Listen to your emotions or gut — If you feel anxiety, sadness, happiness or anger during the creative process; stop and ask yourself WHY? The key is not to act on your emotions immediately but let them be part of the process. I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a random bit of anxiety that leads to identifying a problem before it derails a production.

As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Seth Bernstein.

Seth Bernstein is a lighting designer based in New York and LA. His work can be found regularly on television where he contributes to specials on NBC, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN and The Discovery Channel. Most notably, he served as the Film Unit Lighting Designer for Saturday Night Live during the 2016–2019 seasons and was recognized for his contributions to the show’s Emmy Awards.

Seth’s other work meets at the crossroads of entertainment, fashion and music. He has designed arena and festival concerts for numerous artists including Wiz Kid, Maggie Rogers, Anderson Paak and continues to work regularly in touring design. He also specializes in branded concerts and tv specials which have featured artists such as Alicia Keys, Rosalia, Rihanna, Bad Bunny and many others.

Lastly Seth’s exhibit work spans the gamut from the Louis Vuitton heritage “time capsules” to the newly built Museum of Broadway in New York.

Photos of Seth courtesy Mark Leibowitz.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I’m from Ithaca — which is a gorgeous small town in upstate New York that’s dominated by two powerhouse universities. My parents were both educators (my mom at a university, and my father at a public school) and they were highly supportive when I started to transition out of sports teams and into theater at a very early age.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

With the two universities in town we had some incredible teaching assistants who were conducting some sort of research in our classrooms at the public school I attended. One of them happened to be an architecture student who showed me scale model building and basic drafting using graph paper in 2nd or 3rd grade. Within two years I had quit summer camp and started working at the highly regarded Hangar Theatre, which operated in my hometown during the summer and attracted top tier scenic and lighting designers from Broadway and beyond. Matthew Richards, a Yale educated lighting designer, picked up on my enthusiasm and let me watch his design and rehearsal process over multiple summers. Mid way though high school they upgraded to a very early computerized lighting control system which allowed me to “play around” with my own designs without any danger of erasing Matthew’s precious show data. This sealed the deal on my path since the tactile experience of design was enthralling despite being extremely tedious. I was hooked!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Moving to New York I immediately started moving away from theater towards television, concert and immersive projects. In retrospect that path was already set because the Hangar Theatre was built out of an actual airplane hangar with high rafters, no main curtain and wrap-around audience seating. The New York / Broadway experience of purpose built houses just didn’t resonate. Highly experimental runway shows for Fashion week and weekly pre-tapes for Saturday Night Live were much more engaging and I felt like I was learning constantly while doing projects with a wide reach. However, everything felt haphazard and I sensed a mental void opening up that I couldn’t quite explain to anyone looking at my success from the outside.

It wasn’t until I met Willo Perron in LA that I saw a way to get through that feeling. Up to that point, I felt like we moved from project to project just trying to meet expectations and hit deadlines. Willo was the first one I met who would set aside logistics and start from a challenge of making every design unique in a way that defies reality. I had always been preoccupied with shadows (a habit that comes from looking at extreme closeups for TV) and Willo challenged me to make his design for an NBA commission appear as if each element glowed from within. The only solution I could find was to use hundreds of lights with unique shaping in order to perfectly trace every element without casting shadows. In the past we would all internally agree we don’t have time or money for a design like that — but Willo said “let’s do it.” And we did.

You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The evolution of my role at Saturday Night Live was definitely the most interesting saga to date. Aside from all the folklore surrounding the institution, I was aware that the overall lighting designer for the show was a highly prickly living legend named Phil Hymes. When I showed up for my first day at 30 Rock I was told I would meet him “eventually” but not to worry too much about it. However, within hours I was summoned to his office and was quickly seated across the table from the 92 year-old who appeared highly disinterested with arms crossed not making eve contact.

“Who the F*CK are YOU?” were his first words to me.

