Kathy Kaufmann is one busy woman: Besides serving as resident LD at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church and designing lighting for several New York dance companies, she also teaches a course at NYU and is raising a family. "I think we all look for some balance in our lives, and I work with great people, and it's interesting work, but I also have a life, I have kids, I do stuff. I try to find the balance between having a life and doing the work, and I feel fortunate that all the people that I work with are very respectful of that."
Kaufmann went into college knowing that she wanted to work in theatre, particularly "something backstage, something technically oriented." During her freshman year at Northwestern University, when her teacher John Williams lit Summer and Smoke at University of Chicago, she was assigned to the lighting crew, "and I loved it," she enthuses. "I thought he had so much control over what was happening onstage, and it was so beautiful, and it was a little magical, and that's what really pulled me into it. It's sort of an in-the-background but integral part of the show, it's a little mysterious and quiet, and yet so powerful, and that's what I liked about it."
She then transferred to NYU, and an advisor recommended she go to the Lester Polakov Studio and Forum of Stage Design. "That was really approaching it from a conceptual point of view," she says, "really the nuts and bolts of it, and I met a lot of great people." Since her college days, "One project has really led to another. I can almost trace the lineage. Some of my NYU friends did shows and I lit them, maybe the people who ran the space would see it and recommend me for a job. The people who I work with today, David Parker used to dance for Betsy Hulton, who I met at P.S. 122. Ben Munisteri danced for David Parker, and that's how I got to work with him."
Kaufmann has now been lighting dance in New York for 18 years. "I feel like I have a dual life. I do a lot of these downtown choreographers, who, luckily, I have for the most part pretty longterm relationships with, 5-10 years," she explains. "So at this point they just let me do whatever I want to do, which is a little scary but very liberating. There's a bond of trust, which is great. So for them I tend to do things that are probably a little more shadowy or coming from odd angles, depending on the space. For Gina Gibney at Danspace I tend to really include the space, because she likes that. That's a place where I like to include the architecture."
On the other hand, "Occasionally I do lights for Staten Island Ballet or National Dance Institute, which is up and clean and bright and balanced; it's a different challenge, because you need to see so much more. It's sort of funny, when I've been doing that and then I come back downtown, it's a readjustment of the f-stop, things tend to be a little brighter that first week, then I have to take it back down."
All in all, "I always want to make the choreographer happy: It's their vision, I'm not going to fight with them, and if I have a good reason I try to show them both ways so they can understand, but I'm trying hard to extend their vision, to make sure that their intention is clear."
For the last eight years, it has been her turn to nurture the next generation of dance producers. "I teach a dance production class to students in the dance education department. It's a one-semester hands-on course, and it's a little sound, lights, stage/production management, jobs, costumes, makeup. One of my students wound up going to Tisch School of the Arts, and she just graduated, and she hung lights for me at St. Mark's a couple months ago, and I couldn't do Jody Oberfelder at Dixon Place, so I recommended her for the job, and that was very nice, full circle." She laughs, "I thought, 'My God, my students are taking my jobs.' "
In the future, Kaufmann would like to see more collaboration between LDs and the artists they light. For instance, she enjoys working with dance groups that use live musicians: "Running the lights to suit the rhythm of what's happening, it's a lot of fun, it's like being a performer without having to be onstage." She also would like to see more choreographers working with LDs in the development stage. "Last year Ben Munisteri got a grant [from Danspace Project] to develop a piece with me there. It was fun to say 'I want to use a gobo rotator,' and he'd say, 'We've got a grant, let's rent one.' So it was for Ben to work the choreography into that, which was coming at it from a different direction. That was a lot of fun, but a little scary too, because I wasn't used to being put in that role. I felt like, 'I can't tell the choreographer where to move!' but that was really a great thing. I'd love to do more of those."
But for the most part, she would like to just keep on doing what she's been doing for almost 20 years: taking dance lighting gigs as they come up. "Freelancing is fun," she says. "I was at the Kitchen last year, as its production manager, and I found it very hard to have regular hours. I thought all I wanted was a little regularity in my life, and then I got it and I felt like I couldn't do anything."