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Why Natasha Katz's TDF Students Are Her Good Luck Charm at the Tonys

By: Raven Snook
Date: Jun 09, 2023

The lighting designer is up for two awards on Sunday, but she's just as excited about Monday's Wendy Wasserstein Project celebration

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On Sunday, veteran theatrical lighting designer Natasha Katz is getting all dressed up to attend the 2023 Tony Awards, where she's nominated for her work on Sweeney Todd and Some Like It Hot. If she takes home a prize, she may have trouble finding space for it—she already has seven Tonys, most recently for MJ The Musical and Long Day's Journey Into Night, plus a slew of other accolades.

But she's equally excited about what she's doing on Monday: Watching the public high school students she mentored for the past academic year celebrate their season of theatregoing at the Wendy Wasserstein Project's annual year-end gathering.

The brainchild of TDF and the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles, the Wendy Project (formerly called Open Doors) began as an experiment in 1998. Wasserstein herself took eight high schoolers to six shows on Broadway and beyond to find out if theatre could captivate the hearts and minds of a new generation. As she listened to the teens passionately discuss what they'd seen during their post-performance pizza parties, she discovered the answer was a resounding yes. Since then, the Wendy Project has grown exponentially and even won a special Tony Honor. Katz has been a mentor since 2014, working with high schoolers from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens.

"My parents took me to shows all the time starting at the age of five," recalls Katz, who grew up in New York City. "They brought me to concerts and theatre regularly—it wasn't that expensive back then." By the time she was in high school, she knew that she wanted to pursue a career in the industry working backstage. She discovered her love of lighting design at Oberlin College's Inter-Arts department.

"In many ways, that formed who I am," she says. "I worked as a stage manager. I worked on the fly rail. I worked in the scenic shop. I didn't know what any of that was before I got there. And you know the way it works at college, a friend of mine was directing a play and he said, 'Do you want to try to do the lighting for it?' I honestly didn't know what I was doing, but it was exciting."

By the time Katz was a junior, she landed an internship with Tony-winning lighting designer Roger Morgan on I Remember Mama, Richard Rodgers' final musical. "We did an out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia and then opened in New York," she says. "My family lived in New York, so I was able to stay at home and see this whole process and start to meet people. On-the-job training is how I became a lighting designer." Since her Broadway debut as lighting designer on the short-lived play Pack of Lies in 1985, she has racked up more than 70 Broadway credits and many more beyond, as well as forged fruitful collaborations with director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who uses her for both Broadway and his ballet productions, and Disney (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Frozen).

It was Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Group and a former Wendy Project mentor, who helped her get involved with the program. While Katz isn't trying to create the next generation of lighting designers as a mentor, she is hoping to instill a lifelong love of theatre in her students as she knows how transformative that can be.

"I had never done anything like this," Katz recalls about her first year as a mentor almost a decade ago. "I was extremely excited but also scared. I had never faced being in a room with 10 high school kids!" She found an excellent partner in Dr. Jamie Cacciola-Price, a teacher at Frank Sinatra who handpicks the participants. "He's extremely charismatic and he gives the students a lot of background information about theatre."

In addition to post-performance discussions over pizza, students keep detailed journals so they can delve deeply into their reactions. While she's not comfortable revealing any specific anecdotes (what happens in the Wendy Project stays in the Wendy Project!), she's consistently impressed by the students' insights. "What the kids talk about in the room is astounding," she says. "Every year I think, they're smarter than I am. Their minds are so much more open, and they bring up things that I never even would have thought about. The best thing is that there's no judgement."

Every year, she tries to program three plays and three musicals, specifically choosing shows she thinks will "spur profound conversation." But big, splashy musicals can spark amazing chats, too. "Some Like It Hot is a great example," she says. "Through all this buoyant, beautiful tap-dancing and fun, there are also messages and ideas to talk about underneath," including gender identity and fluidity, and our country's history of racism. "My students are way ahead of me. They're so forward-thinking."

While Katz talks enthusiastically about her work as a lighting designer—"Sweeney Todd is about the light and dark of human nature, and that idea is mirrored in the chiaroscuro lighting, it's really a small color palette," as opposed to Some Like It Hot, which "goes from a kind of colorful darkness to bright, bright, bright, bright, which is about the transformation of the characters"—she's even more rhapsodical about her students. "They teach me something every time I walk into that room," she says. "I've decided that the Wendy Wasserstein Project is my good luck charm. I've won a number of Tonys since I started as a mentor. "

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Top image: Natasha Katz and her 2022-2023 Wendy Wasserstein Project students after attending The Piano Lesson on Broadway. Photo by Susan Willerman.

TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Some Like It Hot. The show is also frequently available at our TKTS Discount Booths. Log in to your account to browse all our theatre and dance offers.

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her on Facebook at @Raven.Snook. Follow TDF on Facebook at @TDFNYC.