After around 30 years working as a lighting designer Off-Broadway and around the country, Lap Chi Chu made his Broadway debut earlier this season lighting the Tony-nominated revival of Camelot, recently picking up a Tony nomination for Best Lighting Design of a Musical.
When the 2023 Tony nominees were announced last month, Camelot picked up a total of five Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Jordan Donica), Best Costume Design of a Musical (Jennifer Moeller), and Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Michael Yeargan and 59 Productions). Chu said at the time, "What a great way to wake up! I’m thrilled and so proud that the Camelot design teams’ work is being recognized. Hooray for the Lusty Month of May!"
Based in New York and Los Angeles, Chu was previously honored with the 2018 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Lighting Design as well as a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Lighting, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Angstrom Award for Career Achievement in Lighting Design, an Ovation Award, multiple Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, and a Drammy for Best Lighting.
A professor and head of Lighting Design at the University of California Los Angeles, his recent Off-Broadway credits include Lincoln Center Theater's The Coast Starlight and The Wolves as well as Off-Broadway's Morning Sun and 72 Miles to Go…. He has also designed for The Public, NYTW, Signature, Roundabout, Geffen Playhouse, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Rep, Goodman, and Shakespeare Theatre Company.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Chu details the duties of a lighting designer and shares the Broadway production that inspired his award-winning career.
Where did you train/study?
BS, Northwestern University. MFA, NYU.
How did your current work with Camelot come about?
In recent years, I have been working a lot with directors Tyne Rafaeli and Maggie Burrows, both long-time Bartlett Sher associates [Sher directed Camelot]. I guess he was peaking in on our work. However it came about, I’m thrilled to be making work with him again.
What's the challenge of lighting a cavernous space like the Vivian Beaumont?
A big space needed big lights for the epic look I really wanted for Camelot. It was a bit of a challenge to get enough of the equipment I plotted to fill the Vivian Beaumont. In this time of supply chain restraints, PRG really went out of their way for Camelot.
What are the duties of a lighting designer before the show opens? What are the responsibilities after it's running?
For this show, I read everything related to Camelot: Aaron Sorkin’s latest available draft at the time (which was rather different from where we opened), the original from Alan Jay Lerner, the book the musical is based on (The Once and Future King), etc. Then I conceptualize and collaborate with the director and other designers on what our version of Camelot wants to be. I then work with lighting companies to source the best lights for our productions. As large as the Vivian Beaumont Theater is, I spend a lot of time with the other designers making sure all the lights, video, sound, set elements fit the space. Objects that the audience never see literally pass each other by inches. Once all the lights, physical elements, and cast are in the theatre, I finally get to turn on lights and assemble the lighting looks. The timing of the lighting movements is crucial. It needs to work in concert with the staging and music (controlled masterfully by our musical director, Kimberly Grigsby), so we rehearse and adjust for weeks.
By opening night, we should have a consistent, stable show for the audience. At that point, the show does not need me anymore, and our fabulous management team and crew keeps Camelot well-oiled and running.
How does it feel making your Broadway debut after all this time and receiving a Tony nomination?
It’s a tremendous honor. I’m giving myself a gentle reminder to remember the significance of this moment. Although I always forget to take pictures. I’m terrible at social media.
What made you decide to become a lighting designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
In school, I was rethinking the idea that I needed to be a chemist or doctor and was considering switching to theatre when I saw my first Broadway show: Phantom of the Opera. Seeing Andrew Bridge’s fantastic lighting design tipped the scale for me. Oddly enough, Phantom’s final Broadway performance after a 35-year run was within days of Camelot opening. I can’t imagine how many lives like mine that production touched.
What do you consider your big break?
Not counting Camelot, my first Broadway show, I would have to say my first Off-Broadway show: Shopping and Fucking at New York Theatre Workshop [in 1998]. While still in graduate school, I interviewed with them for what I thought was an assistant lighting designer position when, in fact, it was an assistant scenic designer one. They hired me anyways. But the show didn’t have a lighting designer yet, so I pitched myself. They actually went for it, and I have endless gratitude for Jim Nicola and Linda Chapman!
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Say yes to a challenge.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
Allen Lee Hughes. After college, I received the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The program was truly ahead of its time. It was a BIPOC theatre fellowship before the term BIPOC existed. Allen is a fantastic lighting designer, gentleman, and mentor. I learned from him how to carry yourself in this profession.