From the Forest to the Jungle – How The Lion King Changed My Life


‘We really clicked and three years later I did The Lion King with her, which changed my life.’ – Donald Holder on working with director Julie Taymor. Photo supplied

There’s a man who volunteers with the Croton-on-Hudson Fire Department and EMS team who has been nominated for 14 Tony Awards, and has won two of them – for South Pacific and The Lion King. That man is Donald Holder, a premier lighting designer who has worked on numerous Broadway shows, Metropolitan Opera performances, and film and television productions in the U.S. and around the world.  

Lighting design is a crucial component of creative performance – “a really interesting mix of artistic and technical dimensions,” as Holder describes it – yet not perhaps the first thing we notice when going to a Broadway show or streaming the latest drama. Holder’s long, successful career, though, is a testament to its importance bringing a script, a score or a choreographed set of movements to life. “It’s all about the collaboration, the team of designers, figuring out the best way to tell the story,” he says. “And I really enjoy that collaboration, being in the room, that sense of community, of people coming together with a common purpose.” 

Holder wanted to be a lighting designer from age 13, partly thanks to his mother’s love of the arts. “She took us to a lot of shows – musicals, plays, the symphony, the ballet. So I was familiar with Broadway, although it seemed inaccessible to me at that age.” But the boy with a passion for scouting and the outdoor life also loved working backstage at school productions, and lighting ceremonial trails for the scouts. His parents discouraged him from a career in theater, so the young Holder earned a forestry degree at the University of Maine, but hands-on experience convinced him this was not going to be his future. 

From the Metropolitan Opera production of Champion. Photo:  Ken Howard

“Theater became my passion,” he said. And after three years working as a technical assistant at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he qualified for a place at Yale School of Drama. “I got there and I never looked back. A good part of my success in life can be traced back to being in the right place at the right time, and believing anything is possible if you work hard enough. And I’ve also been very lucky.” 

As he describes it, “I started at the bottom of the ladder, touring with a modern dance company, then designing off-Broadway, at Soho Rep, working downtown in New York, and regionally. And I slowly built a reputation. But what really put me on the map was lighting a drama called Spunk, based on work by Zora Neale Hurston, in 1989. Joe Papp came to see it and it transferred to the Public Theater.” 

More work followed but Holder dreamed of Broadway, “I thought it wasn’t going to happen, and then one night, I got a 10 o’clock call about a production of Titus Andronicus that had lost its lighting director and needed someone to start immediately.” And that’s how he met Julie Taymor and began a 25-year artistic collaboration. “We really clicked and three years later I did The Lion King with her, which changed my life.” 

Known for his poetic, painterly, supple style, Holder is in the happy position now of working only on projects that have meaning for him, but there’s also his teaching work at Rutgers University, “which gives me a lot of satisfaction. I am the product of great mentorship and I feel obliged to pass that on to the next generation. It’s wonderful to see the kids blossom, find their voice and enter the world I love so much.” 

Meanwhile, home is Croton where he and his wife – Evan Yionoulis, herself a high-profile figure in the arts, as the Richard Rogers Director of Drama at Julliard – have lived since 1997. “We really like it here, it’s a great community.”  

Which takes us back to the town’s emergency services and the commitment of a member with outstandingly creative and talented hands. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recommended For You

About the Author: Elsbeth Lindner