Howell Binkley doesn't categorize himself: he is, he says, simply a lighting designer. Broadway, Off Broadway, regional theatre, dance — it's all the same to him: a passion. The choreographer David Parsons, a longtime friend, says, “I think the guy was born a lighting designer. He came out of the womb with the eye to do lighting.”
The New York-based Binkley is an exceptionally well-liked LD. He is a first-choice of director Des MacAnuff. He has maintained a decade-long collaboration with director Hal Prince, and he is co-founder of the Parsons Dance Company. Ask any production electrician he has worked with and they all agree with Jim Eisner (“He is one of the boys,”) or Mike LoBue (“He is a team player all the way. I always look forward to working with Howell. I know many other electricians feel the same way. He is always a gentleman.”) Binkley hsa an easy charm that is reflected in his work: His lighting is all about serving the whole, the director's vision. “You start with the script, the text,” he says. “You have to have a foundation, you've got to know the show, you've got to know how it moves, where it is going to, and what it has to move through to get there. It's really learning the show first, going through the text, taking whatever time you can with the director, getting the feedback there, going to the model, working with the set designer. Then plotting it out, claiming your real estate and figuring out how to fit what you need in. It's what [director] Jack O'Brien said to me on [the Broadway musical] The Full Monty: ‘I always want to see the text.’”
Binkley's design approach is heavily influenced by his early career, which is rich in dance. He attended East Carolina University in North Carolina, a school known for its dance program. “In school,” he says, “we had to do workshops with the student choreographers.” He took a two-year break from school to work as a technician at the Nashville resort Opryland before returning to his studies. At school, he worked with LD Dennis Parichy when John Houseman's Acting Company did a residency. Parichy later hired Binkley for his first out-of-school job, as lighting supervisor for the company. “I worked with them for two and a half years and got to tour the world,” he says. “We didn't carry our own equipment; we had a rep plot and used the house gear. It taught me a lot about the road, about lighting — dealing with crews, with people, and with problems.”
For four and a half years, Binkley was lighting supervisor for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, working under LD Jennifer Tipton. It was there that he met choreographer David Parsons. He recalls, “Jennifer said to me, ‘Howell, you need to get your own dance company. Paul is my company and I do all the design for him; you need the same thing.’ While I was with Paul Taylor I met David Parsons. We became great friends. We took our few little pennies and started the dance company in 1986. It has been turbulent, but it has survived and is doing quite well. I'm very proud of it.”
Binkley continues to design for Parsons today and has added many other dance companies to his resume as well. Parsons believes that Binkley brings a unique talent to his dance lighting, “He has an innate natural eye for dance and light,” he says. “What you need is a choreographer of the light. Howell sees all the different elements as a whole. You have the dancer onstage, you have the choreography, the costumes, and the lighting, and he's very good at bringing all of that together so not one thing stands out too far.” Binkley himself credits his dance work as a heavy influence on his design style: “Some people tell me — and I think they're right — that I take dance lighting into my theatre work. It's all about the focus: Where does the eye go? How are we training the audience's eye to focus? Do we want it on this dancer here or do we want it on the cyc? In my work I try not to lose that focus of where that eye should be.”
Such things are important, but in today's high-tech, heavily automated theatre, Binkley must also think about budgets, space, and constantly changing technology. “In the last ten years, the technology has taken a real turn, for the benefit of everyone doing better and faster work,” he says. “It's part of being a lighting designer today to see the new equipment — getting demos and knowing what they can or can't do.” He adds that, with each new lighting unit, one must consider its movement, color saturation, and size. “Real estate needs to be thought through, because scenery is huge now and it moves. You've got to light and sculpt scenery, and you have to also do a show inside of it as well.” Time is also a major factor: “You have to think about automated scenery, how long you have for load-in, how long to focus. The sooner you get focused, the more time you get at the table to do your craft. When you are designing a plot you have to think through all of this. I'll have electricians talk to me, give me ideas. I am always open to their input; it's for the benefit of the show. The team on a show is a family; you want everyone on the same page. The director or the choreographer will know the name of everyone who works with me. I hope the electricians on my shows feel that.”
They certainly do, according to LoBue and Eisner. LoBue says, “Howell understands compromise. He is flexible when it comes to the many different obstacles that are thrown at us during production.” Eisner adds, “He always listens; he is always open to ideas if you have a suggestion. The experience is great because of the innovation and challenge that he brings in the door.”
Binkley's open approach to collaboration is the foundation of the long relationships he has with directors like MacAnuff and Prince. Ten years ago, the designer says, “I got a message to call Hal Prince's office. I thought someone was messing with me but I called and Ruth Mitchell [Prince's associate] asked me to fax a bio, then she called back and asked me to come meet with Hal the next morning. I got there and Hal opened his office door and said ‘Come on in. We're doing Kiss of the Spider Woman; do you know [scenic/projection designer] Jerry Sirlin?’ I said ‘Yes, sir’ and he said ‘Okay, talk to Ruth. We're doing Kiss of the Spider Woman together.’ That was it; it was my biggest break, my first Broadway show. It took some time to get there but it was really rewarding.”
That project led Binkley to MacAnuff. “I was doing Tommy on Broadway when Howell was doing Kiss of the Spider Woman,” says MacAnuff. “That was the first Howell show I had seen and I thought it was beautiful. It required a really artistic touch and I was very, very impressed with him. The very next show I directed was How to Succeed in Business and I immediately thought of him. It has been a fantastic collaboration ever since. Once I had done a show with Howell, that was all I needed, and now it's an automatic phone call.”
