NATIVE NEW YORKER CHRISTINA GIANNELLI CARVES A UNIQUE NICHE IN THE HOUSTON ARTS SCENE
Since moving to Houston, TX, in the mid-80s, Christina Giannelli has cultivated a multifaceted career: LD for ballet, opera, theatre, and performance art, lighting supervisor for visiting LDs, and, for the past six years, dance festival producer. She also cultivates plants. "I have a deck and it's covered with pots of flowers," she says. "It's sort of my sanity." Lighting Dimensions sat down with the busy LD this year between focus calls.
Amy L. Slingerland: When you were in high school, there was a small theatre in your neighborhood, and you started working there. Would you like to talk some more about that?
Christina Giannelli: It was called the York Theatre Company, and the artistic director was a woman named Janet Hayes Walker who taught at a similar school to mine. Her husband was the choir master at the church, and I was in the choir, and the production stage manager for the company was the registrar at my school. I started making props in 10th grade, and ushering, and my senior year I started working as the electrician. It was a great company. That was my incubator.
ALS: Is that when you decided that's what you wanted to do for your career?
CG: Actually, I went to college [Yale University] expecting to follow in my father's footsteps and become a surgeon. Then I realized I was spending all my time in the theatre and that's what I really enjoyed doing, and it would be OK to try that and see if I could make a go of it. So I gave myself two years after school and then either decide I wasn't cut out for it and go back and do remedial pre-med or perhaps I would get a master's in design.
At the end of two years I was working, and there didn't seem to be much point in getting into debt to get a master's. About four years after school I did feel like I was coming to a bit of an impasse and I did look into going back to Yale to study scenic painting and costume design, because I was very interested in being able to do the whole mise-en-scene for ballet and dance. At the time I was arranging that, the opportunity to move to Houston came up, and that seemed like the right thing to do.
ALS: How did you become interested in dance design?
CG: I was introduced to Chenault Spence during my senior year, and he hired me as the second assistant for the Alvin Ailey company for their New York season. Chenault was a true mentor; I would say he was my first real apprenticeship. He had me work with him on smaller companies that he did around the New York area, so that's when my interest in dance crystallized.
ALS: Are there others that you would call influences or mentors?
CG: Bill Warfel made it possible for me to take courses at the Drama School - I basically took the entire lighting curriculum as an undergraduate. I had a class with Bill, then a year with Tom Skelton, the last year that he taught at Yale, then a year with Jennifer Tipton the first year she taught at Yale, and I also audited Ming Cho Lee's first-year design class, which I studied with Michael Yeargan [in the technical section].
ALS: You got all the big names there.
CG: The last year Tom was teaching, he was very busy and got a lot of colleagues to come in and substitute, so that year I met Gil Wechsler, Ken Billington came up, Pat Collins came up, and two years later I got to work with her at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and I assisted her several times in New York after that, so I consider her a mentor.
I've had a wonderful opportunity to work with the people I think of as the masters of our craft. But probably Chenault was the first major influence, and my first opportunity to work in a large-scale legitimate situation. And he also works with color in a way that very few other people do. I think that pushed me to be a little bolder with color than I perhaps was at that time in my life.
I would like to stress how important Williamstown was. I think of it as my graduate school. Nikos Psacharopoulos, who was the artistic director at that time, was my directing teacher at Yale. He taught a scene study acting class, and he was sort of notorious for ripping people apart. So I told him right up front that I was a lighting designer, and he made little asides for my benefit all year, and then asked me to come to Williamstown for the summer. I was the master electrician up there and turned that into master electrician/assistant lighting designer; that was for two years.
Then they opened a second theatre, and Nikos asked me to run that, so I was the production manager and production designer for The Other Stages, which produced exclusively new work. I think that's another thing about me: I really enjoy new work, I find it a real challenge.
ALS: What is your philosophy of lighting, and how do you approach a project? What do you see as trends or themes in your work, or is there a throughline of development of your style?
CG: I think my philosophy about lighting is that I help tell the story. With people who don't understand what I do I say it is very much like a director of photography in a film - I show you where to look, or how to look at something. I'm definitely adding another layer of interpretation on top, but I feel a responsibility to do it with a fairly light hand.
I haven't done a naturalistic play in a really long time; that's just the way things have gone. I'm sure I could do one; I think I'm sensitive to what natural light is all about, but at the moment my work has been almost exclusively ballet and dance, over the last few years particularly. And opera has a different reality; it's not staged in a naturalistic way. So I've been more expressionistic with color and intensity.
