day to see what it was all about. I walked in and immediately I knew that I had found home. I knew in that moment that this is what my life would be about. I was a gypsy who had found my people and was ready to sail on the next tide.”

In her decades of work, Cox has found that lesbians in theatre tend to be outnumbered by gay men. That didn’t stop Cox meeting and falling in love with another theatre professional, Janne Cleveland, during their work on the lesbian production, Camera Woman. Cox’s face softens; she smiles as she continues.

“I’m so fortunate that I’ve survived as an artist, and I’m now working as a full-time professor. And it’s so great that I have an extremely supportive partner who’s in the same field.”

By opening night of Empire Builders, Cox’s work will be done. The lighting will have been preplanned and scripted, and a technician will follow her instructions. As long as everything goes smoothly, Cox is likely to be home with her partner, finally relaxing. Or not, she’s just as likely to be planning her next project.

“It never really stops. You have to love this career. For me, theatre isn’t a nine to five job. It’s a lifestyle.”