An Interview with Natasha Katz
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
May 31st, 2016
“Do you want to meet a genius?” And because I am a rational and inquisitive person, I say, “Yes. Yes, I do.” I am led to a turban-clad woman and come to the rational conclusion that I’m meeting the apparition of Diana Vreeland. This is probably a good time to point out that this meeting takes place at the John Barrett Salon with John Barrett as the ambassador to genius. The turban-clad woman is actually the very real (and with very wet hair) Natasha Katz. The Natasha Katz who has designed lighting for over fifty Broadway shows, who has won five Tony Awards (including for Aida, speaking of turbans), and who has five thousand nominations (an exact figure, obviously). Last year she won the Tony Award for Best Lighting Design of a Musical for An American in Paris, and was also nominated for Best Lighting Design of a Play for Skylight. This year she is nominated for Best Lighting Design of a Play for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of A Long Day’s Journey into Night, where her lighting adds another dimension to the storytelling. And that’s the point of good lighting design: it adds another layer to the audience’s understanding of the story. And Natasha is good. About two months after our meeting at John Barrett, we visited Natasha in her midtown studio to discuss Long Day’s Journey into Night, storytelling through light, how the field has changed, and more.
I want to start with a super reductive question, which is just if you could walk us through your process for Long Day’s Journey into Night and how you decided to make the choices that you made for the lighting.
It’s a play I knew, that I read in school, but it’s a play that I’d never seen, and I’d never watched any of the movies. In this particular case, I read the script not knowing at that point at all what the set was going to be like. That is a very big part of the process for a lighting designer, what the scenery ends up looking like, because we essentially have to react and interplay with the scenery. I read the script and then had all sorts of thoughts in my mind, visual references that came to me about daytime, and time of day, and it’s by the sea. But keeping a blank slate all the time because I didn’t know what the set was going to be like. Then I met with Jonathan [Kent], the director, and he told me about his feelings about the scenery, and then I met with the set designer, Tom Pye, who brought a model over to New York. We looked at the set and then the set started to define a lot of what they wanted, the director and the set designer.
Tell me more about that.
The set designer and the director had this idea that this particular Long Day’s Journey into Night would be based on a particular artist whose name is Hammershøi. He’s Danish. The poster [for the show] looks like a Hammershøi painting. If you look up Hammershøi it’ll all start to fall into place. A lot of people use him for Ibsen and a lot of Scandinavian plays. The thought of all that really had to do with a seaside feeling, a feeling of loneliness. One light through a window. This is a bigger set, I think, than most Long Day’s Journey into Nights, because it’s a family that’s cramped; there’s a whole issue about how much money they have in the family and things like that. This was much more open, I think, in order to allow the emotions of the piece. It’s the explosions and all of that in the play. She talks about the fog rolling in a lot. They all talk about the fog, but really Mary Tyrone talks about the fog the most, which is in the play, we all kind of believed that it is a metaphor for the fog in her mind clearing, coming, clearing, coming. The imprisonment of the family, how they can’t break apart. The walls are opaque, meaning real walls, and then in Act 4 the walls are switched. You don’t realize it, hopefully, in the audience. They switch the walls in the 4th Act, and then we’re able to see through the walls to the fog that’s rolling in. That was a huge part of what Jonathan and Tom were thinking about.
And then what?
Ultimately, I feel it is my role to take all these thoughts that they have and make them come true, but then also essentially add my point of view to it collaboratively. We’re all thinking about it together, but is the color of the light a light blue? Is the color of the light a dark blue, for the fog? The light changes a lot throughout the piece. Not just from a time of day point of view, but from an emotional point of view. A big part of it is each character’s point of view is, in a funny way, reflected in the light. I do firmly believe in any piece that I work on when there’s storytelling involved, if it’s not something that’s so abstract that you don’t care about the story, that lighting itself has to take an arc the same way a character starts at point A and goes to point Z. Whatever point they go to, they have an emotional journey. I think that the lighting does too. That’s not just time of day in this particular case, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, [though] it’s very in tune with time of day. Sometimes time of day doesn’t matter at all, depending on the scenery. In this case it does, because it starts so optimistically at the beginning that maybe she’s actually finally not going to be a morphine addict anymore, and then by the time it’s done it just goes to the depths of complete despair. James Tyrone has a long speech about his past. There’s a really kind of warm light around him, and his son is listening to him. That light is his light, it’s his memory, it’s his past, it’s his. It’s got a kind of womb light, a very nice feeling around him. Comfortable. The past, memories. Then it explodes back, all the corners are dark, the family’s falling apart, but he’s got these memories, and then it comes back into reality, which is then the point of view of the son starts to arrive. That is what I think happens throughout the entire piece of Long Day’s Journey.
