[Full article published in UrbanExcavations May 22, 2020, by Martha Wade Steketee.]
I spoke with lighting designer Isabella Byrd several times in 2019, hoping to publish our interviews in several outlets. The fact any version of these interviews wasn’t posted at all last calendar year is due to editorial choice at one outlet and my failure to deliver final copy for a second.
In this time of virus, our national and international opportunity to take stock (and attempt to stay safe), I have decided to edit and share these unpublished reflections collected over the past year, from a smart female creative who has been working extensively off Broadway and around the United States and occasionally out of the country. Isabella and I worked together for several years on Chance Magazine, an exploration of theater and photography that “looked at the world through the lens of theater and design.” She is a young designer who is working constantly and deserves to be out there, in all her glory. It’s time to hear more from her.
This is the first of two interviews. Part one addresses her training, professional vision, past experiences and collaborations, and future hopes. Heroes of the Fourth Turning, her fall 2019 collaboration with playwright Will Arbery, will form the basis of a second article to follow.
Do you have a personal professional statement or vision?
I don’t have one guiding principle that I think moves me through my work, though I do find myself moving forward in design as a dramaturg quite often. I just fall back into the text or the foundation of the project that I’m working on. I find great joy in research, whether it’s visual or word based, and musical based. I often realize that I fall back into that core in all of my movements, even though so much of lighting design starts to stray technically, I always resort back to the original seed of a project.
I definitely have moments, certain years or swaths of time that I have ideas that I’m interested in, that sort of find their way into certain projects that I’m working on.
I mostly work on plays rather than musicals or installation pieces. I’ve always been a reader and idea hunter. I tend to foster collaborations with people who invite me into the process early enough that I can do that. newest returning collaborator right now is Danya Taymor — we did “Daddy” in 2019 and Everybody in 2017.
I’m not afraid to be vocal about an idea manifesting on stage and how that relates back to the text and to ask bigger questions about the thing. I’ve had to learn to wave that personal flag about myself pretty early in processes. I like to let people know that I enjoy being in rehearsal very early, and to include me in conversations as early as they’re comfortable. I feel that my work will absolutely be better and more informed if I am included in all those conversations.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?
I grew up in Houston Texas, though my parents are from California. My line about them is that they’re just displaced and confused because they are still living in Houston despite having all their roots in California. We were in Utah for six years while my dad was getting his PhD., but the vast majority of true puberty and all the ripe times of life were in Houston.
Home now is Brooklyn — Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, brownstone land. It’s one of my favorite places on earth. I used to say my favorite place on earth was my bed, but I can’t say that anymore. My favorite place on earth might have to be the middle of nowhere.
I have a deep fascination in, research addiction to, looking at the light pollution problems of the world — to tap our original circadian rhythms and what the stars have to say about the way we live our lives. I love the contrast of returning home to Brooklyn where it’s bustling and the diversity brings me enormous comfort, especially after doing regional theater. I love the way the diversity immediately takes hold of you. That’s particularly satisfying when I can return from having been on a hike in the middle of nowhere. It’s that contrast that brings me a healthy balance.
How do you think of yourself as a designer — as a theatrical creative or a dramaturgical designer? Has lighting always been your passion? When did that interest begin for you?
I was very fortunate to go to a performing arts high school in Houston, and figured out light is what I wanted to pursue long term. That discovery came out of many years of dance training — I thought I would pursue dance professionally and attempted to get into school for that. When I was not selected in that field for performing arts high school, I applied in design and thought I would switch over to dance. I never switched back to dance. Dance history has informed a lot of the choices I make in my lighting design, in musicality and composition and movement.
There was no one leading mentor early early in my experiences that cracked something open. I often find myself in institutions when they are in transition. In institutions in transition, I had to step forward and fill certain roles, where I was able to announce that I would light productions, because no one else is. I had to step into the role fully.
I’ve always had a deep attraction to the way natural light moves, and I have a lot of ridiculous photographs on my phone documenting every shot and the way it tracks over a certain duration. There wasn’t a particular mentor that led me through. It was the actual light itself that I’ve been chasing.
Where and when was your first professional gig designing the light in something? When and what was the project?
