The art of lighting design

‘Retina Burn’ returns to Edison Theatre April 25

“Retina Burn,” the annual concert organized by lighting design students in the Performing Arts Department, will take place April 25 in Edison Theatre. Pictured is alumna Simran Wadhwa running the lighting console at a rehearsal in 2023. (Photo: Sean M. Savoie)

Everybody likes a light show. Creating one is harder than you might think.

“Each minute of music takes about one hour to program,” said Sean M. Savoie, a teaching professor of design and technical theater in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “If you extrapolate that to an entire concert … It’s just an enormous amount of work.”

Since 2010, Savoie, who also serves as resident lighting designer at Stages St. Louis, has taught “Retina Burn: Concert Lighting Technology,” an intensive seminar that introduces students to the tools and techniques used by industry professionals.

“It’s extraordinarily hands on,” Savoie said. “We’ll spend half the semester just on the GrandMA 2. That’s a pretty advanced console you’ll find at concert venues around the world. It’s like learning a whole new language.

Nick Cochran, who is creating the 2024 Retina Burn concert with fellow students Duryn Dunbar and Lynn Yuan, programs the GrandMA 2, a professional-quality lighting console. Students also use the Swedish software Capture to visualize the show before running it live on stage. (Photo: Sean M. Savoie)

“Our first year, for the final project, we just lit some music and invited a few friends,” Savoie remembered. The next year, he continued with a laugh, “we added a mannequin.”

But since 2016, when “Retina Burn” moved into WashU’s Edison Theatre, Savoie has recruited a series of local bands, including the WashU student groups 8 Dollars Off and Doctor Delila, as well as St. Louis blues stalwarts Uncle Albert, led by friends-of-the-department Tim Albert and Lisa Campbell Albert.

“We aim for about an hour, maybe 75 minutes, but the tracks are completely up to the band,” Savoie said. Students then divvy up the set-list and start stitching the show together. “There’s always good camaraderie, good communication. There’s also a lot of negotiation. We craft every beam of light in every location — every hit, every punch, every thump of the snare drum.”

Graduate student Paige Samz leads a lighting rehearsal with St. Louis blues band Uncle Albert. (Photo: Sean M. Savoie)

Many former students have become professional lighting designers, Savoie said. Recent alumni are currently working with prominent local venues such as City Winery and The Armory. Others have found work with bands and performing arts groups from New York to Seattle.

“Our students get a lot of experience,” Savoie said. “We’re fortunate to have a good rig and about 100 controllable fixtures. And we really start from the ground up — how to select the lights, how to put them into the control board, how to configure the network.

“There’s a wonderful skill and precision in making it all happen.”

“Retina Burn 2024” will take place in WashU’s Edison Theatre at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25. Admission is free. Edison Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. For information, call 314-935-6543 or visit

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