Amanda Zieve is a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television. She is a lighting designer who co-founded the Howell Binkley Fellowship program for aspiring lighting designers, honoring the legacy of her mentor, Tony Award-winning lighting designer Howell Binkley, who passed away in 2020. More half of the candidates who applied for the inaugural program last year were women.
When the Broadway play “The lifetime of a factopened at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Studio 54 in 2018, the theater community celebrated that there was an all-female design team – set, costume, sound, projection and lighting – behind it. It was a first and, as many agreed, a long-awaited celebration. Theatrical lighting design in particular was a male-dominated field for many years, although two of its main proponents, Jean Rosenthal and Tharon Musser, were women. According to HowlRound.com writer Porsche McGovern, between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of female lighting designers for League of Resident Theaters productions fluctuated between 12% and 21%, with the same nine female designers accounting for 53% of these positions.
I spent 10 years as an assistant and associate lighting designer for regional and Broadway productions before embarking on my own career as a designer. During this time, I worked for 19 male designers, having never had the opportunity to assist a designer. In fact, I only met one, Natasha Katz, who was the only female American lighting designer in recent memory to work regularly on Broadway.
In my introductory lighting design course, I make it a point to share with my students the accomplishments of Rosenthal, Musser, and Katz, and other prominent women in the field. It is important that they know how influential they have been and are, and I hope they can serve as an inspiration to the next generation of designers, encouraging more women to pursue careers in lighting design. .
In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a quick look at the women who have impacted the profession.
Jean Rosenthal (1912-1969)
Rosenthal was a first-generation Romanian-American who became a technical assistant to Martha Graham and her experimental dance company in New York – the start of a lifelong collaboration – before heading to the Yale School of Drama (now now the David Geffen School of Drama). at Yale University). After graduating in 1934, she returned to Manhattan, where she worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman, eventually amassing over 85 Broadway lighting design credits between 1942 and 1969, including “West Side Story”, “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret”. She was also the first person to be credited as a “lighting designer” for both Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera House. In 1940, she founded Theater Production Service, which rented and sold theater equipment and supplies by catalog. She has also been instrumental in the world of dance, regularly creating for the New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins and Martha Graham Dance Company. Rosenthal referred to the diagonal rays of light she created for Graham as “Martha’s Finger of God”.
Musser often said that Rosenthal was the first to really do lighting art and was much more than just a facilitator of the director’s and set designer’s ideas. His legacy lives on in all of us who design today.
Tharon Musser (1925–2009)
Musser was known as the dean of lighting design. An Appalachian orphan who attended Berea College in Kentucky, she is also a graduate of Yale’s Lighting and Engineering Design program. In a career that spanned 50 years (1956-2006), Musser had 122 Broadway credits and was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning for her work on “A Chorus Line”, “The Wiz” and ” follies”. Musser was the first designer to put a computer lighting console on Broadway – for “A Chorus Line” in 1976. She was also responsible for establishing lighting design as a Tony category in 1970. During of her career, she trained a generation of lighting designers. who helped her, including Tony Award winners Ken Billington (“Chicago”) and lighting designer-turned-producer Richard Winkler (“La Cage aux Folles”). Musser’s assistant, Marilyn Rennagel, became his life partner and lived with Musser until her death.
Musser had a reputation for speaking her mind and always knowing how to get the job done. She lived her life to the fullest and pushed her designs to the next frontier of technology, never sacrificing the artistry of her designs. For those of us who regularly work in male-dominated environments, she was an example of how a woman could be assertive and live out loud. “A light plot isn’t a light plot until it has coffee stains and cigarette burns,” she once said. In many ways, she cemented for the industry and the women who followed her that the contributions of female designers were just as dignified and essential as those of their male counterparts.
Jennifer Tipton (born 1937)
Tipton, a living legend, has 38 Broadway lighting design credits and won two Tony Awards. She is also recognized in the world of dance and is recognized as one of the most versatile designers working today. She prefers a small but powerful color palette and is known for her use of white light and haze in theater and dance. Tipton influenced a generation of lighting designers, including my mentor, Howell Binkley (“Hamilton”, “Jersey Boys”). She has been a professor at Yale since 1981.
Howell was deeply moved by the opportunity Tipton gave him to work on lighting design for the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1978. She showed him how to work efficiently with grace while maintaining artistic integrity. This work ethic stayed with Howell throughout his career. Like Tipton, he also tried his luck with his staff. Howell encouraged me to start teaching, and I can’t help but think his admiration for Tipton played a part in that encouragement.
Natasha Katz (born in 1958)
Katz, a New York native and six-time Tony Award winner with more than 70 Broadway credits to her credit, recently crafted “MJ: The Musical.” She also works extensively in opera and ballet. Katz began her career in 1979 and has publicly noted that back then, women were more present in the industry than they are today; she is fully aware that she works in an increasingly masculine field. In 2016, the mother-of-two told a reporter that she never talks about her children. “My thought was the first thing anyone would think is, ‘Oh, if the kid is sick, then she’s the one who’s going to go,'” she said. Fortunately, I had a different experience. In my role as lighting designer, I have been very candid about the fact that I am also the mother of a young boy. This has never been a problem and has often been praised by my colleagues. For me, it is a hope for the future.