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How Lighting Tells a Broadway Story

Date: May 08, 2012


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Natasha Katz tells stories with light. When she makes a shadow strike an actor's face, or when she beams color across a wall, she changes our understanding of what's happening on stage.

Katz's colleagues clearly like her storytelling. She's won two Tony Awards, and this year, she received two additional nominations for Best Lighting Design of a Musical---one for Follies and the other for Once.

Both shows offer meaty challenges for a lighting designer, and they pushed Katz is different ways. 

Follies, the Sondheim revival that's currently at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre after a Broadway run last fall, demands an elaborate, haunted world. As retired showgirls gather for a reunion, their younger selves weave around them, stepping from the past to relive old routines, fights, and love affairs.

"It's a show of darkness rather than light," Katz says. "[It's] a fascinating piece for a lighting designer because it plays in all these different time periods."

Katz uses color to make the time periods clear. "The older selves are in 'today lighting'---white light would be the easiest way to describe it---and when their younger selves come out, they're in this kind of teal, blue-green look," she explains. "We also make the follow spots on the young couple that very same [blue-greeen] color, so you'll have them close to [the older couple] but in a different light. A lot of that has to do with what's happened with lighting, because it's gotten so much more sophisticated. You can have someone standing three feet away from another person and have them in two different colors like that."

It's possible that audiences won't notice these details, since lighting design is notoriously easy to overlook. When it works, we just accept the world it creates, the way we accept the light outside.

But that's how it should be. "The two most important things are the storytelling and the actor," Katz says. "For me, I'm constantly trying to make that person look great in the context of the piece. Sometimes 'great' means they look horrible, because that's what the story needs, but essentially, you're trying to pull the actor away from the background."

There's a spirit of collaboration in that attitude, which may explain why Katz is so enthusiastic about Once, now on Broadway at the Jacobs.

She says, "There's no way to talk about Once without talking about all the other aspects of Once. It's not just the lighting. It really is the way it's staged. It's the choreography. It's Bob Crowley's set, and it's the actors."

Still, Katz's lighting has to accomplish many things. As it tells the story of a bittersweet romance between an Irish singer-songwriter and a Czech pianist, the musical uses a sparse theatrical language. Locations are suggested, not literally created, and lighting is often our first clue that we're in a house or a shop or nightclub. [Read our conversation with Bob Crowley about his Tony-nominated set design.]

As the show developed, Katz chose squares of light to suggest "inside spaces." She explains, "The idea took on its own life. There's that great line where the father says, 'Is he okay?' and [the Czech musician] says, 'He's a little stopped.' All these rooms are small and confined and 'stopped,' and then all of a sudden, we open up, and everybody's playing music."

The rest of the team supported Katz's vision. Crowley's set, for instance, is covered in mirrors, and occasionally they reflected light in a distracting way. Katz recalls, "I'd hear, 'Oh my God, Natasha, there's some sort of light that's hitting that mirror. Is there anything you can do about it?' And Bob Crowley's hand would go up quicker than anybody's: 'Oh, darling, don't worry. I'll spray that down.' And that's why I literally can't talk about anything I've done on this show without it being in the context of everybody else.

 You think that collaboration is everybody sitting in the room early on, but the collaboration continues all the way through."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor