Jason Kantrowitz is probably best known as a lighting designer, on Broadway (Dame Edna: The Royal Tour) Off Broadway (The Syringa Tree), and on tour (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, starring Ann-Margret; the latter was a co-design with Ken Billington, with whom he worked as an associate for many years). But he's also had a varied career that goes well beyond lighting and is now an integral part of the re-development of SeaWorld Orlando. Sharon Stancavage talks to the designer about themed entertainment, SeaWorld, and the future.
Sharon Stancavage: How long have you been involved in the theme park sector of the industry?
Jason Kantrowitz: I've been involved in creating themed entertainment for about 25 years. I actually started out designing for the stage, but began doing themed entertainment design for themed restaurants and nightclubs around the world.
SS : What would you consider your first themed entertainment project?
JK : A nightclub in New York City that I designed in association with Ken Billington called The Red Parrot. It was a glamorous high-tech nightclub in the early 80s that featured a 15-piece big band, a huge dance floor surrounded by multi-media projections, and a hovering Plexiglas stage that flew in from the ceiling. This was the period when Studio 54 was winding down, and New York was transitioning from the disco era into the next generation of club going. The post disco club goers at the Red Parrot reveled in many different kinds of entertainment, ranging from hip dance music to live performances, from the big band playing swing music to fashion shows and waltzes. Throughout the evening, the club would seamlessly segue from one themed environment to another.
SS : Do you enjoy doing work in the themed entertainment sector?
JK : I love that kind of work! I have a passion for creative development and storytelling in entertainment. Every job is unique, and presents many interesting challenges in creating compelling new environments. For me, theatrical storyline is the key to immersing the audience in an escapist sense of reality, and not just an architectural setting.
SS : What was your first official theme park gig?
JK : My first theme park project was when Ken Billington and I co-designed a spectacular show called Fantasmic! for Disney-land.
SS : Tell me about the show.
JK : Fantasmic! is a humongous nighttime spectacular jam packed with a ton of special effects, fountains, lasers, 70mm film projection and a cast of 50 live actors. It takes place outdoors at the Rivers of America in New Orleans Square.
SS : How have you seen themed entertainment shows change over the years, specifically at theme parks?
JK : Fantasmic! set a new standard for theme park shows, as far as bringing a much greater sense of theatricality to the stage. The current trend in many theme park shows is bringing creative artists of diverse backgrounds together to create new and interesting entertainment. Hence numerous Broadway directors, designers, writers, and composers are now working on theme park shows.
SS : Are they now perhaps relying less on special effects and more on the actual acts themselves? Or are they going more mainstream and trying to really provide a product that could perhaps equal what's on Broadway?
JK : The audience's perception of shows has become more sophisticated over the years. Thanks to the influence of the internet, television, current theatre and feature films, a lot of the technology and pacing that would have existed in shows 20 years ago is not enough for today's audiences to be enthralled by the product. Still, a good show, whether on Broadway or in a theme park, must be well written, well produced, and well performed.
SS : What kinds of special challenges are posed for you in theme parks specifically?
JK : In a Broadway show, the production takes place eight times a week. A show at a theme park averages six performances a day, and plays to all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. This year I designed the lighting for a rehab of the Voyage of the Little Mermaid attraction at Walt Disney World. That show performs something like 17 shows a day. For someone coming from live theatre, that sounds crazy, doesn't it?
SS : Is frequency of shows the only challenge at theme parks in general?
JK : The most significant challenge is to create show concepts that have substance and heart, are exciting enough to run for a number of years, and speak to wide demographics, including people of various ages and ethic background. A surprisingly large percentage of the audience may not even speak English as a first language. Yet a good show should be able to communicate emotion.
SS : What was your first project at SeaWorld?
JK : We came in as lighting designers on a show about nine years ago called “Big Splash Bash.” It was a large-scale musical in a 2,500 seat indoor theater. Next, I collaborated on creative development and was the project lighting designer for Journey to Atlantis, the world's first water coaster ride.
SS : What have you been up to recently at SeaWorld?
JK : For the last two years I was thrilled to be working as the creative director for The Waterfront at SeaWorld, partnering with two teams of architects in the creative development and helping to coordinate the synergy between entertainment, merchandising, culinary, and operations. I was also the creative producer for all the live entertainment at The Waterfront, and even acted as music producer for 30 hours of soundscape and background music.
SS : As a creative producer, what exactly are your responsibilities?
JK : In developing new themed entertainment projects, I bring together teams of gifted artists, such as writers, show directors, composers, lyricists, choreographers, special effects designers, scenic designers, lighting designers, costume designers. I facilitate brainstorming sessions, and shepherd projects from initial idea through opening night.
SS : How far along is The Waterfront project?
JK : The first half opened this past summer.
SS : How is it themed?
JK : The Waterfront is a bustling seaport village, comprised of three neighborhoods: High Street, Harbor Square, and Tower Island. It's based on some of the charming Mediterranean port towns. There's a lot of stonework and stucco, as opposed to the old wood docks you'd find along the New England coast. Having a Mediterranean theme helps us with the lively melting pot feel we wanted to create, where everyone in The Waterfront is a traveler, a merchant, or a resident.
SS : In the magazine, we're used to seeing you as a lighting designer. How do you transition into a role where you're coordinating architecture, set design, costumes, and so on? Isn't that a giant leap?
JK : It may sound like a giant leap, however for the past two decades, I've been working as a producer and creative director of live special events for television broadcasts and industrial shows. Of course, when you think about it, lighting designers tend to be organized and good at taking in all the needs of a production. We're the ones responsible for how the audience sees everything onstage, how the set and costume designers' work is revealed, and focusing the audiences' attention on what the director is trying to create.
SS : What are some of the projects you've produced in the past?
JK : I've been the creative director for numerous PBS Great Performances specials, eight years of the National Geographic Bee, and I've done industrial shows for corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Disney, Pepsi, Taco Bell, Sega Genesis, and Alta Vista.
SS : What will you be doing after grand opening of The Waterfront?
JK : I have my own consulting firm called Luminous Ventures Ltd. where we continue to consult with many different corporate clients on creative development for all kinds of unique themed entertainment projects.
SS : Do you see yourself doing less lighting design and more creative producing in the future?
JK : I'm very lucky in that I get to work on projects that are really interesting to me, so it allows me that diversity of being able to be a designer for theatrical pieces, as well as continuing work as a creative director and producer. I enjoy working in both areas and will continue to do so.
THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT JASON KANTROWITZ:
- His first professional job was as a stagehand intern for the Lake George Opera Festival at the tender age of 15.
- His favorite gig was designing the Broadway show Dame Edna: The Royal Tour.
- The strangest place he ever had a job was under the junction of two busy freeways in California, when he was designing a space-station themed benefit for the Opera Pacific.