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Designer Spotlight: Lighting Designer Christina Watanabe

Michael S. Eddy • April 2021Artist Spotlight • April 1, 2021

This story can be read below or in our April 2021 digitial edition

Christina Watanabe is a New York City-based lighting designer who has been gaining attention and accolades as her career builds. In addition to designing off-Broadway and around New York at theaters including The Public Theater (Under the Radar), The Bushwick Starr, Theatre for the New City, Minor Theatre, Post Theatre Company, and The Living Theatre, she also served as a lighting coordinator at Lincoln Center Festival. She designs regionally across the country with theaters including Virginia Stage Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Florida Repertory Theatre, and White Heron Theatre Company. She has toured internationally with Shen Wei Dance Arts, and domestically with choreographer Jonah Bokaer, and So Percussion. Mentoring and teaching are important to Watanabe who has acted as a USITT Gateway Mentor at the 2018 and 2019 Conferences. She has designed and mentored at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and with the Yale Dramatic Association and has been a visiting arts faculty and adjunct instructor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She is currently a visiting arts faculty teaching lighting design and stage management at the University of Central Oklahoma. [Since this story published, Watanabe has been named Assistant Professor of Lighting Design at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University, leading the BFA program in Lighting Design]. Watanabe has a BFA from the University of Florida and an MFA from New York University and is a member of United Scenic Artists Local 829, IATSE. We appreciate her time to speak with Stage Directions about her career, work, and about teaching design.

What drew you to lighting design?

I blame my dad! He was a mechanic—he’s retired now—but he would fix cars in our driveway on the weekends for friends. I’d be watching cartoons and he’d always pull me out so that I could hold the flashlight for him. So, that’s why I say that this is his fault because I was really good at holding that flashlight, I could always find just the right spot to point the light.

In high school I was in drama club and the one student who knew how to run the light board graduated, so someone said to me ‘why don’t you do that?’. Concurrently, I was also starting to become interested in color psychology and I appreciated how related those two areas are. When I got to college at the University of Florida, I thought I was going to be a business major. I didn’t even know that you could major in lighting design growing up, but literally on the day of registration, looking through the course catalog, there was a lighting design major. I thought that sounded cool; so, I did both at the same time. I graduated with a BFA in lighting design and a BA in marketing.

After graduating, I moved to New York City and I started working. I’d take any jobs that anybody would pay me 50 cents to design. Then after a few years of working, I started to think about applying for grad school. I knew I wanted to stay on the East coast so I applied to three schools and one of schools that accepted me was NYU and that’s where I decided to go. I graduated with an MFA in 2013. Then I went back to working freelance, and in 2015 I joined the United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829 union.

Is there a specific project you feel set you on your career path?

I would say the very first show that I did when I got to New York City—the ID America Festival for Quo Vadimus Arts at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center. It was a showcase of 30 plays about American identity. I was hired before I’d even moved to New York City having applied via Playbill and then had a phone interview with the producers and directors. The fact that I was able to move to New York City with a design job felt really good for me to start the hustle. I’m still friends and in touch with many of those folks today who have also blossomed into their own careers. Later, I asked them why they chose me for the job. They said that they really liked me and that I was the only one who had a website. This was back in the dark ages when not everybody had a website. So because I had a website, they thought that I was serious about what I did.

What’s a production that is a memorable experience in your design career?

Wild Party at Post Theatre Company (photo: Mia Isabella Aguirre)

Definitely Wild Party for the Post Theatre Company is one. That was just such a great experience. It was a great show that I was excited to do at the time and am really proud of still. That’s the show that won me the Knight of Illumination sword. The fact that it has gotten great recognition from my peers; it’s a huge compliment.

Tell us about your lighting design for Wild Party.

I knew the show and and I knew that it was going to be hard, but I was so excited to do it. I had one week off before tech for another show, and tech for Wild Party was that same week so I thought ‘Okay, I can just barely slide it in.’ I knew I would have to have help because I wasn’t going to be able to focus the show, and I wasn’t going to be able to be there for the final dress. I had done five or six shows with this group before, so I told the general manager, ‘I’m really interested in working on Wild Party, but here are my parameters to make it work; these are the dates when I can physically be there and I need to bring on some associates for the front half.’ The general manager came back and said, ‘Great. Anybody that you trust, I trust.’ I thought that was really nice to have somebody be confident in me. Because they could have just as easily said no.