How do you balance the points of view in the lights of the different characters? Because I know that sometimes in play development they say, “A play can only be about one person and their journey.” Of course, there’s also another school of thought that theatre, as Lisa Kron puts it, is about a democracy of consciousness. How do you determine when, “Okay, the lights are going to be from this person’s point of view, and now we’re switching to this character’s point of view,” and making sure that it’s still a cohesive whole?
I don’t feel this way about every play. I just have to make that really clear. It’s interesting you said there are two totally different viewpoints. I live both lives as a lighting designer. Some plays I think are, I guess you could call it a wide shot, or what you just called it, democratic consciousness. I rarely delve into what I delved into in Long Day’s Journey into Night, which is this idea that you’re asking me about, about whose point of view it is. How do we decide it? We decide it together as the director and the lighting designer. We did not have a conversation beforehand about what we’re talking about right now. Jonathan Kent and I did not sit down and say, “Okay, each moment is going to be from a different actor’s point of view.” That evolved in this particular play, and it is extremely gratifying when it evolves that way. As the play continued, and as we were in previews, that’s where this point of view idea started to become clearer and clearer. It’s that little spark in the unspoken thing that happens so often in art for anybody. I think that’s what happened in this play, that as the actors became more confident, it became clear. Like the very end of the play, Jonathan did talk about this all the time, he wanted Jessica Lange to look like—Mary Tyrone to look like—she was a ghost. That’s a really strong image, and it’s a really strong thought about what happened to Mary Tyrone throughout the piece. That is lit from her point of view at the very end. Those three guys completely disappear into almost complete darkness, because that moment is about her, the destruction, [snaps] and the ghost is gone. You just blow on her and she’s gone.
Do you find it’s different working on a play like this, a very classic play that uses symbolism in, I would say, a way that’s different than a lot of contemporary pieces?
I think you just hit the nail on the head, actually. I hadn’t thought about that. I think that that is the reason why I was able to do that in this play, because there is so much symbolism that it takes these characters to these epic places and then the point of view becomes, “We could take it one step further.” It’s not just from the character’s point of view; it’s from an epic idea point of view. We could go back to James Tyrone. There are so many levels of symbolism in [him] about death, life, regret. The warmth around that is contrary to all this—everything’s gone wrong for him. That warmth is in counterpoint to the symbolic idea of regret and a life—the life he could have had. The affair that he had, the wife, what he did with his kids, all that stuff. Because that could have been completely turned around to an uncomfortable lighting that felt uncomfortable, [because] he’s uncomfortable in his present. It plays to, I think what you were talking about, which is yes, because of the symbolism, and also it shows that it could be, “Look, I could do it completely different than the way I did it.”
Could it potentially make your job harder? When you have something that does have such strong symbolism, because you have to find the balance of not hitting the audience over the head with it. Finding a way to complement it rather than be redundant with it.
I struggle with that all the time on every show that I ever do. In a funny way, it comes out to a black and white idea, which is, do I work in counterpoint to the emotions, of the emotions that we’re trying to get over to the audience, or do I work in concert with those emotions? This play was the most compelling as we went through the process, because the play told us what to do. It led me by the nose, honestly. It was mostly when we got into previews. Because the audience tells you so much also, and the actors’ performances had started to change through previews.
Do you find that you adjust a lot during previews?
Some people say the first day of lighting is the first preview. There is an aspect of that that I believe is true. I’m like that, where I layer in with the director sort of the base coat, I guess you could say. Once the audience is in there, everything starts to change. The actors start to respond to each other differently. Every single show I’ve worked on has been like that. Then that tells me something, and then I’ll change the lighting based on that. Also, it’s the first time I get to sit back and watch rather than do, because I have to do all the time during tech. But then when it’s the performance, I get to be, as best I can, an objective observer. I try really, really hard to look at each preview with baby eyes. I try to, in an odd way, watch and say, “Okay, I’m an audience member, how do I feel about this?”