Prince adds, “Howell is an artist, an ideal collaborator capable of supporting and encouraging this director's vision with a boundless imagination. Lighting designers require patience. Howell has that in abundance. But he is appropriately stubborn and tenacious. I've worked with Howell on so many projects, covering such a spectrum of material; he has never let me down. All the clichés prevail: he paints with light, he sculpts with light. He understands metaphor as he can illuminate it differently in each production. And despite much preparation for each project, he is so quick to adjust to last minute changes.”
MacAnuff praises the same qualities, “He is endlessly inventive. He is endlessly enthusiastic about the work; he lends so much to a project in terms of both artistic and emotional support. He has a broad range of talent. He is selfless, he is a great collaborator, and he is always a joy to work with. Lighting is tough — you can't really draw it like scenery and costumes — so it requires a very special relationship. The designer has to be articulate but, beyond that, a trust has to develop, you have to really understand each other.”
Speaking of these and other directors, Binkley says, “It is really about trust. That's what I really try to give a director, that they can trust my work, trust we both have the same vision. David Parsons is great and Hal and Des have been very generous. There is a silent communication that is built over years. There is a vocabulary that is indefinable.” As much as Binkley loves his long-term collaborations, however, he is always looking to new partnerships, “I think it is good for a designer to work with new people, it let's you challenge yourself in new ways. Regional is great for this chance. I adore getting to go out of town. It is the roots of where I came from, being on the road or at regional theatres, being able to take my own supply of templates because they can't afford them, saving the color strings. I love it. I love La Jolla Playhouse, the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, Hartford Stage, the Guthrie. I love working at them.” But New York is home to Binkley: “It is a great community and people are really great and supportive of each other. There is incredible work going on. I am not a critiquer. I love what everyone does; I always take something from it. I always encourage that if I teach: go see everything. Being here in New York is a blessing and I get to learn from other lighting designers' work, always.”
Binkley has learned a lot along the way and it is a journey that has pleased him no end, “My background has made me the person that I am. I feel good walking in a stage door knowing I have something to really offer. I have been very fortunate in my career and the work I have been offered.”
This fall, Binkley lit two Broadway shows, each of which contained unusual elements. Avenue Q, directed by Jason Moore, is a kind of adult musical spoof of Sesame Street, with a mixed cast of humans and puppets. Golda's Balcony, directed by Scott Schwartz, is a one-woman show, starring Tovah Feldshuh as former Israeli premier Golda Meier.
For Avenue Q, Binkley says, “My big focus was the approach to lighting both the puppets and the puppeteers. I wanted to light them as one; it was really about keeping the audience's focus. The lighting couldn't split focus between the two elements of puppet and puppeteer but, rather, had to keep them as one character.” His lighting also helped create the world of Avenue Q, which is set in a dilapidated neighborhood in an unnamed outer borough of New York. “There were around 20 moving heads that I really used for sculpting the Avenue,” he says. “They helped create texture for the show's different locations.”
Golda's Balcony is all about location, in place and in time, as the play shuttles between a moment of crisis — the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — and Meier's memories of her past. Binkley worked closely with projection designer Robin Silvestri, of the firm Batwin + Robin. “In many ways, it's a memory play,” he says, “yet it deals with what is a current reality for her. It really comes down to Scott directing Robin and me. We all agreed on the color palette, and Robin added layers that enhanced the text. I tried to define the memory scenes; we agreed to lay in color imagery to define them against the scenes of the present.” Binkley used the Wybron Autopilot to define the memory scenes: “It helped me a lot; it would pull her face out, so I could sculpt the light and not interfere with what Robin was doing.”
Binkley worked with Silverstri's partner, Linda Batwin, virtually simultaneously, on Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way, staged by McAnuff at Radio City Music Hall. This unique production combined lighting, staging, and multimedia design to create the illusion of Sinatra giving a concert. Again, he worked well with the projections: “I never wanted to interrupt the text of the show: Frank and the images,” he says. “It's about sculpting the stage, allowing the media to have the whole realm, and never interrupting the media. It was about me being able to cut through and around the screen choreography, sculpting the light.”
And then there was Bounce, the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical, directed by Prince, which was one of the most-discussed shows of the year. Based on the lives of Wilson and Addison Mizner, brothers who cut a wide path across early 20th-century America, the musical was staged as a kind panorama paying tribute to the American qualities of resilience and reinvention. Working with Eugene Lee's scenery, which was heavy on painted drops, Binkley worked to add dimension and a sense of mood to the design. He used his moving lights, he says, “not the way you would in a big rock and roll show, but for sculpting and for color palettes, and being able to put dapplage and breakup on all the props.” Bounce closed after its second out-of-town engagement, but Binkley still hopes it will come to New York.
Nevertheless, he spent holiday season Down Under, lighting the Australian production of The Full Monty, with Jack O'Brien again at the helm. As we go to press, he has recently lit a dance piece, To Begin Again, for choreographer Peter Pucci, and Eden, a new drama directed by John Tillinger at Off Broadway's Irish Repertory Theatre. By the time you read this, he will almost certainly have moved on again, to more unusual and exciting projects.