I'm also interested in texture. I've always used templates, and I really enjoy working with scenic projections. I'm very comfortable with the idea of using projections as a source and as texture, and also lighting around them, lighting within the problems that scenic projections present - it's about angles and reflections.
My first major opera for Houston was Hansel and Gretel, it was a mirrored floor, mirrored walls, and every lamp had to be concerned with where the reflection was going to go, so I think the technical training I got from Bill Warfel really helped on that one - I basically had to draft down every lamp, so some of that coursework really came in handy. And I used quite a lot of color in that.
ALS: Talk about the technical side of your work as a lighting supervisor - have you seen a lot of changes with the technology explosion of the last decade?
CG: Working for Houston Grand Opera was a really terrific experience because suddenly I had buying power, vendors took me seriously, I had access to the information I needed. At that time Houston Grand Opera was doing a lot of new work, new productions, more modern stagings, using a lot of technology. We were also one of the first companies to use surtitles with video projection, so I got thrown into learning about new technologies that I hadn't had an opportunity to play with.
We did a couple of sci-fi operas, the first being the Philip Glass-Doris Lessing Making of the Representative from Planet 8, and the scenery was built in Japan, so everything electrical had to be retrofit here. Several years later, the premiere of a Michael Tippet opera, New Year, designed by Alison Chitty and lit by Paul Pyant, was a co-production with Glyndebourne - it was built in England, but all the electrics had to be retrofitted here, and that was my job. So I got to explore all sorts of things - battery-powered fluorescents, electroluminescents. I also designed the special effects for that.
The great thing for me that came out of that production was that I got to work with Paul Pyant and we've become very good friends and colleagues since, and right now I'm learning some of his ballets. That's been a really good relationship and collaboration. I admire his work enormously.
That was a situation where, as a lighting supervisor, when [an outside designer] comes in, I feel like my job is to make their life as easy as possible. If I can solve all the technical and practical problems so they can concentrate on the design, then I feel like I've done my job. And in the case of New Year, there were huge logistical issues of just getting the set wired. The work was all done by an incredibly tolerant and capable crew, but the sorting out of things ended up in my domain.
ALS: What are the differences between being a lighting designer and being the lighting supervisor?
CG: I think my strength as a lighting supervisor is that I am a designer, but I don't carry a lot of ego with me as I switch from one job description to another. I think I can serve someone else's design very well by bringing all that experience as a designer to it, but serving their vision. I really enjoy trying to see a production through someone else's eyes, and that's an exercise that's very important, because ultimately I have to maintain that production, and if I don't understand where they're coming from then I won't be able to adapt it to all the weird situations that we're going to go through, so I really like to be there when a design is happening.
There's only so much that can be recreated from good paperwork, and that's an issue for me right now, trying to develop a better paperwork system for record-keeping, because there are a whole lot of things that I used to think I would just remember, and I don't. As accurate as focus charts are, when there's another piece added to that repertoire, or you go into a different theatre, there's an essence that isn't completely reproducible just by pulling up channel intensities and hookups. So I'm trying to find a way to, I guess, "language" my work better. And I do a "notes for next time" right after a show opens - how would we have preferred to hang the show, what were the problems - so that it's stored somewhere, because I'm not likely to remember those details when it comes back three or four years from now. I've learned the hard way on that.
ALS: You feel strongly about collaborating with choreographers on new works. Can you talk about the relationship you've developed with Trey McIntyre?
CG: We have a good vocabulary, he's very articulate, and he's very visual in a way that many choreographers aren't. I think a lot of choreographers experience the choreography as a dancer, from the feeling of the movement, rather than from the outside. I try to allow them to participate in the design process, and explain how I do things and why I do things: What a cue is, that a cue has to start at a certain time and end at a certain place.
That's actually a concept that a lot of choreographers/directors have problems with - the idea that there's a process of steps that gets you from one look to another. For them it's a constant flow of one step after another, and while some movements initiate at a moment, they're clocked by rhythm through time.... I still haven't quite figured it out, but it's a languaging problem that I've noticed again and again and that I've tried to solve.
ALS: You were born and raised in New York City. How do you like living and working in Houston?
CG: Houston's becoming a major force in the arts nationally. So much is originating here and moving elsewhere, either from the Opera, like Harvey Milk (although I wasn't involved in that), or the Ballet with The Snow Maiden. I feel that's part of the trend of the decentralization of the arts that has happened over the last 15-20 years in the United States.
