All Together Now

by Graham Douglass

Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz talks about the watching, uncertainty and teamwork of design
Natasha Katz
Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz talks about the watching, uncertainty and teamwork of design

Natasha Katz made her Broadway debut as a lighting designer for Pack of Lies in 1985. Since then she’s lit more than 45 Broadway productions, been nominated for nine Tony Awards in lighting, and won the award three times, for her work on Once, Aida and The Coast of Utopia (Part 3 – Salvage). Growing up in New York City, Katz knew from an early age that a life in the theatre was certain, but it wasn’t until attending Oberlin College that Katz realized lighting design was a viable path. While still in college, Katz took advantage of internships and small jobs in New York City that would eventually propel her to a level of prestige and respect reserved only for a handful of artists in the theatre.

Stage Directions: You have 46 Broadway lighting design credits, I take it you still like your job?

Natasha Katz: Oh my god, I definitely like my job! I love my job, and I honestly love it more and more everyday. I used to be the youngest person in the room, and I’m not anymore. At the beginning I asked, “Do I really know what I’m doing?” Now, at least I have that in my soul, which is that I feel like I know what I’m doing—a kind of confidence. It makes this all a different kind of pleasure because there’s great pleasure in also not knowing and in being worried. I still have all of that, though. Every single project is new, so every project is filled with all sorts of uncertainty, but it’s a different kind of uncertainty than what it would have been twenty years ago. It’s the beauty of the creative process. The uncertainty is the chaos of everybody trying to figure out what the show is, the preparation and the relationships between all of these people. All of that is exciting and will continue to be exciting.

Has your approach changed over the years?

I would say that now, 99% of the time I can find an answer to a problem and solve it. I don’t want that to sound cut-and-dry, because it’s an artistic answer to a problem. I mean that experience has taught me how to artistically answer something. Then, there’s the technical side of it—that is, technically I know how to answer things. While maybe 20 years ago I would have thought, “Oh my god. What happens if I don’t have a light in the right place? Oh my god. What happens if it’s in the wrong color? Oh my god. What if the director wants … oh my god …” That was frightening. Now, it feels different.

What kind of trends are you seeing in lighting design now?

I think we are in a period where people like projection a lot. I think scripts are written in a way now where they are more like movie scripts. Projection is an easier way to deal with a crosscut for sure. You can be in one place and can be in another place just by switching a projection versus switching a big piece of scenery to another big piece of scenery. These cross cuts are fast. I don’t think people can sit as long as they used to be able to sit. Their attention spans are different.

It’s interesting that Once got so many Tony Awards because it’s not a fast-paced show in that way. It’s just telling the audience, you can sit here for two and a half hours and relax into this.

Once is brilliant and beautiful, and the warmth and tone that you set on stage is spot-on. Tell me about designing it.

Natasha Katz says the design team for the Brodway musical Once were in complete harmony for the show. Pictured, left to right: Steve Kazee, Anne L. Nathan (background), Cristin Milioti

Natasha Katz says the design team for the Brodway musical Once were in complete harmony for the show. Pictured, left to right: Steve Kazee, Anne L. Nathan (background), Cristin Milioti

First of all, thank you. Once is a throwback; there’s little new technology in that show. There’s something very human about how the show feels. The set is so incredible, too, which really helped the direction and me. The actors take you from one place to another, the direction takes you from one place to another, the movement, by Stephen Hoggett, takes you from one place to another and the music is such a part of it. It’s really every single force coming together. I think that came from the honesty of everybody’s heart. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the show has done so well and why people are going to see it.

Talk about the relationship that exists between the director, the set designer and the lighting designer—particularly the relationship between the lighting designer and the set designer.

Well, it’s a magical relationship, for sure, when it works. Here’s an example from Once: The lights from Dublin when Guy and Girl are looking down on the city. The lights are embedded into the floor and into some of the costumes. People come up to me all the time and say, “God, Natasha, what a great idea that was.” I had nothing to do with that. That was absolutely 100% Bob Crowley’s, the set designer’s, idea. I might know how to make the idea happen, but that’s completely his. So, it isn’t easy sometimes to figure those things out.

When we started in a little black box with 20 lights, they were all old-fashioned lights. They were Fresnels and the kind that look really nice on people’s faces. We kept those all the way through—that warm idea. At New York Theatre Workshop, when Bob Crowley built the set with the mirrors, I don’t think any of us understood what was going to explode out of that. Maybe Bob did, but he never particularly verbalized it. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t in his head, that he didn’t want to give me my space to do it. So, when I talk about Once, it was a complete togetherness. I mean, every once in a while, there’s an idea where I will say, “That’s mine.”

Give me an example of a “that’s mine” idea in Once.

The rooms they are in are squared off by the lighting. That was my idea. I started that at New York Theatre Workshop. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Guy’s house was a lit square?” But I didn’t think about taking that idea throughout the entire show. It was John Tiffany, the director, who said, “If you have the idea, Natasha, do it everywhere. Let’s go for it.” Then, the rest was born. So, the seed was mine, but John Tiffany embraced it.

You’ve attributed a lot of your education and training to learning by watching. Explain what that meant to you in your early years.

I watched everybody. I watched the director, and I watched the stage manager. I watched how people behaved in the theatre. What happens a lot today is that an intern feels that their job is to do something right away, but the “do something right away” part doesn’t really work because they don’t know anything yet. So, I understand that struggle because I’ve felt that way in my own life when I just wanted to do something. There’s so much active participation when taking in what’s going on in a theatre, though, and it never ever got boring to me. I’m sure that has something to do with why I’ve done 46 shows, because it’s still the same for me. It never gets boring.

Graham Douglass is the host of “The Graham Show,” a weekly web-based interview series spotlighting the theatre’s best talent. www.The GrahamShow.com.