FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Josh Mowczko can partially thank his successful career on a missed theater audition at Linganore High School during his senior year.
"I missed the audition for a show and they told me they needed someone to run the lighting because no one else could do it," Mowczko said in a recent phone interview.
The show organizers sat Mowczko down with a manual after school for the next several weeks so that he could learn as much as possible about theater lighting before the show.
"I pretty much had no idea what I was going to do or where I wanted to go at that point," Mowczko recalled. "But it was while I was hanging lights that I knew I was going to do this for the rest of my life."
Learning the ropes
It was from there that Mowczko, 38, began his mostly self-taught journey into the world of professional lighting -- one that has lead him to his current gig, working as the head of lighting for the Cirque du Soleil show, "Dralion." Mowczko currently lives on the road, touring with the show throughout the U.S. and other countries.
After graduating from high school, Mowczko worked at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in downtown Frederick and with various local community theater groups to develop his lighting skills. He attended Frederick Community College for two years, where he had a stint as head technician for the college's theater, he said.
Mowczko gained all his lighting expertise from work experience and learning on the job from others, he said. Determining he didn't have enough experience to make it in New York City, Mowczko thought Seattle, which had a growing theater scene, would be the next-best opportunity. He moved there to pursue a career in theater lighting.
He first worked with a labor company, completing odd jobs as a stagehand, and later worked with local theater companies, making connections within the Seattle theater scene.
"My main focus was on lighting, but I did everything from sound to costumes to being a technical director, to acting, even," Mowczko said. "I wanted to give myself a well-rounded education and experience."
Six months into working with various companies, doing the lighting for concerts and special events, Mowczko was on the top of the call list for various lighting jobs, he said.
Mowczko began working with a special events company called One Reel, which produces music and other festivals and started the Teatro ZinZanni, a circus-like show, in Seattle. He worked as the head of lighting for that show for two years and met many people involved in various forms of the circus business in the process, he said.
"I knew that if I wanted to pursue a career in circus, the one place to go would be Cirque du Soleil," Mowczko said.
Cirque du Soleil, which means "Circus of the Sun," is a contemporary circus and entertainment company based in Canada that employs thousands of performers who put on shows all over the world. The company describes itself as a "dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment."
"I set up a profile on their website and basically applied to every job they had open. I knew if I was persistent enough, they would either give me a job or tell me to go away," Mowczko said, laughing. "And they gave me a job."
It was in 2008 that Mowczko began working for Cirque du Soleil, first as the assistant head of lighting for the show "Saltimbanco." He did this for about six months before becoming the head of lighting for that show, and was with the show for a total of two years, he said.
Mowczko was then approached to become the head of lighting for the show "Dralion," which would make the transition from a big-top show to an arena show in July 2010, he said. He has been the head of lighting, managing a team of three people, ever since, and after living in Chicago for four years, now lives on the road traveling with the show.
The art of lighting
Mowczko said one of the challenges he faces on the job is translating the essence of the show to different venues, from very small arenas to those that seat 10,000-plus people.
"I also have to be able to help the show communicate to people of different cultures, people that speak different languages," he said. "It's a great opportunity to be creative and come up with solutions to various problems creatively. I have to get in the head of the designer and be a sort of translator, to be able to translate his intentions to the audience."
Mowczko has already traveled throughout the U.S. and to several other countries with the show, but wants to complete an entire circuit of the world touring with "Dralion," he said. This is the first time a Cirque show he works with has come to Baltimore, he said, and the closest he has come to home while working with a Cirque show.
Mowczko described "Dralion" and other Cirque du Soleil shows as "visual and audio pieces of wonderment" and "pure spectacles that are meant to dazzle the audience."
He helps achieve this through various lighting systems, all which have a different objective, he explained.
"Circus is a really interesting animal," Mowczko said. "The lighting for it is not quite theater, not quite dance and not quite rock 'n' roll -- it's an amalgamation of all three types."
He continued, "Since the acts are so varied, sometimes you want to sculpt the people's bodies, in a dance number, for example, or with a clown act you have to highlight the drama of it.
"With ensemble numbers, you want to create a gigantic spectacle of it, with larger-than-life aerials, or light patterns in the air. ... The objective with circus lighting is the 'wow' factor."
A melting-pot family
Mowczko said he most enjoys the multicultural nature of Cirque du Soleil, as well as the fact that it is "one big family."
"What really makes the show is the people you're touring with," he said. "I'll walk backstage and I'll see some of the guitar players teaching some of the Chinese performers how to play guitar, or a Chinese performer teaching some Australian performers to speak Chinese.
"I really enjoy broadening my viewpoint and experience different cultures."
Mowczko said when he and his girlfriend, a performer with the show, retire from touring to settle down, they will likely move to a big-top show and raise a family in the circus environment. That will not be until he works more closely with Cirque designers to continue his education in lighting and production, as well as the creative and technical side, maybe as a programmer, Mowczko said.
"And after that, I'd like to settle down to possibly teach and use my experience to help other people."