Spotlight on the Light Designer, Tori Mays

By Anne E. O’Keefe
Rockford Area Arts Council

When she was young, Tori Mays was in dance and then drama club. And then at some point she realized that the magic she wanted to create was from behind the scenes. Rockford University wasn’t necessarily on her radar for a college choice, but when she received an email inviting her for a visit, she took the opportunity. A Columbus, Ohio native she liked what she saw so much that she accepted a volleyball scholarship and played two years while pursuing her undergrad in Tech Theater.

“I like to see how the magic happens, that’s what first sparked my interest. Lighting can evoke the emotions of the scene. It can help the director convey a message the audience may not even realize is happening,” Mays said.

Because there are just four students getting their tech theater degree currently, there is a lot of freedom for the students to create. One of the luxuries of a small class also means individual attention from professors and a lot of hands on experience. The University allows great flexibility when students are offered opportunities that will further their academic and professional careers.

This Christmas break Mays will be working on the District Theater in Washington, DC’s “Mr. Burns, a post electric play.” In February she will be in Boston doing “I am My Own Wife,” and then will for Artists’ Ensemble Theater’s “Outside Mullingar,” by John Patrick Shanley, March 11-26. For more information visit

These are professional gigs at equity theaters, and to think she does this while also being a full-time student. She will graduate from RU in May and is open to work opportunities and possible a Master’s degree.

Mays said while summer stock sometimes gets a bad wrap it was a great experience for her that led to professional jobs. She did summer stock for two years at The Heron Playhouse where she met director Nick Hrutkay. Hrutkay then hired her to do light design for the Scranton Fringe Festival in Pennsylvania.

Mays has also been master electrician for shows including “New Beginnings,” a dance concert at RU. Understanding that the lighting and electrical aspects of theater are male dominated, she moves forward with conviction, “I don’t think the audience can tell if a woman or a man did the lighting,” Mays said. She went on to say, “my work should stand for itself.”

Like most things, the digital age has impacted the science of the light design among other aspects of the theater. Smart lights have replaced spot light operators; designs are programmed and executed digitally. Light Designers not only have to learn the new programs but they still have to be well versed in electricity, what a space can handle without plunging the audience into unintended darkness.

Mays will be doing the lighting design for the upcoming Artists’ Ensemble Theater and Rockford University collaborative show, “Twentieth Century.” Show dates are November 13-15 and 19-22 at Maddox Theatre, at the Clark Arts Center. For tickets or more information, call RU box offices at 815-226-4100 or visit

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