Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Janesville native and Craig High School graduate Dawn Kenseth is a head electrician/stage lighting technician for touring Broadway musicals and regional theater. Some of her favorite past tours include Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” “Something Rotten,” “American Idiot,” “Mamma Mia” and “Avenue Q.”
Kenseth has worked in hundreds of theaters in 49 states, in Canada, Japan and the U.K. Her nontouring work includes the Spoleto Festival USA (South Carolina), Ogunquit Playhouse (Maine), and Chautauqua Theater Company (New York).
Kenseth is a member of IATSE (stagehands union) and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater tech/design with a minor in dance from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Her current position is as head electrician with “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations” in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Toronto.
To learn more about Kenseth’s work, visit DawnKenseth.com.
1. How did you end up in the lighting game? I started doing backstage work in the Craig High School drama guild and with Park City Dance Studio back in the late ‘90s. I found it to be a lot of fun playing with the lights and the light board. Before I knew it, I had a college degree in tech theater and was getting hired by summer stock theaters. A college classmate of mine recommended me for a touring job with “Rent” in 2006, and I’ve been mostly working in Broadway musical tour lighting ever since.
2. When you were a kid, did you dream of growing up one day and becoming a lighting specialist on theater productions? I had no idea this was a viable career option until college. As a kid, I went through a long, meandering list of what I wanted to be. Teacher, TV meteorologist and architect are some that I remember.
3. Is theater lighting one of those things that, if done well, goes unrecognized, or is it important that theater patrons notice it? Both options can be right, depending on the intent of the designer and director. Many design decisions might not be consciously noticed by an audience member, but they do impact the audiences’ experience. Color, shadows, brightness ... these things affect you in the same way a bright, sunny day makes you feel different than a gloomy, cloudy day—whether you realize it or not. Then there are the moments when lighting is an important storytelling device, such as with dramatic spotlights or ballyhooing lights.
4. What is the most elaborate, challenging light set-up you’ve ever worked on? In 2016, the Spoleto Festival USA did a huge production of “Porgy and Bess.” It was the grand re-opening for the Gaillard Center performance hall after a long remodeling process. It was apparently a big deal, and it felt like we had lights everywhere you could possibly put them. The overhead lights were so high up that we rented a boom lift so we could reach and focus them above the set of Charleston row houses. The massive scenery also had interior lighting in all sorts of windows, doorways and under balconies. It might not have been the most technically complex show I’ve worked, but it definitely was one of the biggest in terms of scale.
5. Some chefs don’t like to cook away from their restaurant, and some writers avoid reading after they complete big projects. How do you break from work? Sit in the dark? If by “sit in the dark” you mean “catch up on sleep,” then sure. When I’m not actively on a tour, I’ll be either at home bingeing on TV or on some crazy road trip adventure. I tend to stay mostly away from the theater but will occasionally pop in to see other shows and visit friends who work on them. However, I don’t experience shows the same way as an average audience member. I can’t help but notice what lighting gear they’re using or how they’re using it. It’s really hard to turn off those observations.
6. If you cook/bake, what dish do you consider your specialty? I’ve been traveling for many years and living in hotels most of my adult life, so my culinary skills are really abysmal. However, I have succeeded in making grilled cheese and quesadillas using a hotel iron before.
7. You have experience working with dry ice. Can’t it be kind of dangerous to work with? Indeed, dry ice can be dangerous if you don’t understand what it is. First, it’s dangerously cold even by Wisconsin standards, so I use thick gloves when loading it into the machines. It’s also important to make sure nobody lies down for a nap in the carbon dioxide-rich fog. However, that low-lying fog covering the stage floor is an awesome-looking theatrical trick for scary dungeons or fantasy dance sequences.
8. Share some of the most recent innovations in theatrical lighting. LED stage lighting fixtures are the biggest recent innovation. The quality of these lighting fixtures is getting better and brighter every day, all while using less power than the incandescent sources we’re used to. Some big shows are now being completely lit by LED, which is something that would have been nearly impossible 10 years ago. In addition, smaller LED strips can easily be bought and built into custom creations. We used to put in some rope light to add some accent lighting on scenery, but we now can put LED strips on instead, which offers the ability to change colors and make all sorts of effects.
