Amanda Zieve is a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, 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 than half the applicants who applied last year for the inaugural program were female.
When the Broadway play “The Lifespan of a Fact” opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 in 2018, the theater community celebrated the fact there was an all-female design team — set, costume, sound, projection and lighting — behind it. It was a first and, many agreed, long overdue celebration. Theatrical lighting design in particular has been a male-dominated field for many years even though two of its leading 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 Theatres productions fluctuated between 12% and 21%, with the same nine female designers accounting for 53% of those positions.
I spent 10 years as an assistant and associate lighting designer for regional and Broadway productions before embarking on my own design career. During that time, I worked for 19 male designers — never once having the opportunity to assist a female designer. In fact, I encountered just one, Natasha Katz, who has been the only American female lighting designer in recent memory to consistently work on Broadway.
In my intro to lighting design class, I make a point of sharing with my students the accomplishments of Rosenthal, Musser and Katz, as well as other prominent women in the field. It is important that they know how influential they were and are, and it is my hope that they can serve as inspiration for the next generation of designers, encouraging more women to pursue a career in lighting design.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a brief look at the women who have made an impact in 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 City — the start of a lifelong collaboration — before heading off to the Yale School of Drama (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 more than 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” both on Broadway and for the Metropolitan Opera House. In 1940, she founded Theater Production Service, which rented and sold theater equipment and supplies by catalog. She was also instrumental in the dance world, designing regularly for New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins and Martha Graham Dance Company. Rosenthal referred to the diagonal shafts of light she created for Graham as “Martha’s Finger of God.”
Musser often said Rosenthal was the first to really make lighting art and was much more than just a facilitator of the director and set designer’s ideas. Her legacy is realized in all of us designing today.
Tharon Musser (1925–2009)
Musser was known as the dean of lighting design. An orphan from Appalachia who attended Berea College in Kentucky, she also graduated from the technical design and lighting program at Yale. 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 is also responsible for getting lighting design established as a Tony category in 1970. During her career, she trained a generation of lighting designers who assisted 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 her 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 life to the fullest and pushed her designs into the next frontier of technology, while 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 is not a light plot until it has coffee stains and cigarette burns on it,” she once said. In many ways, she cemented for the industry and the women who came after her that female designers’ contributions were just as worthy and essential as those of their male counterparts.
Jennifer Tipton (born 1937)
Tipton, a living legend, has 38 Broadway lighting design credits and has won two Tony Awards. She is also renowned in the dance world and is recognized as one of the most versatile designers working today. She prefers a small but powerful palette of colors and is known for her use of white light and haze in theater and dance. Tipton has 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. That work ethic stayed with Howell for the entirety of his career. Like Tipton, he also took a chance on his staff. Howell encouraged me to begin teaching, and I can’t help but feel that his admiration for Tipton played a part in that encouragement.
Natasha Katz (born 1958)
Katz, a New York native and six-time Tony Award winner with more than 70 Broadway credits under her belt, most recently designed “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 had a stronger presence in the industry than they do today; she’s been keenly aware that she works in an increasingly male-dominated field. In 2016, the mother of two told a reporter that she never talks about her 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,’” she said. Thankfully, I’ve had a different experience. In my role as a lighting designer, I have been very upfront about the fact that I am also a mother to a young son. It has never been an issue and has often been commended by my colleagues. To me, that spells hope for the future.