Meet the Artist – York Kennedy

Meet the Artist

A Conversation with York Kennedy, Lighting Design

From being an assistant on the original production to being a designer on this production.

By Fiona Kyle, Dramaturg

York KennedyYou have worked as a Lighting Designer at The Old Globe in San Diego, Arena Stage, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, American Conservatory Theatre, Yale Rep, among many other theaters across America and Europe. Can you talk about what drew you to become a Lighting Designer?

My father was a History and Drama teacher at a small rural high school in North Carolina. I grew up with lots of history and lots of drama in the household! Although I did perform over the years, my great love was music and technology. I was a bassist but knew I didn’t have the discipline to really study music in a deeper way in college. I had always worked with the lighting, sound and technology on my father’s shows. Whatever I chose to do, I knew I wanted to be creative. I loved the theatre and the art of live performance. I think I have always been fascinated with how light can profoundly affect how we experience a space. I love the art of the theatre and feel we really are storytellers. Whether it’s a dance work, a music performance/concert, a film, etc., light really helps us to understand what is going on. Is the situation safe, is the moment full of energy and exciting, is it mysterious, dangerous, and unsettling? Sometimes the light just needs to present the performer and get out of the way—just let the actor do the talking. Then there are times when it must bring the energy, and support the rhythm and motion of a piece. It adds form and meaning to a work

You’re working on August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson this season. How did you approach your design?

The Piano Lesson is a beautiful play with characters that stay with you. (I was actually the assistant lighting designer on the original world premiere production at Yale, more about that later.) I love for light to work on as many levels as possible. It really is one of the key design elements that help us understand just how we are supposed to perceive a situation. In this play, on one level there is a very real, gritty, powerful human drama going on and the light must make the home feel exactly as it should in all the various times of day. It is an urban environment, and there is also the external reality of the neighborhood and buildings around it. What do those look like as time passes? The “Wilson House” as we call it, is juxtaposed against our set. How do you balance that compositionally and keep the focus where it should be? On a second level, the light must support the excitement and dynamics of the staging. The audience often never notices that these types of cues are happening. Light is often moving, expanding and contracting, to control the focus onstage and support the energy in the room. Some of the scenes are very intimate and small, others quite comical and explosive. Light must support those, while all the while, the light must feel completely natural to the time of day. Then the third level is one where the lighting must support the supernatural world that moves in. I don’t want to give too much away, but it must also support the dark forces at play as the piece builds to its peak.

I was the assistant lighting designer on the original in the 1987/88 season. Once it moved on to some regional tryouts and then Broadway, I remained in school. I was in my first year at the Yale Drama School and Chris Akerlind was a year ahead of me. It was part of my first year assignments to assist Chris at the Rep. It was a very exciting piece. It had a wonderful design team with Chris, Constanza Romero and David Cosier on board. I still remember them showing their designs, as we all were expected to do, and watched it develop. Ming Cho Lee worked with David Cosier, the Set Designer, to get the proportions and relationships of the kitchen and the main room just right. How do you have both rooms there, and enough wall between, so that it feels right, yet allows the audience to look through both? They spent a great deal of time on that. It was done in a proscenium format. Very different from what we are doing here at Hartford.

Melinda Page Hamilton in 'Rear Window'. Photo by Joan Marcus
Melinda Page Hamilton in Rear Window. Photo by Joan Marcus

We read at least two or three drafts of the play and discussed it a great deal in class. I remember it changing quite a bit. August was around a lot, and the rehearsals were wonderful to watch. I was so young, maybe 23, and Chris was not much older. Lloyd Richards was not a large man but he had a commanding presence. He was incredibly articulate, and you always felt him being very careful with his words. He had a beautiful, very elegant, crisp way of speaking. August was very quiet, intense and deeply focused on everything going on. As we moved into the theatre, it really took shape. There was a great deal of work on the singing, rhythm and timing of everything, etc. Everything looked great, and it had a terrific cast!

Lloyd really could get the best talent on his projects. Apparently, as I heard it later, August and Lloyd had wanted Rock Dutton to play Boy Willie but he wasn’t available for the initial production at Yale. A young Samuel Jackson was brought in to play Boy Willie and it was just incredible. He was very thin, not the very powerful fit body he has now, full of energy, explosive and killing it onstage. I thought it was one of the most incredible performances I had ever seen, and I can still hear his voice in my head.

Later, right after the Broadway run, Lloyd and August wanted to do the production at Seattle Rep. I believe it was to be the start of several regional productions. They brought the set out from Broadway and some of the original cast was onboard. It was all of the original design team but Chris wasn’t available, so Lloyd asked the Rep to call me. I wound up lighting it for Lloyd and August in Seattle on the original set. Lloyd was very supportive. I was nervous and worried that he would just have Chris’ lighting in his head and expect that. I discussed it with him, and he said “Just don’t worry about that. You know the show. You know what we want to do.” It was a wonderful experience. I am forever grateful to Lloyd for that opportunity, and Chris and I have remained dear friends for almost thirty years now.

Most recently your Lighting Design was seen at Hartford Stage in last season’s production of Rear Window. What excites you about designing for Hartford Stage?

When I was a student at Yale, Mark Lamos was the Artistic Director here. My classmates and I would come up to Hartford and someone would sneak us in to the back of the house. I can’t remember who it was! We watched the techs for Peer Gynt, and I don’t know what else. I also remember seeing the Richard Foreman production of Woyzeck. Just amazing, I really had never seen theatre like that. Darko Tresnjak and I first worked together in 2002. I think we have done about 16 or 18 shows together. When he told me he was headed to Hartford I said, “I’m in. Call me!” Hartford really has some of the best staff in the country. Darko’s programming is thrilling, and it demands a lot of the designers and the tech staff. This is a staff that can deliver on that level. That makes for a very exciting work environment. I have loved working here in Hartford, and I must say I am very grateful for the support I have been given by Bryan Holcombe, Aaron Hochheiser, Aaron Bleck and the entire staff.