A 6-Time Tony Winner Shares the Secret to Great Lighting Design

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Photo Source: Matthew Murphy

Six-time Tony Award winner Natasha Katz’s work is synonymous with theatrical lighting design. This season alone, her credits include Broadway’s “MJ the Musical” and “Diana: The Musical”—both about cultural icons—as well as the Public Theater’s hit production of “Suffs,” a musical about the women’s suffrage movement. No subject is too vast or varied for Katz to tackle, because the intent is always the same: lighting in service of storytelling.

When you’ve signed on to a project, where do you actually begin? 

I read the script. A director or producer might call me up and say, “We’d love you to do this show. I’ll send you the script. See if you like it, and we’ll go from there.” So much of a job depends on who else is working on the show. It’s not just about the material, because the material takes on a different life from the first time you read it. I read a script as if I’m not a lighting designer; I read it as if I’m just your average viewer, and the thoughts flow in an extremely organic way. Then I read it again, and I start marking it up. Certainly, time of day matters to me. There are directors who might not care about time of day, but I make notes like that to myself—and what the character, emotionally, might be thinking at that time. They all help me later on when I go back and look at what my initial feelings about it were, because as you get more and more involved in a project, you have less objectivity [toward] it.

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You’ve designed the lighting for such a diverse array of projects. How does your process change from show to show? 

The starting point is always the same. It’s what happens afterward that starts to change, and that is so dependent on who the creators of the piece are. Some directors will say to me very early on, “I want it to look like this. It’s going to take place here. I want it to be very naturalistic.” And some directors I hardly even speak to about what it’s going to look like. Some directors don’t really know how to talk about light until they see it in the space. 

What is the key to effective communication with theater directors?

On some level, I am a translator. Some people can talk, some people use images. Chris Wheeldon, who directed “MJ,” will do a storyboard very early on about what he thinks it should look like, and he’ll say, “We need light over here and sunlight through a window.” There’s also the set designer and the costume designer, and the thoughts that they all have. I, in a way, synthesize all that.

MJ the Musical

Your work affects every visual element of a production. What is your relationship with other design departments? 

“Diana: The Musical” is a really good example. Princess Diana’s wardrobe was so iconic, and William Ivey Long did his version of all these famous pieces—not exact replicas, but his theatricalization of them. More than any show I’ve worked on, the seed to every lighting state came from those costumes. She wears a green dress in Act 2; the underlying base color of the lighting is green, and everything on top of it might be another color. The audience doesn’t perceive it as green, but it makes the dress pop forward, which is part of the personality of Diana and underscores who she was. 

How would you define great lighting design? 

Lighting is so subconscious, and storytelling is, no question, the most important part of it. It’s also making the characters look beautiful and the performers look beautiful within the context of the story. What separates the good from great is whether there is a visceral, emotional feeling that you’re trying to get across in every single moment of the show. It’s the emotional underpinning of whatever point of view we’re taking for the show and the character.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring or early career lighting designers? 

Watching other people work was such a great way for me to learn. You can take so much in about how people communicate, because there are so many different people in the theater. Learn about the different instruments in lighting. The other thing is that references are really important, which means watching movies and starting to understand light and thinking about why choices were made. Know the history of lighting, know the history of scenic design, because lighting designers, we don’t live on our own. We are part of a greater world, which includes scenery, costumes, projection—so many other things. It’s so fulfilling to know what other people have gone through and what it takes to put on a show.

This story originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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