One of the first summers back from college, I was very quickly folded into Williamstown Theatre Festival, with a lot of responsibility. When I first moved to the City, I was the assistant or intern on the 2009 production of A Steady Rain on Broadway. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.
No one single production feels like my beginning, but there was a lot of early exposure to some huge productions that felt awesome, and then in those institutions there was a lot of workshops, especially at Williamstown. In school there were a lot of workshop pieces in little rooms here and there where I was able to take the big ideas I was seeing on a larger scale and break them down and experiment with them with just only ten lights and make sure each idea was really grounded and supported. Ten lights can be as flexible and powerful as what 400 lights are in other venues.
I love to think about things dramaturgically. I had a huge hunger to read new plays when I moved to the City. I learned about this company 13P — 13 playwrights. Through some stroke of light, I befriended one of the women, my friend Barbara Samuels who was working for them.
13P really showed me at 22 that I could participate in New York theater in a non design capacity, be exposed to a lot of really exciting producers and administrators, and create friendships as something other than a lighting designer. It’s now nice to be in the room as a lead designer with some of the people that I know from that other life. That’s true for Chance Magazine too.
Are there areas of design that you HAVEN’T engaged with yet and you want to try? Or for you is it — we’ll see what leads to what?
I don’t think of myself as a multi-disciplinary artist. I’m not interested in doing costume and lights or sets and lights. But part of me thinks as a director, so maybe when I’m very old and much grayer than I am now, I will exercise some of my directorial ideas.
My favorite thing about light is that it is dependent upon all other elements. It’s quite boring on its own. It needs to have some obstacles to really be its best self and do revealing work. I haven’t felt a deep tug to dip my toe into other design pools because I find that light is sort of universal in that way already.
What projects are just over the horizon? What’s happening next, what’s your vision for what you want to do next?
I’ll be working on a production of Will Arbery’s play Plano that was presented last year by Clubbed Thumb, and we’re remounting at the Connelly. A marvelous play — complicated and hard. I’m quite excited to put my hands back on that piece, and I find Will to be very … Will Arbery. I’m working on his play at Playwrights Horizons next season with Danya Taymor directing. [Heroes of the Fourth Turning produced in fall 2019 will be addressed in a second Byrd interview to be published next].
I’m working again with Rachel Chavkin on a new Bess Wohl play at MTC called Continuity at City Center Stage II, a small quirky space. I am smitten with spaces as additional prompts to the piece that we’re trying to make — one reason I’m so excited about the Connelly being a new home for Plano after it being at the Wild Project last year. For Continuity to live in that little Stage II space is going to be super challenging but a really good position for it. It’s a play about failure to a degree — quite a complicated prompt in its own way, to make an engaging play about failure. The sensation of failure is a letdown, but I think it peels back in a beautiful way.
I like that it’s a work with Rachel Chavkin again after last year’s Light Shining on Buckinghamshire at New York Theatre Workshop — my first non associate designer credit. Rachel was so kind to take a risk on me. A complicated and wild play. I was around for a lot of rehearsal, which I think really showed. A lot of those design ideas came from being able to be around the play.
I find myself working on plays that have a great divide in the critical response and I’m okay with that. It’s inspiring to me because I don’t feel like I need to be in a room where we’re all just trying to please every audience member.
“Daddy” is an extreme example of that. I’m interested in how a lot of American theater is seeking empathy; a sort of tender punctuation right now. [Note from interviewer: this conversation was in Spring 2019, prior to the pandemic.]. Times are just wild in the current political climate. I have found that a lot of the processes I’ve been in have artistic leadership urging the creative team and the director towards a more tender ending on some of the pieces. In creative conversations, we’ve been straying towards a more brutal, gut experience and we were for “Daddy”. You witness Franklin, the main character, the whole inside of him and how that might not be filled in the end — but we’re going to keep creating and moving forward and battling social media and fame. Sometimes that hole isn’t going to be filled and it doesn’t narratively need to be perfection for an audience. It’s okay if it feels hard.