Being in Houston, I've been able to evolve a different lifestyle and career style than I would have if I were in New York. There are so few resident positions in New York, I'm not sure that I would have a resident position, and I would probably be traveling all the time. I do travel a great deal, but half the year I am working here and that allows a connection to the larger arts scene here.
When I moved here it was the pit of the oil bust, and most of the small companies had dried up or gone out of business or did soon after, and over the years I worked for all the majors here - the Opera, the Ballet, the Symphony, and the Alley Theatre. Because I was one of the few lighting designers in town, and because I had access to equipment at the Opera or the Ballet, I sort of became a bridge for the technical departments in those various organizations, and the theme of bridge-building seems to have continued now that I have gotten into the local contemporary dance field.
ALS: You are very active in the various arts organizations in Houston.
CG: Being in on the beginning of new companies has been pretty exciting and kind of a way to give back to Houston, which sounds Junior League and goody-two-shoes, but Houston's been very kind to me, so I'm able to be of service in a certain way. I enjoy working on different scales. We have a great alternative space here called DiverseWorks, and I'm now sitting on their artists' board. It's been fun over the years to go over there and do smaller works for various organizations here.
ALS: How did you come to found the Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance [which had its sixth annual outing September 30 and October 1]?
CG: Sometimes I think it was a fluke. Mostly it was because I felt it was a vacuum that needed to be filled here in Houston. There was a lack of opportunity for the local companies to perform for large audiences, to perform in a real theatre with real production values, for audiences that are used to seeing well-produced dance. They didn't have the opportunity to judge the local stuff on an even field. And I had the ability and the resources available to make a difference there. I guess that's why I did it.
When I finally had some time and I came up for air here in Houston, I looked around, and after having been involved in this teeming dance world in New York in the early 80s, in Houston at the end of the 80s there was nothing. There were some companies that had valiantly struggled through the oil bust, but it was so hard for everyone, and so hard for young, independent choreographers to get their work out and get seen.
And now I'm in the situation where the event I produce wants to grow. Every funder wants you to grow every year, and I can't continue to grow it all by myself, so now I have to create the organization to support it. A very interesting situation to be in because I'm on the other side, I'm front-of-house now, and issues of funding, forward development, corporate structure, all sorts of stuff, and it's not that I'm uncomfortable with it....
The hardest thing is when I'm in production for a week, I can't be the administrator-by-the-phone person. I find I'm not efficiently getting things done. It's just the minutiae of management, so I'm finding people to help and enlisting people and delegating, and trying to do what's possible and not get upset about the stuff I can't get done.
I very much want the Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance to continue, and it's very easy for me to production-manage a weekend of dance, but if I can find someone else to worry about the fundraising, then I can spend more time being a lighting designer, which is what I really want to do in life, what I really enjoy doing, and I'm finally at a point where I feel in control of my craft, and I'm exploring these new issues of texture and scale.
ALS: What are some other projects you've designed, that aren't theatre-related?
CG: There was a party for the Young Presidents Organization here in town and they took over a local film studio, and because the president of one of the local rock-and-roll lighting houses was a member of that organization, I had access to a great deal of fun equipment. It was my first chance to play with [High End Systems] Cyberlights[R] and Intellabeams[R], and that was a lot of fun.
It became very popular here in Houston to put parties onstage, so that became a sub-specialty for a while. That's the challenge of a different client who has a different point of view, but again, it's telling a story through the evening, there is a narrative that I impose or introduce on things like that, and being careful about color, because you want everyone to look beautiful and feel fabulous in their designer dresses, and to make it magic.
ALS: What directions would you like to go in in the future?
CG: I've had some commercial theatre experiences, but I haven't pursued them much. I'd like to be doing more dance, bigger dance, everywhere, all over, here and abroad. I'd like to get back into opera. It's been wonderful that I haven't had to worry about going out and looking for work, but I've also been lazy about keeping up contacts and connections, because I've been so involved in my work here in Houston. And this dance producing that I've been doing eats up all the time in between.
I'd like to learn about television lighting, high definition television and stuff like that, because increasingly things are involving video and live performance in combination, and I'd like to get more of a handle on that. I've been doing some video lighting for small things, just to get familiar with it, but that's a whole other discipline, really.
I feel fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I do in the not-for-profit sector. It's pretty thrilling.