(“Dreamgirls,” Apollo Theater 2009. Photography: Joan Marcus)
Tony Award winner Ken Billington has been infatuated with lighting since the fourth grade when he was working on a play and did a blackout, and his classmates screamed and cheered as the lights came back up. Since then, as one of Broadway’s most-celebrated lighting designers, Ken has created lighting for almost 100 Broadway shows, dozens of Off-Broadway shows and every format of theatrical lighting, including opera, dance, concerts, theme parks and spectaculars as well as architectural work.
In addition to a Tony Award for Lighting Design, Ken has been honored with an Ace Award for Television Lighting, the Luman Award for Architectural Lighting, Drama Desk, Los Angeles Drama Critics and Boston Drama Critics awards, among many others. Additionally, he has been named Lighting Designer of the Year by both USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology, Inc.) and LDI (Live Design International). In 2015, Ken became one of only a few lighting designers ever inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
With approximately 35 design projects in his work queue each year, Ken never loses enthusiasm for his next assignment. Speaking to me from his office at Broadway’s August Wilson Theater, he had just opened a musical, “Chasing Rainbows,” at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and was off to New Jersey to see a run-through of “Momma’s Boy,” a new play he is working on. In the desk in front of him was the set design for the musical “Candide,” which will open on Jan. 6 at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
[MM] With so many shows to your credit and each one being unique, how do you use lighting to help tell a story?
[Ken] It all comes from the printed word. I work for the author, and part of my job is to convey the author’s intent to the audience. That’s done by the director, all of the designers and the music, if there is any. It has to start with the text, though. You read through the piece and say, “Okay this is sad, this is happy, this is bouncy, this is funny, this is serious, this is uncomfortable and something you don’t really want to see.” You need to take all those things into consideration, come up with ways to tell those stories and help the playwright along.
They may have written, “It’s a gray January day in Ohio.” So, guess who gets to make it a gray January day in Ohio? That’s my job. The next scene might be in summer, and the characters may be at the beach. Or, in the middle of a comedy, death may be coming, and I’ll need to reflect that, bringing the audience along without them knowing.
I can manipulate the lights to focus the audience on a specific character who has a long speech, while everyone else fades into the background. The audience doesn’t realize that, along with the director, I have helped them focus on something important that is being said. If the curtain goes up and it’s bright and cheery, you say to yourself, this is going to be bright and cheery and lovely. You don’t think of the lights, but the emotion.
If the curtain goes up and the stage is dark with one down light on somebody in shadow, you know it’s a little more serious. You wouldn’t say the light is making you feel it’s serious, but you would sense it. Similarly, I can get more applause at the end of a musical number by putting a light cue at the right place. If it’s a button, the lights bump up. If it’s a fadeout, I can help the applause or kill it by putting the lighting cue in the wrong place. We manipulate the audience a great deal without them knowing. Subtlety is our middle name in the theater.
[MM] When you’re hired onto a new show, how do you approach it?
[Ken] I prefer to be brought in at the same time as the scenic designer, so we’re both conceiving the look at the same time with the director. Those first meetings are crucial to what the concept of the show will be. Then, I have to take a backseat until the scenic designer comes up with the look. Once they have the scenic elements, l can figure out how to light them. The scenic designer will often call me during those early design weeks to talk about materials and possible hanging positions.
When the scenic drawing finally gets to my table, I’ve been thinking about the show for a long time and have an idea of what I want the lighting to look like. What the scenery does is lock you into the architecture of where you can place lighting equipment. If there isn’t a place I need, then that’s a discussion to have with the designer. At that point, before the scenery goes out for bids, we also talk about materials. What is the set made of? What are the construction materials? That way, I can make it look better. It’s the same with the costume designer. The costume designer is always sending me samples of material saying, “Here are swatches of what I think scene one will be.” It’s a joint effort of the various designers to come up with a cohesive look, so people will walk out saying the show looked terrific—not the scenery or the lights or the costumes—that it all looked terrific.
Then, it’s a matter of figuring out what are the right fixtures, where they go, what to plug them into and picking color.
[MM] How long before opening night does the process begin?
[Ken] With a typical Broadway musical, meetings start about a year out, nine months at least. I’m currently laying out a show that opens in January, and we had our initial meetings in April. I’ve had the drawing for about six weeks, so there’s a good lead-time.
When you’re doing a show and the performances are set to start on Jan. 1, you need to load it into the theater, which takes a couple weeks. Technical rehearsals take a couple weeks, so now you’re at Dec. 1. It takes six to eight weeks to build the scenery, so now we’re back to the first of October. The drawings need to be done before that, so everything can go out to bid for scenery.
It’s the same with the light plot. I usually have it done six weeks to two months before the show goes into the theater because, again, it has to go out for bids. Then, you have to consider that the electricians will need two or three weeks to prepare the equipment in the lighting shop before they even deliver it to the theater. Shows are fully designed long before they go into rehearsal.
[MM] Don’t the theaters have their own lights?