I hadn’t worked with the director for Wild Party, Scott Ebersold before and I was excited to get to work with him. I had seen his The View UpStairs, off-Broadway and I wanted to see what his take on Wild Party was. Also, I looked forward to again working with the scenic designer, Edward Morris. I’d done a couple of shows with him previously and knew it would be awesome. Of course, it was another great opportunity to work with Jen Rice, who’s the resident costume designer there. When they showed me the set that they had come up with, along with the orientation of the set in the space, I saw there was a full ceiling over a bowling alley-style set. The seating was on the two long sides of this rectangular space. They did point out that there were two skylights in the full ceiling, so it wasn’t completely ‘full’; they called it a 95% full ceiling. I looked at it and I was in. I wanted to do the show; it’s a great musical with a director that I was interested in working with, set and costume designers who I already knew and enjoyed working with; and with a company that I enjoy working and that trusted me. So, I had one week to do it all—with a full ceiling. I am just so proud of the fact that the show looked great. 

Wild Party (photo: Mia Isabella Aguirre)

For the lighting design, one of my favorite things about that design is something that I thought wasn’t going to work but I wanted to try it. The ceiling consisted of metallic tin ceiling panels. I took some color-changing LED PARs that I thought I would shoot up at the ceiling and then have the light bounce to get some backlight into the space. I had them hung at a low angle, pointed up at the ceiling to bounce the light, and then literally hoped for the best. As I was drafting the show, I thought that this was going to work. The computer said it’s probably going to do something. But to be honest, I didn’t know. I was so ready to just cut the lights if it didn’t work during focus. But it worked! It actually worked much better than I’d anticipated and that lighting really turned into a workhorse for my design.

What’s a piece of advice you got in your career that you still find applicable today?

From my very first show in New York City, one of the producers said to me, ‘Don’t work for free.’ Even if it’s just asking for a transit MetroCard to do the job. Ask for something. Make sure that you’re valuing the work that you’re putting in and make sure that the people around you are too. That is something that I hold dear. Of course, there are times that I also break that advice. I have worked for free for friends who are producing a show, especially if I just got off doing a big show and can work it out to spend a few days working with a friend. But overall, ‘Don’t work for free’, that would be the one piece of advice that sticks out.

What’s a piece of advice you would give to someone in the early stages of their lighting design career?

I always tell people boring, practical things. Start a retirement fund. Make sure you’re drinking enough water. And, don’t work for free. I am also honest about the caveats to that as well. Maybe the best thing about advice is that you hear them, and they work for the people that are giving the advice, obviously, but then it’s about what you do to take that piece of advice and make it yours. How do you make that advice work for you?

Another thing that I say a lot is ‘Do what makes you happy’. Especially to the students who are in my lighting design classes. Great, you want to be a lighting designer for the rest of your life, awesome. I support that. I’m excited for you. But if you don’t ever want to do lighting design again, that’s cool too. I support that, and I’m excited for you. I think it’s just as important. We need doctors and lawyers and teachers who love the theater. I think wherever your path takes you, as long as you’re happy. There’s no one right path; people get to where they are through various winding paths. I think as long as you’re being true to yourself then that’s the secret to success. Another piece of advice I always tell my students: whatever you do today, make your future self’s life easier!

Regarding the ongoing conversations about working conditions, what adjustments and lasting changes do you see potentially in how theater designers work, and student designers are taught, as we move forward after the pandemic?

I think this pause has afforded us the opportunity to really examine these practices that have existed in our industry for way too long, but that have been accepted as the norm. That you’re going to work six days a week and do 10-out-of-12s—which every designer knows is never true. It’s never a 10-out-of-12; it’s always like a 15-out-of-16. So, how can we make this a better industry for people to have a life? Let’s get away from this idea of a starving artist. This is an industry that contributes so much to the economy. So why can’t we do the thing that we love and also be a human being at the end of the day? Long hours and six-day work weeks are really difficult for people in general, but practically impossible if you’re a caregiver to anyone. Those with disabilities will have a harder time navigating any of the ins and outs. And just to be able to do this work that’s really hard on your body.

