Christina Watanabe: Finding Your Light

by Porsche McGovern
Christina Watanabe, Lighting Designer
Christina Watanabe, Lighting Designer

After hearing about Lighting Designer, Christina Watanabe for years, I was pleased to meet her in person at a USA829 Diversity Committee Meet-up. Christina is a New York City based designer for theatre, dance, music, and events. Her designs have been seen at Lincoln Center, Primary Stages/Cherry Lane, 59E59, HERE Arts Center, The New Ohio, Urban Stages, Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, Penguin Rep, The Public Theatre, Intar, The Bushwick Starr, and Theatre for the New City to name a few. Christina has designed and taught at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and with the Yale Dramatic Association. Other design work includes cabaret, events, and Ralph Lauren’s Madison Avenue windows. Christina has toured with Shen Wei Dance Arts, Jonah Bokaer, and So Percussion. Christina has an MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is a member USA829. She recently took some time to speak with me for Stage Directions Illuminations blog:

Trojan Barbie at Post Theatre Company. Director: Illana Stein. Set: Stephen Carmody. Costumes: Anthony Paul-Cavaretta. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Andrew Lynch. Photo: Ruhi Gandhi.
Trojan Barbie at Post Theatre Company. Director: Illana Stein. Set: Stephen Carmody. Costumes: Anthony Paul-Cavaretta. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Andrew Lynch. Photo: Ruhi Gandhi.

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I’m blissfully ignorant of how it’s harmed my career, but am aware of the fact that these biases do exist.

It has helped, especially now, that people are more aware that other people exist in the world than the ones they’ve always hired. As I get older, I’m getting more opportunities, not just for myself, but for others as well.

An Octoroon at Queens College. Director: Estefanía Fadul. Set: Raul Abrego. Costumes: Elivia Bovenzi. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Sinan Zafar. Photo: Julen Esteban-Pretel.
An Octoroon at Queens College. Director: Estefanía Fadul. Set: Raul Abrego. Costumes: Elivia Bovenzi. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Sinan Zafar. Photo: Julen Esteban-Pretel.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
I purposely created an “entity” for my email address and website because I was worried people wouldn’t be able to spell my last name correctly. To this day, I still see my name misspelled and it’s really frustrating. At one very early point in my career, amidst dozens of rejections, I wondered if changing my name to a whiter, maler version of myself would get me more work.

I’m multi racial. My dad was not interested in me majoring in lighting design; he was concerned about me making a living in the arts. It was important to me and knowing how hard this field can be, I have degrees in both marketing and lighting design.

I went to USITT as a Gateway Mentor. It was an amazing experience to be in a cohort of people from groups who are underrepresented in theatre.

Big Love at Post Theatre Company. Director: Raymond Zilberberg. Set: Brian Dudkiewicz. Costumes: Jen Rice. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Jimmy Sunde. Photo: Mia Isabelle Aguirre.
Big Love at Post Theatre Company. Director: Raymond Zilberberg. Set: Brian Dudkiewicz. Costumes: Jen Rice. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Jimmy Sunde. Photo: Mia Isabelle Aguirre.

What would you like people of color considering or in the early stages of a theatre career to know?  Is there any advice you wish you'd be given?
I think this is an exciting time for people of color to be entering the theatre. I feel like we’re talking more and celebrating diversity. Find your tribe. Keep doing it and if you don’t want to work in theatre anymore, don’t do it; don’t be a martyr to the cause. It feels really good to get yourself in a position to help others.

Ask for the things you need to do your job. This includes time, money, and help.

Didi of Idaho at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Director: Mikhaela Mahoney. Set: Angelica Borrero. Costumes: Audrey Nauman. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Almeda Beynon. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Dido of Idaho at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Director: Mikhaela Mahoney. Set: Angelica Borrero. Costumes: Audrey Nauman. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound: Almeda Beynon. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field? 
I moved to New York City in 2007 and one of the first designers I assisted was Aaron Copp. I learned a lot from him about how to be in the room: calm, easy going, and getting the job done. He brought me to work on Lincoln Center Festival and he’s great about encouraging and hiring women and people of color in the field.

Marie Christine at Columbia Stages. Director: Raymond Zilberberg. Set: Jung Griffin. Costumes: Rebecca Welles. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Projection: David Bengali. Sound: Julian Evans. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Marie Christine at Columbia Stages. Director: Raymond Zilberberg. Set: Jung Griffin. Costumes: Rebecca Welles. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Projection: David Bengali. Sound: Julian Evans. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
There’s a Facebook group I’m a part of, that I feel like I’m really learning about myself by seeing what other people have to say and how they negotiate this field.

The Humans are in Trouble at NYU Tisch. Director: Jack Fletcher. Set: Daniel Soule and Alina Smirnova. Costumes: M. Meriwether Snipes. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound and Video: Anshuman Bhatia. Photo: Ella Bromblin.
The Humans are in Trouble at NYU Tisch. Director: Jack Fletcher. Set: Daniel Soule and Alina Smirnova. Costumes: M. Meriwether Snipes. Lighting: Christina Watanabe. Sound and Video: Anshuman Bhatia. Photo: Ella Bromblin.

What’s your favorite thing about being a lighting designer? Least favorite?
I love using light to change people’s perceptions without them fully realizing it; this is how I tell stories. My least favorite part about the industry of lighting is lighting ideas are harder to see in advance, and more visible during tech, people hiring are less likely to take a chance on newer lighting designers.

You can learn more about Christina, and see her work at her website: www.StarryEyedLighting.com.