Plays don’t have to be problems that have to be solved by the time I get up from my seat. I can be left with more questions that I entered the theater with, oh my god I’m still traumatized by this several days later. It left me with images or thoughts or challenges. That’s why I go to the theater. occasionally to be salved by a nice musical revival but that’s a whole different … I also sometimes like to eat ice cream. It’s pleasant.
I’m excited to discover how design can add to the friction of that, begin as palatable, and at the end squish out into something that really lingers with you. In “Daddy” we joked actively that there’s one phone ring that happens on repeat in the play, and the creative team is now being haunted by it in real life. We hope it happens to everybody else too.
Who can be lighting designer? Are there necessary attributes and training? Is it a view of art, an approach to making art?
When people ask me if they should go to conservatory or to grad school for lighting, my immediate gut reaction is: no. It’s much more important to have a love of psychology and for other things before the theater. It’s important for a lighting designer to have an ability to zoom out and see the full picture, whether that’s the stage picture or the way the play exists in a political context. If we can zoom out and have that perspective, the work is going to be better. Whatever students of the craft can do to help them be as well rounded as possible is the best way to move forward.
This reflects back into how we can talk about plays. We need to zoom in and out again on the work and not just talk about qualities of lights. People who have tastes outside of just the light itself do my most favorite work. That also helps us make something very different each time and always excited to see dynamically different work.
I feel constantly at battle keeping up technology right now, because everything is moving so quickly. You gotta know your tools, but you have to have an idea to shape space, and then seek out that tool, rather than say this is the tool that I can deploy, how shall we use it? That’s pretty boring to me.
Anyone can be a lighting designer as long as you’re excited to see the whole thing at once — this beautiful treasure box with no one answer.
Who inspires you? Designers, performers, playwrights, people in other fields. Who do you admire? Why?
Jane Cox is definitely one of those people, for her total and complete talent and grace in a room. I admire her spirit in an otherwise stressful work space, and her refusal to the stress be the guiding principle. I was lucky to work with Tyler Micholeau for many years, and I love the friendship that he and I now have. I aspire to the rigor that they bring into a room; that sort of rigor and endurance for the art form is something that I really value. I see that in a lot of collaborations I have. My good friend and super talented director Caitlin Sullivan who has been an associate to Anne Kauffman and has a huge body of her own work in play development. Her commitment to a project and rigor and playfulness is something I deeply admire. She’s a joy.
And Jeremy O. Harris is a force in my life. It’s amazing to be in a room with him. I’ve been in a lot of spaces where, when the playwright shows up, there’s like a weird hesitation that comes across the room. Am I making the right decisions, how are we being judged right now. Jeremy’s presence in a room is this glowing energetic effect that was so lovely, it changed the entire room whenever he was around. I’m hoping to work with him more in the future and I really do trust his intellectual gut in a lot of ways.
If you weren’t a lighting designer, what would you be? Any other field you’ve considered? Why?
Lighting design is a lovely place to be right now. It is a beautiful hybrid for me of all the things I love coming together. But if I weren’t in the theater, I think that I would probably be outside a lot more, either working with kids or animals in a way that injects a lot of joy into my daily life — more hands on with teaching or supporting animals, dog fostering or rescue work of that nature, which it truly the antithesis of theater work.
You’ve met my colleague Alejandro Fajardo. To talk about sunlight for a second, we have this project called #TheLightIn, a hashtag that we’ve developed with a lot of other people. As we take photos as we go around the world, particularly New York, and we create tags — #TheLightInNewYork or #TheLightInAustin or #TheLightInDubai or wherever you might be. We’re attempting to make this internet map of the way the light is in all of these places. It’s totally shadow nerds coming together. We’re both lighting designers, and we both weave that into our work. The sun is its own beast — we’re just appreciating it in little photographs that people can look at on their computers.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I hope to be remembered as a happy collaborator. I very early in my career decided that I didn’t have to work for assholes. I dream that my own work is a happy place to be. We’re not cracking great diseases of the world. I hope that in my work can be remembered as playful and observant. I want to be making things with friends and making new friends in the work. I’m just not interested in being miserable in the job. Whatever I can do to treat my assistants and my collaborators in a way that makes the space enjoyable, that’s the true dream. Then we’ve got some nice photos to show what we made along the way.
© Martha Wade Steketee (May 22, 2020)