After that introduction he would randomly drop in to sets I was lighting and sit with the same combative posture as he stared at the camera feed. “Why is it so dark?” he would ask a random crew person. “Do you want me to get Seth?” They would ask, “no, no” he would reply and wave them off.

This went on for years. I would hear things through the grapevine about his questions or comments on my work, but very little from him. At some point I think someone put all the staff member’s cellphone numbers into his phone and he would mistakenly call me from time to time, not knowing why we were on the line together. I would always pick up and we would chat about the show, always with some subtle insult about something I had done. It was a very old school way of showing interest and affection, but I could tell he was finally starting to figure out “who I was.”

This pattern culminated in early 2018 when he called out of the blue as usual. “Why am I calling you?” He would always ask. In the past I would always make up a reason to prompt him; but this time I couldn’t think of anything.

“Oh, I remember,” he said “I saw the sketch you did this week and I get it…what you do is MOVIE SH*T… it doesn’t look like TV, it looks like a MOVIE.” I was speechless, this was as good as it gets from him.

Even after leaving the show we still continued to talk randomly, the last call coming randomly in May of 2019 (just months before he passed at the age of 96.) I won’t fool myself into thinking I was anything more than a blip in his career that spanned almost the entire history of television but to me the experience was transformative.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One lesson I keep learning over and over again is to always listen to your gut. The most funny manifestation of that lesson occurred on a pre tape segment for Saturday Night Live in 2018. We were shooting in a loft on the 7th floor of a building in Manhattan that could only be reached using a tiny passenger elevator. As anyone who’s walked around New York knows… film and TV shoots are sprawling affairs with multiple trucks and piles of equipment. For this piece, the crew had been there since 10PM the night before pushing about eight big trucks worth of equipment through the elevator.

I arrived at around 4AM and felt this twinge of anxiety because the lighting equipment that arrived didn’t quite look right. I didn’t say anything, because I was worried about spoiling the morale for the crew that had been working all night. At around 8AM they told me that everything had come up through the elevator and I realized I was correct… the rental company had delivered the equipment for another shoot to our location!

Even though it wasn’t my mistake, when you’re in charge everything is your problem. So I had to call all the other SNL films units until I found who received our equipment. With re-packing, traffic and the dreaded elevator we barely made our setup time before the principal talent arrived to begin shooting.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

The most exciting projects involve live music… which feels even more special due to the pandemic shut down of all concerts and touring. Context in this case is really important. When I left the SNL film unit I knew I would be coming back to do the guest artists on the live show like Charli XCX. In that context you’re figuring out how to customize the tiny little box of a performance stage into something that feels special and energetic. When you’re doing an area show like I’ve recently done for Wiz Kid or Anderson Paak the challenge is how to make sure everything is big enough to reach the top row of the audience but still is able to be set up and transported in one day. Another interesting context are “one off” shows that are commissioned by brands. These are especially fun since you work with a very established artist like Alicia Keys, Rosalia or Kacey Musgraves to make an entirely new design that exists in the context of the specific event (for example Chanel №5.)

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?

My advice is always to figure out what you can be immediately good at… and start there. There are all sorts of jobs in live performance… from unloading trucks, to administrative assistants to research teams. If you can do physical labor, start there. It’s where I started. If your strengths are in office tasks, look for that position. You’ll always be putting yourself out there and there’s rejection at every step but its important to start where you have the highest likelihood for success.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Boundaries are super important. If you can feel that you’re not ready to answer a call from someone, don’t pick up. If you do, chances are you’ll screw things up in an irreparable way. Wait until you’re ready to engage with something. Use the time to go for a walk or exercise. The worst day of my career occurred because I didn’t go outside and see the sun that day.

Photo Credit: Mark Leibowitz

Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Listen to your emotions or gut — If you feel anxiety, sadness, happiness or anger during the creative process; stop and ask yourself WHY? The key is not to act on your emotions immediately but let them be part of the process. I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a random bit of anxiety that leads to identifying a problem before it derails a production.