Do you do a lot of research for projects?
More and more and more, I do. I try to find images that mean something to me. If we’re talking about a certain artist, then I would research that artist and try to see what that means to the play. Actually researching the artists themselves, somehow that helps me too, to know what their background is. Hammershøi, all his paintings are of a woman sitting by a window. Why would he have just a woman sitting by a window? Then you start to find out things about that artist. I do believe sometimes we have to wash our slate clean before we walk into a show, so I do that in the sense that I say, “Okay, I don’t want any outside reference. I just want to start from my gut and see what all of that means,” too.
Do you use literature as a reference? Especially for a play like this that, again, has heavy symbolism that comes so much from a literary tradition.
I know a lot about O’Neill because I just do, because I think he’s so incredible. Actually my father was a psychiatrist, so I have a huge Freudian background in my growing up. It’s O’Neill and Freud, they must have been brothers because there’s so many references to Freud’s way of thinking. Yes, I would say Sigmund Freud. Yes, I do [use literature] a ton. I read about the situation, I read about the authors very often. I’d say 90% of the time. The other 10% is the same thing, sometimes I say, “You know what, just leave it alone.” Like Aladdin, which I did. It’s completely different. Maybe I read the story of Aladdin, but it’s not like I’m going to go in and research every single fairy tale of that period. But we did take a trip to Morocco to research it with Disney, like five of us. It really helped in terms of light and color and just the feel. It’s not always an intellectual exercise. I think that very often it can just be a kind of emotional exercise.
Do you find that TV and film has affected how an audience watches shows or how they process what they’re watching?
Definitely. No question about it. I do think Long Day’s Journey, for the younger generation, is a harder play for them to watch. Only because I know a couple teenagers who saw it and they liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough. These quick cuts and everybody on their phones and things like that, I think that that does affect concentration a lot.
Does that affect how you do your job in terms of what you were saying about how the lighting can have an arc to it?
Yes, actually. I think that Long Day’s Journey into Night has been affected by that in the sense of the lighting probably has more movement in it than I might have done 15 years ago, because the idea of static, restful… it’s just not a part of our vocabulary today.
It’s like that old trick that they started doing on The West Wing, where you could have people give the long speeches if they did them while they were walking.
We did the walk and talk version of Long Day’s Journey into Night. They move around a lot. He sits at the table, but Jessica Lange is like a moth moving around that stage all the time. If I think about a lot of the theatre that I’ve seen in the last couple of years, even plays, there tends to be a lot of visual movement in them.
Do you think the amount of TV and film we watch also affects how people process theatre? I was doing an interview a couple of weeks ago where someone was saying that they actually thought a good thing about TV and film getting better and more complex is that it teaches more people how to watch complex stories.
I couldn’t agree more. The writing in television is getting so good now. Unfortunately they’re taking a lot of theatre writers out to Hollywood, which they always did. I completely agree with that, that the writing’s getting so much more complex that it’s true, that we are able to have these more complex thoughts. It’s harder, I think, for theatre writers then to be like, “What defines [whether] this should be on stage rather than a television show?” That’s not for me to decide, that’s for writers and producers and directors to decide. The one thing I can do to help that is make it feel more like it has to be here in the theatre through lighting. I think the bar is definitely being raised, no question.
You know when they talk about film, for example, that now everything’s on digital, but there’s a certain feel that’s lost with that. You kind of can’t recreate that feeling of something being shot on film with digital. You can get close, but not exact. Do you feel like there’s a lighting equivalent now with the way technology has changed?
There is, actually. There is an equivalent. Do you want me to get super technical?
Let’s do it.
Here, they’re right here. These are LEDs. They are extremely energy efficient, and that’s why we’re not able to buy light bulbs anymore, because the government wants us to use this because they’re so energy efficient. But what they’re not great at is what they look like on skin color. Honestly, it’s not so different from digital to film. It has, in many ways, changed the depth, the feel, because it’s not great on skin color, and then you can’t really light the next layer the way you used to be able to light it. It’s lost a softness, which actually completely relates to film versus digital. But I do believe digital is going to finally get back to that, and I believe we’re going to finally eventually get back to that too. The worst thing that’s happened with technology is there’s a kind of alienation of the character to the audience, because there’s something unreal about the color of the light. If you’re trying to, like in Long Day’s Journey, to take these characters and put them in the lap of the audience and make the audience feel a human emotion, that’s where these kind of lights start to become a problem.