9. What word do you always struggle to spell correctly? Receipts. I’m always getting the “I” and “E” screwed up.
10. Do you have any superstitions? Theater people can be very superstitious, but I find I’m a little more practical and don’t buy into a lot of it. I do avoid saying “Macbeth” inside the theater though, mostly out of respect for others who might be more superstitious than I am. It’s rumored that saying it inside a theater will cause disaster, which is why many will just refer to it as “the Scottish play.”
11. I can buy a 60-watt light bulb at the local hardware store. I’m guessing the lights you use are not that inexpensive or as readily available. What are the costs associated with light repair/replacement with the projects on which you work? We also have to replace bulbs (we call them lamps) for many of the lights we use. For the big moving lights, we usually replace all the lamps at the same time and before they burn out. Those lamps can cost $100 or $200 apiece, so it’s a big expense to do all of them at the same time. A good producer will budget for that cost when planning the show (while a bad one will scowl at the “surprise” expense of $2,000 to maintain the lighting). Some of the other expenses of running a show include periodically replacing the gel (the plastic piece that changes the color of the lights) and the gallons of fog, haze, snow or bubble fluids we might be using.
12. People would be surprised to find out that I: Technically still live at home with my parents. Since I’m usually on the road or working at a theater company that provides temporary housing, it doesn’t make sense for me to keep a house or apartment. Thankfully, my parents have been supportive and haven’t kicked me out yet—probably because I’m only home for a few weeks a year (or maybe it’s because I can get them tickets to shows).
13. What is the one item that, when you’re at the grocery store, goes into your cart whether you need it or not? My newest obsession is LaCroix water. I’m trying to quit my soda habit, and LaCroix has proven to be a great help in that endeavor.
14. Does your company provide all lighting for projects or supplement what a theater already has to work with? A touring Broadway musical may play dozens of different theaters over the course of a tour. We need to create the same show every time, and we can’t rely on all those theaters having the right equipment. Therefore, the show will bring all of the lighting equipment (along with the scenery, props, costumes, audio, etc.) from city to city using semitrailers. My last tour (“White Christmas”) traveled in six semis, which includes about one and a half of lighting. Most of the lighting gear is rented from stage lighting rental companies, but the show will also purchase some unique items that are specific to the show, such as any lighting built into the set.
15. What has been your favorite venue in which to work? There are so many that this alone could fill the whole article. Here’s one: The Orpheum in Memphis, Tennessee. First of all, the theater is right at the end of Beale Street, so we are next to all that fabulous food and live music when we aren’t in the theater. Secondly, the volunteer ushers host one of the best between-show meals for all the visiting touring shows. It’s a gigantic potluck-style buffet of all homemade Southern cooking. All these retiree/grandmother-figure ushers feed the tour staff as if we hadn’t eaten a proper meal in months. It’s so delicious.
16. Do you collect anything? I’ve got a lot of hotel pens, soaps and shampoos. I don’t need these things, but somehow I keep taking them.
17. What is the wallpaper on your cellphone right now? My lock screen is a picture of my Mustang. I love my car.
18. If you could learn to do anything, what would it be? I’d like to learn more metal fabrication and welding skills at some point. It’s not really lighting-related, but I’d like to be able to make silly lawn art sculptures, fix race cars, or who knows what else it would come in handy for.
19. If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would do? I think I’d fund some vintage theater restorations and upgrades ... from my new beachside bungalow.
20. Is it safe to say that lighting professionals such as yourself always have the coolest homes at Christmastime? Oh my gosh—it’s a chance to nerd out with our technology outside of the theater. Last year, a colleague of mine had his Christmas tree set up on the Internet. Friends could log in to change the colors or flash the lights on the tree while seeing what it was doing on a webcam.