Say yes as many times as humanly possible — This applies to taking jobs as well as a general attitude during any production. If a project comes knocking and it’s not quite what you have in mind but contains an interesting challenge; take it. If you can’t immediately find the reason to say yes, think about it. How can you make the opportunity into something that’s worthwhile to you? I always try to think of some new technique or technology that I can use a “not-so-desirable project” as a test run. OR maybe there’s someone I’ve wanted to work with that I can hire to make the project exciting to me. If they say no to your idea, there’s no loss since you didn’t want to do the job in the first place and can bow out or replace yourself.

Use empathy to solve conflict — When you work on high profile projects with escalated timelines there’s always going to be moments of conflict with those involved. Typically, there’s some major pushback from those tasked with executing the ideas. The budget is too small or there’s not enough time. Instead of hearing that pushback as an accusation, take the time to understand the specific cause of the anxiety. Sometimes just listening and reassurance is enough. Other times the act of active listening leads to a shortcut that can ultimately save the project.

Sharpen your attention to detail — the more specific you can be in your communication… and the speed at which you can arrive at that specificity is a lifelong journey. I always think of the parable of the map that became so detailed it was unusable because it covered the entire earth. It’s very true that you can never be detailed enough without drowning everyone in emails, drawings and texts. However — knowing exactly what needs to be said or appear on a drawing and what doesn’t is a critical skill to develop.

Be your harshest critic and then forgive yourself — It wasn’t until about a decade into my career that I finally began to like my own work. I was very successful at pleasing other people, but to me the balance just seemed off. Each time I would ask myself a harsh question — “how can I avoid that shadow that’s bothering me in the still photos?” — — “can I get better at mixing colors… or is it really best to stick with two colors at all times?”

At the same time, I found the importance of forgiving myself. In 2019 I had my first panic attack during a show that changed everything for me. In the moment it felt like I had let everyone down and would never work again. I was very disappointed in myself, devastated actually at having wasted a major opportunity. As time passed, I learned to forgive myself. This was the first step in figuring out how I ended up in that state and the ways that I can set boundaries and re-gain control to move forward.

For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?

Generally speaking, speed is of the upmost importance for television. It’s not unusual for there to be one or two brief discussions before everyone goes to their respective corners to start drawing and fabricating. When there are changes or requests from the director, writers or the network you’re expected to execute those immediately and without lengthy discussion. One typically doesn’t find the lengthy creative process and rehearsal schedule that’s associated with theater, though there are exceptions. If you’re thinking about TV you definitely have to ask yourself if you can thrive in that environment. Can you be confident and decisive on your own and then pivot for feedback under a ticking clock? It’s not for everyone.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement of active mentorship. Since 2018 we’ve had a paid junior assistant position that’s geared towards learning and growth (while contributing to our bandwidth of course.) I try to identify projects where the junior assistant can sharpen their drawing skills or spatial reasoning on real productions during a three month period. After that we generally promote them to a junior associate position where the collaboration continues. I would love to see more people in our industry work at actively mentoring rather than cherrypicking people who’ve already gotten their shot.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Is this the hill you want to die on?” Is my favorite life lesson quote. I watch people die on the wrong hill all the time… fighting for something that’s not worth it or alienating everyone in the process of achieving a selfish goal. When an idea is challenged or rejected I try to ask myself “Can I recycle this concept later on a better project?” … that little moment of self awareness can keep me from making an unnecessary stand that I can’t walk back.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I would love to meet Anish Kapoor. I would love to ask how he gets such inspiring results out of a diverse studio that includes artisans, engineers and fabricators. I’ve read numerous interviews on the topic, but I would love to get “in the weeds” with specificity about his process.

How can our readers continue to follow your work online?

I would love to be in touch with your readers. I’m @studioseth on instagram or one can visit

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thank you! I loved these questions. Best of luck to you and your readers.


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.