Designer Kat C. Zhou has been named the first recipient of the Howell Binkley Fellowship, established as part of the Hemsley lighting program to honor the legacy of Howell Binkley, who passed away in 2020. The fellowship provides Zhou with access to Binkley's two key associates of many years: Ryan O’Gara and Amanda Zieve, who will provide an inside look at the industry, from developing excellent drafting techniques, and advice on finding the next job to observing the tech of a regional, opera, dance, or broadway production, and experience at the tech table for the process of a show. Binkley was known for taking time to talk to young designers; he loved to hear their stories and help them anyway he could. This fellowship continues his efforts, providing the extra ‘push’ and assistance in fostering the next generation of theatrical lighting designers as they begin their careers. Live Design chats with Zhou, who earned her MFA in lighting design at Boston University and is also an amazing wiz at mathematics.
Live Design: What your path to becoming a lighting designer?
Kat C. Zhou: It was a little circuitous! I always loved doing extracurricular theatre in middle and high school, and got into lighting during high school. I didn't realize at the time that you could make a living out of it, so I treated it as a hobby while I was studying math in college. At the time, I was planning on becoming an academic—teaching and doing research in pure mathematics.
However, the more designing I did during college, the more I found that lighting design was my true passion, so I began to look into ways to pursue it professionally, which is why I decided to attend graduate school. While I was attending graduate school, I freelanced in Boston and occasionally in New York as a designer and as an assistant.
LD: What have you been doing during the pandemic?
KZ: I have temporarily relocated back to the Seattle area, where I grew up. I have mostly been teaching math to kids on Zoom, and doing some freelance web design work. Besides that, I've been reading a lot and thinking about the kind of world I'd like to return to when we are able to reopen.
LD: What is the most challenging and/or rewarding production you have worked on and why?
KZ: The most challenging production I worked on was an adaptation of The Empire Builders (originally by Boris Vian) I wrote for my MFA thesis. Since this was a long-term project, I worked on it in more detail than I had for any other previous design, and I was much more involved in all aspects of the production design, compared to typical projects. I think the play is incredibly rich, so it was really rewarding to do such a deep dive into the text and spend so long thinking about it, and how I might create the world of the play through design. Sadly, it was never fully realized on stage; we were just loading in when the lockdowns started last year. But I still think about this play a lot because its political themes are really timeless--willful blindness, the connection between power and violence, and human capacity for cruelty and indifference. Certainly, the willful blindness aspect of the play seemed especially apt during the early days of the pandemic...
LD: Do you design with a mix of LED and conventional fixtures, and do you have a preference? Do you find a difference in the colors in each kind of fixture?
KZ: I do design with a mix of LED and conventionals, and the proportion often depends on the inventory/budget I have available for a production. As to preference, it often depends on the production I'm designing for, and there are a lot of reasons—both aesthetic and technical—to choose either. But generally speaking, I really love designing with bold color, so it’s hard to beat the flexibility offered by LED fixtures. Plus you don’t have to worry about burning out gels. But certainly there’s a quality of light in tungsten or other conventionals that can't be completely captured by LED's at the moment, so sometimes you need conventionals to achieve a certain kind of look. However, LED's are definitely the way of the future, particularly when we take environmental concerns into consideration...
As to difference in color—definitely a difference, not just between LED's and conventionals, but even among LED's. Even simpler RGB fixtures from different manufacturers can differ from each other. But this difference is often subtle, and there are certainly cases where it doesn't matter too much.
LD: How do you stay up to date about new technology?
KZ: This has been more challenging during the pandemic! I find that I learn a lot from my peers and colleagues. Before the pandemic, I tried to see and work on as many shows as possible, so that I could see new technology in action, or hear other people talking about it. Now, I guess the way to do it is to follow news from various manufacturers and people who write/talk about lighting. The most important thing is to remain curious, and willing to learn new things.
LD: Do you have a dream project in mind?
KZ: I've always wanted to do a big production of The Balcony by Jean Genet using huge mirrors, but other than that, my dream projects are just ones that are with good people and interesting material!
LD: What does winning the Howell Binkley Fellowship mean to you?
KZ: I am so grateful to have been selected as the first Binkley Fellow! It is an incredibly exciting opportunity to learn from some really talented designers, and to get practical experience and advice about making a career in this industry. It's a chance to learn lessons that can't be learned in school. The fellowship is particularly meaningful to me at this time because, like many others, over the past year, I've felt very unsure about how (or even if!) I can move my career forward. I think the Howell Binkley Fellowship offers an exciting path forward, as well as a chance to honor the legacy of Mr. Binkley.