Your first big Broadway show was for Disney, Beauty and the Beast. Like a big Broadway musical. People talk about the Disney-fication of Broadway and all that, which seems to be a very controversial topic in its way. I’m always interested in how people who actually worked through that time think about that. It seems like sometimes we look back and we focus on X, but maybe we should be talking about Y. Like yes, Disney changed things, but Times Square doesn’t sound like a lot of fun back before its revitalization. From your perspective, how has the industry changed in the last 20 years?
Speaking of Times Square, I grew up in New York City. I grew up actually on the Upper West Side. I went to the theatre all the time as a kid. You could roll a bowling ball down 42nd Street, when I was a teenager, and the only people who would wake up would be the hookers. There was nobody on the street. It was unbelievable. When I would go to the theatre as a teenager, 8th Avenue was lined up with hookers. The great thing was that even though that was New York in those bad days, even though it felt kind of grimy, they were in their own world so you knew they weren’t going to hurt you—they had their own thing going on. But I remember when 42nd Street was completely boarded up. There were still some porno houses and stuff like that. And nobody was going to the theatre. Theatre was having all sorts of problems. But the theatre had come back pre-Beauty and the Beast. Beauty and the Beast didn’t bring theatre back to New York, but it did change the dynamic, no question about it, of the business. When I was asked to do the lighting for Beauty and the Beast, a lot of people, other lighting designers, told me not to take the job because theatre was going to change forever. I just have to say this: Tom Schumacher, who’s the head of Disney Theatrical, has been one of the best employers I have ever had in my life. They are loyal, they are artistic. As a matter of fact, Liesl Tommy [in your interview] was talking about being hired by Disney to do Frozen for the parks. I thought she said something really interesting, which is the idea that you can always do [more]—they’re so open to what’s the next thing to do. Everything we’re talking about, youth and the new theatre and stuff like that. They’ve been amazing. I don’t think their master plan was to eat and devour Broadway, but I do think the master plan was, and I could be wrong about this, to clean it up so that tourists wanted to start coming back to New York. Last night, at 11 o’clock at night, when I was walking to the train, some big guy from Star Wars, he must have been 8 feet high in a wolf outfit with two plastic guns in his hands, was walking down the street. I was like, “What has happened?” I don’t think that was Disney’s master plan.
I wanted to talk about when you were starting out in your career. Something that comes up a lot with directors, for example, is that they felt they had to present themselves a certain way when they were starting out to get taken seriously. In your career, especially when you were starting out, did you feel like you had to give a lot of conscious thought to how you presented yourself in terms of femininity?
I would say yes is definitely the answer to that, but that I dress in a very middle of the road way, something that wouldn’t take a stand in any way, shape, or form. I must’ve taken some stand, but I don’t know what it was.
When I was researching this I found out that one of the very famous historic lighting designers was a woman, which I didn’t know.
I feel that lighting design as we know it today was started by a woman. Her name was Jean Rosenthal. It was a woman’s profession, and there’s a joke that that’s why lighting designers are so underpaid, because it was a woman’s field. It was for years—there was Jean Rosenthal, Tharon Musser, Peggy Clark. Women, at that time when they started, weren’t allowed on stage. Peggy Clark, from standing in the audience, would tell the electricians what to do. Pre-Jean Rosenthal, the electrician worked with the set designer. It definitely was super male-dominated then. Then Jean Rosenthal changed the whole shape of all of that. I would say when I started, I thought of it as a business where it was mostly women. Now, there are very few women lighting designers. I think the pay scale went up, and had a lot to do with that. I think that the job got more accepted. People have asked me in the past why is it so male-dominated now. I’m not entirely sure. Some people think it’s because there’s so much technology involved. I don’t know what it is. I think it could just be the way the world works.
I was going to ask you that too, why it would seem to be going in the opposite direction.
It’s very upsetting to me. A business that started out as so woman-run is now completely flipped and is male-run. It’s not just Broadway. They’ve done all sorts of studies and stuff. It’s Off-Broadway, it’s the world of ballet, it’s all over. It’s terrible.
Can you pinpoint a year or a few years where you felt like that change happened?