[Ken] No, Broadway and touring theaters don’t own any equipment; everything must be rented and brought in—lights, dimmers, control, follow spots and cable. In Broadway theaters, there’s electricity and a ghost light in the middle of the stage, and that’s it. Every show is completely handmade; nothing is mass-produced. The good thing is I’m never stuck because of the lights a particular theater owns. I just have to decide what the correct piece of equipment is to do the job. I am able to choose the type of lights I want, where I want to put them and what they plug into.
After the lights are all hung, I walk onstage to focus, which means telling the electricians where to aim the lights. Then, I sit at a plywood table in the middle of the auditorium and figure out when to turn lights on and off, make the pictures and record it to the lighting console. I then polish the lighting during previews and, after opening night, leave the electrician and stage manager to maintain the show. While I go back every few months to check on it, I’m already off to the next one.
[MM] Do you have a preference for certain fixture types for Broadway productions?
[Ken] They each have a place in the theater; it’s not an all or nothing event. We have various tools with which we design our shows and need to pick the correct ones to achieve the artistic design a particular project requires. Some artists work in acrylics and some in watercolors; they’re not the same. They’re different and do different things; the same is true with lighting.
Incandescent lighting is terrific and does many things. It’s also very pleasing to the eye. Discharge is great sometimes. It’s bright, is good for long throws and you can color correct it, if necessary. LED is a good tool wherever it is necessary. You have to take many things into consideration and resolve what the right equipment is to do the job at hand.
In my world, noise is also a major factor. Fan noise. If you put up a lot of moving lights, automated lights with fans on them, it could be louder than the performance. We are very much concerned about it, which is why some of the LED moving lights are great; they don’t have fans.
If you’re doing a big rock concert in a stadium or arena and have 300 fans going on 300 lights, nobody really cares, because it’s probably pretty loud. If you’re doing a play or a quiet musical, though, you have to be very conscious of fan noise and where you put the lights. The old Martin MAC 2000 fixtures were terrific, and we used them for years, but you had to be careful of how many you put on a show because of the sound. Now, we have the Martin MAC Vipers, which are great lights and quiet, too.
[MM] As a visual artist in lighting, do you also create art in other mediums?
[Ken] It’s interesting; I can’t paint or draw. I can’t do anything we would assume a visual artist could, but I can really paint with light. I totally think of myself as an artist; I don’t think of myself as a technician in any way, shape or form. I could never do a sketch to show anybody anything, but I sure can turn the lights on and off to make a stage or architectural setting look how it’s supposed to, so people keep hiring me!
[MM] As a child, when did you realize you had an artistic spirit?
[Ken] I did lights in grammar school and in Cub Scouts. When I went into junior high, I played with the lights, joined the community theater and never stopped. I do exactly what I always wanted to do, and I love it. By going from project to project, I have met so many fascinating people. I have worked all over the world and have had a terrific career doing what I love.
[MM] Considering the shows you’ve worked on, do you have any personal favorites?
[Ken] I love them all. When I’m doing a project, it’s clearly the most important one, because I can’t be distracted. I don’t do many plays. People think of me more for musicals and bigger things, which is why I am excited about the play I’m working on now. I’ll do a musical and then a play, concert, theme park show or architectural project, then maybe jump to television. Whichever it is, I love the challenge of working in very different forms of theater and entertainment.
[MM] How different has your architectural lighting experience been than working in the theater?
[Ken] We use many of the same principles, but it depends on the project. I mostly do restaurants, where people have to look good, and the food has to look good. So, it’s all about angle, color and intensity. I still do what I do, but it’s permanently installed in the ceiling. With architectural lighting, I also need to deal with multiple contractors, like the HVAC guy who wants to put a duct where I want to put a light. It’s different, but the end result to the patron is, “I look good. The food looks terrific. It’s warm and comfortable. This is where I want to be.”
[MM] You’ve also designed lighting for theme parks. Do you consider it more of an architectural or theatrical assignment?
[Ken] It’s actually both. I lit a Disneyland show called Fantasmic! 25 years ago, and it’s still running. At Busch Gardens Williamsburg I, or someone from my office, designed most of the stage shows—I think we have 10 there. At SeaWorld Orlando, I did the architectural lighting for a whole area of the park called the Waterfront as well as the lighting for all of SeaWorld’s Shamu the Killer Whale shows. So, depending on the park, it can go from outdoor spectaculars to indoor spectaculars.
[MM] In your years of lighting for stage, you must have witnessed many technical changes. Have there been any that have dramatically impacted your work?
[Ken] What I’ve seen change is the equipment we use. For many years, we went with the same fixtures and then got automated lighting. I used the first automated fixtures on Broadway in 1985, but they didn’t really make a big impact until the late 90s. In my world, one of the biggest changes was the addition of computer control in the mid to late 70s. When I started, it was all manual control. Then, in 1983, we added color scrollers, which are starting to go away, replaced by LEDs, which give us infinitely more color and can be a blessing or not. Trends in lighting equipment change very rapidly and have for the last 10 years. At the end of it, though, it’s all about the design process and telling a story. That’s it.
Many thanks to Ken for discussing his monumental body of work with us. Are you a theatrical or architectural lighting designer and, if so, do you see any new artistic or technical trends emerging? Share your thoughts in the comments.