A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Lighting Designer Kenneth Posner Talks About 30 Years in the Business
By Mervyn Rothstein
Meet Kenneth Posner, the prolific lighting designer who has been lighting up Broadway for 30 years.
"I discovered theatre at a young age, as a mechanism, frankly, to escape," Posner said. He was seven years old. His parents, who were immersing him in theatre, had just divorced. His mother created costumes for community stage groups in Westchester County, New York, where he grew up.
"She brought me and my brother along to the warmth and safety of these companies. I became involved in this world of storytelling, of creativity and expression. I never chose to leave it. I developed a passion for theatre, for telling stories in a proscenium arch."
That passion has led to 30 years in theatre, with 49 Broadway shows under his belt, along with many more Off-Broadway and on summer and regional stages.
Posner, 47, has received ten Tony Award nominations for Lighting Design, including for Hairspray and Wicked — and an unprecedented three this year in the same category, for the musicals Pippin, Cinderella and Kinky Boots. He won in 2007 for Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia.
Posner's fervor didn't initially focus on lighting. "I thought I might be a costume designer. In college I discovered light as an artistic medium, as a device to paint and sculpt with. I enjoyed the lighting designer's job of creating environments and mood. I completely pursued it."
He started working in summer theatre at the age of 17 — "I've done summer stock every year since." He was at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts when two colleagues introduced him to Billy Mintzer, who taught lighting at Purchase College School of the Arts and who, Posner says, became "my mentor."
He had been studying lighting at Boston University and transferred to Purchase. "Mintzer presented lighting design from the point of view of a director, analyzing text — what is this about, why are we telling this story, how do you feel about the characters, the environment?"
At Berkshire, Posner encountered Gordon Edelstein, who had just become its associate director — and who now heads Long Wharf Theatre. "We hit it off; he hired me to design three shows at Berkshire's second stage." He also met Michael Greif, who later directed Rent.
"I moved to New York. In 1990 Michael and I did a play, Machinal, at Naked Angels. Joseph Papp saw it and moved the entire production to LuEsther Hall at his Public Theater. That was my first big break."
The second came in 1996. Posner had worked Off-Broadway, and in not-for-profit and regional theatre. Nicholas Martin, then at Playwrights Horizons, introduced him to Jack O'Brien, who was head of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. O'Brien asked him to light Getting Away with Murder, a mystery by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. It made the jump from the Old Globe to Broadway, under O'Brien's direction.
"It didn't run long," Posner said — 29 previews, 17 regular performances. "But it was my first break in commercial theatre. The New York Times said some kind words about the lighting design. That's all it takes. That seed. Your name in the Times in a positive context can launch a young artist's career. It was magic."
Posner's next Broadway musical — Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's If/Then, starring Idina Menzel — is due in 2014.
"Someone once asked me, 'How long do you plan to be a lighting designer?'" Posner said. "It was a confusing question, because I get to work with great artists on great projects. I feel so lucky that I can walk into a theatre and tell someone's story, and hopefully move someone or change someone's life or entertain someone. I want to do it forever."
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