Yeah, I probably could. It probably was like the mid-’90s, like 20 years ago, I would say. Tharon Musser, she was such a huge influence on all of us, she was the lighting designer for A Chorus Line and a lot of shows that Michael Bennett did… Follies. I think that when she stopped being a lighting designer, I think that somehow everything tipped after that. I don’t know why, though.
This is one of those questions women get asked a lot and men never get asked, which is probably part of the problem, but how have you found balancing having a family with also working in theatre? Is there anything that you think the theatre community can do to make that easier for people?
I never talk about my family. I don’t because of all the clichés that exist, which is that if I talk about my kids, my thought was the first thing that somebody would think is, “Oh, if the child is sick then she’s going to be the one to leave.” I never took them to the theatre. My husband took them to the theatre all the time. There it is right there: all those issues where it’s okay for a man to do one thing and not for a woman. There are very few people in our business who have children. There are very few women in our business who have children. Actors [do], but not a lot of designers because we travel a lot and things like that. I do think there’s plenty that could be done. I think that embracing some sort of childcare, for sure. What else? Talking about it more. What else can we do in our business to make that easier with children? Oh God, there’s so many things. In England, healthcare is taken care of. In this country, as lighting designers and designers, we have to make a certain amount of money in order to be able to qualify for healthcare. I have to make more money in order to have my kids on healthcare. Within my union, if I have children, I pay more than other people. All of that is wrong, it seems to me, because I’m essentially being penalized financially for having children, which doesn’t seem right to me. I think if things like that could change, it would be better. I think the country as a whole, if they treated women better it would be better.
There was a study with lawyers where they found that women who are partners in law firms usually are married to people who are also working in similar jobs. Whereas most of the men who are partners at law firms have wives who are mostly staying at home, taking care of all the childcare, all the household stuff. It becomes a whole other thing that women have to think about that their male counterparts don’t.
I think we need a seismic change in our culture about that. I know that there are plenty of families now where the man is doing as much as the woman, but if you read these articles they all were conditioned in a certain way. They keep finding out more and more and more that men don’t do as much as women do around the house. Raising my kids, it was like being in 24-hour technical rehearsals. There’s just so much to do, to take care of it. We need a seismic cultural change, really, I think is the best way to look at it. The thing about Broadway, for me, has been that if there’s sexism, I don’t feel it. I don’t think that’s just denial on my part. I don’t know what jobs I’m not hired for because I’m a woman. I don’t know about it, I don’t want to know about it. From the stagehands to the ushers to everybody, I’ve never felt disrespected by men, or any kind of sexism. We all get in there and we all do our jobs together. That’s what makes Broadway so fantastic. On the other hand, I just had an experience with somebody. He was actually an assistant of mine, who kept interrupting me. I didn’t say anything about it, he brought it up. He said—this is just a couple days ago—he said, “I’m really sorry Natasha. I know I keep interrupting you.” I just learned this expression, it’s called manspeak. Do you know what that is?
I’d never heard it before. It’s when a man keeps interrupting a woman. I said, “Are you sure that it’s that you’re just interrupting me, it’s not that you interrupt everybody?” He said, “No, I think I’m interrupting you.” I was horrified by that, because that comes from when you’re a child. For whatever happened in his life that he—and he realized it, somebody must have said something to him—that you always interrupt women but you don’t interrupt men. That’s terrible. The other thing, though, about our business, on the pro side, is that there are so many fabulous general managers, fabulous producers. There is a whole subset of women in our business that are extremely supportive, and there are a lot of them. There are a lot of women producers, a lot of women general managers. There is that, there just aren’t a lot of women designers for some reason.
What’s something you think can be done to improve equality for women in theater?
I think a couple things. I think mentoring other women, women mentoring women, is really, really important. I don’t know how women find other women to mentor them. I think I do believe more women directors and more women writers is a really, really important thing. That’s the genesis of all of it. I think more women lighting designers would be awesome, and more women designers in general would be great. How that all happens? I think it all goes back before us, in a way, too. Some of it has to do with schooling. I’m sure childcare has a ton to do with it. Once you have the child it does become really, really hard to work in this business. I don’t know what else. I wish I knew the answer to that, but I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anybody knows the answer. This is not something that is just a women’s issue, it’s an everybody issue.