I was so excited to have this conversation with the super-talented Lighting Designer and Educator, Christina Watanabe just as we're rolling into National Bike Month. She and I both share a passion for designing with light, the dramatic arts, and bicycles! Read on to be illuminated!
Name: Christina Watanabe
Occupation: Lighting Designer and Educator
Edmond, OK (at the time of this writing) also NYC
You've worked on so many amazing productions- theater, dance, music, events- and were recently nominated for the Best Lighting Design of the Decade for your work on Radium Girls. Are there productions or categories that stand out as your favorites or especially memorable? And what made them so?
Radium Girls will definitely stand out in my personal history. When the industry shut down in March, I thought it would only be for a couple of weeks. Over the summer, when it became clear that this was not going to end any time soon, I began to look for other opportunities. I had some teaching experience and even pre-pandemic was looking at what my options may be to start teaching again. I interviewed with the University of Central Oklahoma. I was officially hired, packed a few suitcases, and three days later was living just outside Oklahoma City. Luckily, my partner was back in NYC to send me things that I didn't have time to pack (like my bike!).
When we started putting Radium Girls in to the theatre -- I was a bit overcome. At that point, it had been seven months since I had worked in a theatre. My design was an outpouring of everything I felt in the months prior and I was so filled with gratitude to be able to use my medium again. I am so lucky that I have gainful employment during this pandemic and am so upset about the people, stories, and opportunities we lost. Some of the lessons we hope audiences come away with is that if you feel powerless to use your voice to tell anyone who will hear you, that corporations do not have your best interests in mind, that you should listen to and believe women, and that we are stronger together when we look out for each other.
Have you had particular challenges as a woman and BIPOC in a technical field that has historically been dominated by white males?
I think one of the biggest challenges about being a woman and a person of color is an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome onset by the lack of representation in the field. This is true about any industry. I am so fortunate to have the mentors that I've had, some of whom are white males, but whose support was paramount to my success. Something I thought to myself early on was that I really wanted to achieve a level of success in my field so that I could be a mentor to others. I still think that and I still hold myself to that goal to find mentorship opportunities and to do my work to the best of my ability and lead honestly and by example.
As a professor of Lighting Design, are there any core lessons about lighting that you could share with us? We know this as cyclists that visibility is so important! But the craft of lighting design unfolds in how you use the tools that you have to tell your story. Lighting is my medium for expression.
What led you to become a Lighting Designer?
I joined drama club in high school because all my friends were in it and that's a really good reason to do something when you're in high school. I never had any desire to be on stage and I hated trying to memorize lines. So I started working backstage. The one student who knew how to run the light board was going to graduate, so she taught me how to use it. Fast forward to course registration day in college and I'm flipping through the course catalog and I see a major in lighting design -- I had no idea you could do that, so I did. It was important to me to also get a degree in business (which is what I thought I would do), so I took five years through undergrad to get a BFA in Lighting Design and a BSBA in Marketing.
Wow- excellent! You took such fun selfies for this interview- you would have been a great marketer as well :) I see on your resume that you have an MFA from NYU- is that in lighting design as well? (I have an MFA from Columbia in Film :)
Yes, my MFA from NYU is in Lighting Design! We actually partnered with MFA Directors from Columbia for projects and it was a lot of fun. I took a film theory class on horror films as an elective which was super fun.
Let's switch to your bikie-side- another point in common for us! Why do you bike? I haven't owned a car since 2007, but even when I'm not using my bike as a mode of transportation, I love the feeling of sunshine and wind. Even when commuting, you see the city differently when you bike or walk. A couple of years ago, I got a travel case for my helmet. I don't like to ship my bike, especially if I'm only working for a week or two on site, but traveling with my helmet has helped me feel like myself on a bike. I've rented bikes in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Oregon to use while I'm working out of town. It's been so great exploring a city on two wheels.
What pair of wheels do you cruise in? I have a Specialized Tricross named Greyskull.
Which Vespertine items keep you shining? I use my Eco Citron Vesper Vest whenever I commute. There are a few lanes with sharrows in Edmond, but I don't want to take any chances with these big trucks on the road.
Do you have tips for biking in … (ie. NYC vs. Oklahoma)? I used to joke that cycling was my excuse to wear a helmet in NYC. People seemed surprised or think that it's dangerous. Far from it. NYC is one of the safest places I've been for cycling. Currently, I'm in a suburb of OKC and I don't see as many cyclists on the road, so that makes it inherently less safe because drivers aren't used to looking out for us. There is a lovely riverfront trail in OKC as well as some great lake rides. I see more designated bike lanes in the city itself which is promising. It's nice that these trails and lanes aren't crowded -- there are just fewer people here. Though I haven't been on many group rides, there is still a strong sense of community amongst cyclists and that feels true of both NYC and OKC.
There has to be more you want to tell us! Any awkward biking moments? Bike or lighting stories/jokes?
I've really enjoyed watching the biking surge that happened over the summer because of the pandemic. I had a minor surgery that put me out of commission for a few months, but in that time, I had fun curating some routes for friends who were new to NYC cycling. I did not enjoy the crowds on the bridges, but the more people who use them, the more push there is to make them safer.
Thank you SO much for chatting with us, Christina!
To learn more about Christina's life and work, and for links for resources to work towards an anti-racist theater practice, visit her website Starryeyedlighting.com