Lighting Designer Isabella Byrd Made Her Broadway Debut This Season, and Now She Has 2 Tony Noms | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Lighting Designer Isabella Byrd Made Her Broadway Debut This Season, and Now She Has 2 Tony Noms

She oversaw two in-the-round shows: Cabaret and An Enemy of the People.

Isabella Byrd Graphic by Vi Dang

Lighting designer Isabella Byrd is making her Broadway debut this season with two different productions, and what a welcome she has received!

Last month, she picked up Tony nominations for her work for both shows: Best Lighting Design of a Musical for Rebecca Frecknall's immersive revival of Cabaret (at the reconfigured August Wilson Theatre) and Best Lighting Design of a Play for the Sam Gold-directed revival of An Enemy of the People at Circle in the Square. And, it was recently announced that Byrd will design the lighting for Gold's anticipated Broadway revival of Romeo + Juliet, co-starring Kit Connor and Rachel Zegler.

The Brooklyn-based Byrd, who also earned an Olivier nomination for the London production of Cabaret, has designed such Off-Broadway productions as Infinite Life, Sanctuary City, Epiphany, and Heroes of the Fourth Turning. An advocate for pay equity and sustainability, she is also the recipient of three Lucille Lortel Awards, two Obies, and a Henry Hewes Design Award.

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—Byrd shares the challenges of designing two productions that are both in the round and her go-to advice: "Don't work for assholes."

Isabella Byrd at work at Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club Marc Brenner

Where did you train/study?
Isabella Byrd: I was lucky to have early exposure to the arts growing up, which led me to a public Houston school, HSPVA (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). I dove deep into theatre then while also studying dance at the Houston Ballet Academy. That gave me the confidence to apply for conservatory college track—where I chose CCM, University of Cincinnati—studying lighting design. It was wonderful to work within so many performance styles at school—theatre, musical theatre, opera, and dance.

I did not go to grad school, but instead joke that I went to the school of hard knocks: New York City! This incredible city is fundamental to the artist I am striving to become.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
I had lovely professors, but I want to call out the variety of designers I first assisted, who made a meaningful impact on my practices: Jane Cox, Tyler Micoleau, Matt Frey, and Paul Toben. I learned so much on the job, paying attention to their varying styles, collaborative and aesthetic, and their commitment to developing new work. I admire them so much. Paul and I still work together, as he programmed Cabaret for me, and I am endlessly grateful.

What are the duties of a lighting designer before the show opens? What are the responsibilities after it's running?
The lighting designer is a core member of the creative team, and our best work emerges when we develop the design world all together. Through extended conversations and spatial storyboarding, the lighting designer then creates a lighting plot—a magical toolbox—that will meet the multi-faceted needs of the production. This technical plan is full of potential energy, so that we can build cues from this toolbox to sculpt the action of the play as it develops through tech.

I like to joke that "we have to teach the robots poetry," where the many lighting fixtures are arranged and recorded, and then execute the design with the technical operators. It’s my job to create a creative [process] that can be technically repeatable, but also maintain a "liveness" and connection to the performances and material. I love to check in on shows, but really my work is done after opening night!

Victoria Pedretti, Caleb Eberhardt, and Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People Emilio Madrid

What were some of the specific challenges of designing the lighting for the revivals of Cabaret and Enemy of the People?
Working in-the-round is an extra challenge, because every angle needs to be considered. In proscenium configurations, typical of Broadway, we can rely on systems like backlight, sidelight, etc., but in the round everything is relative! I felt tasked with extra care to ensure that every audience sight line has a dynamic view of the plays, where there is exciting contrast and sculpture, and also balanced face light. It’s as important to not light the audience as it is to light the stage action. (And, when we do light the audience, it’s duration and frequency is carefully calibrated.)

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club also has an entirely additional design, which is the Prologue front-of-house spaces. This immersive design has one foot in the architectural and interiors world, and another in the theatrical. It required extreme attention and negotiation for every surface, to help create an atmosphere that primes the audience for the main course—the musical.

What did it mean to you to get Tony-nominated for your designs for both productions?
I am so honored and elated to be nominated! I was emotionally prepared for neither to be recognized, as I understand the awards world to be a complex web. So many artists featured this Broadway season are folks I came up with over the past 15 years, so to arrive simultaneously as nominees is extra meaningful.

What do you consider your big break?
In 2019, after working for 10 years, I got my first big Off-Broadway design at New York Theatre Workshop: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a Caryl Churchill play, directed by Rachel Chavkin. It’s a very dense play, but I had a distinct vision that I was able to execute. The availability/interest check I got actually came through my LinkedIn profile, which feels completely crazy now. I never check that site, but I’m glad I did that week! It’s so very true that you never know which person along your career journey might mention your name in the right room, and at the right time. Amazingly, that design got an Obie Award!

What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
I feel very lucky to have almost exclusively worked in my field… However, I did work a few summers in the Houston Ballet costume shop, piecing together design bibles and scrubbing tutu crotches. I think I also painted some white boxes a different white. Hah!

Isabella Byrd at work at Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club Jenny Anderson

Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
The resilience of the Off-Broadway freelance designers is astounding to me. This community are the most clever and inventive artists I know. This applies to material solutions as well as systemic challenges. In the existential game “Who do you want on your apocalypse team?,” I definitely want a collection of Off-Broadway freelancers. I want to create change for them.

Also, Qween Jean is absolutely astounding to me. She is both a talented costume designer and a bold advocate for marginalized communities, specifically Black trans people. She founded Black Trans Liberation and continues to be a vivid voice for Justice for Gaza. Being witness to her work encourages me to engage my moral imagination in all forms of our industry and daily life.

Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didnt get. How did you get over that disappointment?
I’ve actually been let go from a few different jobs, and I learned so much from those experiences. There was certainly initial sadness, but I found great relief almost immediately after. I knew I could have obsessed and fretted over “the why,” when, really, I already knew I had been miserable. I don’t make my best work when I am feeling tortured by a wrong collaboration pairing. It’s a priority for me to bring kindness and levity into my working environment. And in those instances, that was not possible. I trust I will be in the right rooms with the right people. It is not worth contorting myself or sacrificing my values.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
I wish to find some reinvention of the phrase “Fake it tell you make it.” I know I subscribed to this ethos in some ways, but I also regret not asking more clarifying questions when I was younger. I pretended to understand things I didn’t, and I think I may have been able to make larger creative leaps had I illuminated a few more things. I ask more questions now.

Don’t work for assholes. (Or once you see they are, don’t work for them again.) Life is too short!

What is your proudest achievement as a lighting designer?
It is hard to top this moment I am in right now! I feel so incredibly lucky. But I would also call out the accolades and feedback I received from the design of Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning [Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons]. The design was quiet and subtle and unusually dark for the stage. I was so used to awards so often celebrating shows with "the most lighting," and this was the opposite. It was an edifying moment and has informed how I grow my body of work.

Photos: Eddie Redmayne, Gayle Rankin, More in Cabaret on Broadway

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