So it is important to ask, ‘What can we do to change that, to make it better?’ I mean, not even for the next generation, but for this generation now. People keep talking about a reset or restart button, and that’s cool. So, how do we want to restart it? If we’re playing a choose your adventure game, no one’s saying that you have to choose the same choices you made before. Let’s look to people who you’ve never hired before you’ve never worked with before. Is that taking a risk? Yeah. But isn’t that exciting? Don’t you make exciting art when you take risks?

As an educator, what are one or two essential things you want to ensure your students remember as they go forth into their career?

Radium Girls at UCO’s Department of Theatre Arts (photo: UCO University Photography Services)

Collaboration—and how to collaborate—is a thing that I want my students to take away. If you want to be a fine artist and work by yourself in a studio or make installations, I think that’s awesome. Go do that. I support that. But, if you’re working in a theater, you’re working with such a large team of people who need to bring their own separate ideas and experiences to the table. Being able to be a part of that team; that’s a thing that I really like about working in theater. That you’re part of a team making something.

Also I want them to remember, ‘Don’t be an asshole’ is another one. The hours are long. Hopefully, they won’t be as long in the future as we continue the conversations against 10-out-of-12s, but the hours are long and the pay isn’t great. Again, hopefully the current conversations will improve pay too, but regardless, everyone’s working really hard in the theater space during a show and there’s no reason that anyone should be mean about anything. We’re all there to create a great show. You need to play well with everyone.

Teachers always learn from their students. What are some of the lessons teaching has brought to you?

I think there’s joy in learning and that’s something that I like seeing in students. When I was teaching my intro class a little bit about photometrics last semester, and just seeing the fear in their eyes, it was a moment of ‘okay, I get it, I’m talking about math right now, but we’re going to get through this together. I’m here to help you because I know you can do it’. Just from seeing the fear in their eyes to seeing their final projects, which were amazing, it’s like rediscovering the craft again. I also think, for me, as I break processes down to explain things to students it’s at the same time reminding myself, ‘Oh yeah, this is why I actually do all of these things, all these steps.’ Because it really is helpful to the final design and, again, trying to make my future self’s life easier. 

What do you enjoy about being a teacher?

It’s the joy and discovery. I didn’t set out to be the teacher, to be honest. I’ve actually said before, ‘Oh, I’m never going to teach.’  But at one point I was like, ‘Wait, somebody wants to pay me to talk about lighting all day? Hold on, this sounds really cool. Let’s explore that more!’ So, I get paid to talk about lighting to people who listen to me, and that’s awesome. I enjoy lighting and I love what it is and love when I’m able to just share that joy with students. Again, whether they take it any further than beyond the classroom walls, that’s entirely up to them. But just letting them know that’s an option if they want to pursue it, I enjoy helping them make that discovery.

What do you love about being a designer?

Radium Girls at UCO’s Department of Theatre Arts (photo: UCO University Photography Services)

Ever since I was young, I knew that I did not want to have a so-called ‘desk job’, which is ironic because I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, even in the ‘before times’. But something that I always love is finding new types of problem-solving. Even if you’re doing the same show with the same team; it’s not going to be the same thing every single time. I think there’s that constant rediscovery. 

Also, for me as a designer there’s something about being able to wordlessly control the emotions of your audience that I find really fascinating in a way. Asking, ‘what is it that I can do using this medium to communicate this story to people who don’t even realize they’re being told a story? Who just understand that they’re feeling something right now?’ The answer is, obviously, not just the lighting that does that; it’s lighting, sound, costumes, scenery, projection, movement—it’s everything about the creation of a piece. I like being part of that team; creating that piece and seeing the audience be affected by that creation.  

Learn more about Christina Watanabe at her website: www.starryeyedlighting.com

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