In November Diane Ferry Williams won her first Joseph Jefferson Award, for lighting Miss Saigon at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, the leading musical theatre in the Chicago area. The only question: What took so long? A Chicago resident since 1985, and resident LD at the Marriott since nearly then, she has built up an impressive résumé, working both in Chicago and other stops on the regional theatre circuit.
A native of Ohio — she grew up on a horse farm — Williams attended Ashland College as a business and French major (“I was going to be a foreign stenographer for the UN,” she says, laughing) but she soon got the theatre bug. She was accepted to NYU for graduate school but “Northwestern made an offer I couldn't refuse.” She planned to become a set designer but, in her second year, “I lit my first show and fell in love with the medium. You can paint, erase, change the color. I got impatient with wood, metal, and plastic; they're inflexible. I loved the tempo, the musicality of lighting. I've loved it ever since.” She also loved Chicago, staying there after graduation with her husband, John Woodbridge Williams, who was on the faculty and head of the lighting program at Northwestern. In 1985, he began designing at the Lincolnshire Theatre, with his wife as assistant: “John was very active in USITT and busy with teaching — I took over for him at the Marriott, and everything went on from there.”
Since then, Williams has remained at the Lincolnshire, generally designing five shows a year there. The Lincolnshire space is a challenging one, she adds. “It's an arena with a 27'-wide deck and the grid is 15' off the floor. There are no followspot positions.” No followspots? In a theatre devoted entirely to musicals? “Long ago, I learned to do a system of face light,” she says; “You put in as many circuits as you can afford, then isolate the actors that way. It's a challenge. We have tried followspots — we've tried positions under the grid — but then you're only really good [when the actors are] at stage center.”
Still, she loves the theatre, the staff, and the challenges of working there. “They have incredible resources — we have all the lighting toys. They've been awfully good to me over the years. I work with Tom Ryan, the resident set designer, and Nancy Missimi, the resident costume designer. The theatre has 800 seats, but it feels intimate.” The emphasis at the Marriott, she says, is on the story, rather than on glitzy effects. “You can tell right away which shows need splash and effects and which ones hold up without all that. Miss Saigon was incredible, because the story is so strong.”
Working with the house inventory, which consists of conventional units — the theatre is gradually converting over to all ETC Source Fours — plus Wybron Forerunner scrollers and High End Systems Technobeams®, Williams created a lighting design for Miss Saigon that critics praised for its lightning-quick transitions. She added four Vari*Lite® VL6™ units to help create the effect of whirring blades in the show's signature helicopter scene, depicting desperate Vietnamese attempting to get on the last plane out during the fall of Saigon. The effect was created, Williams says, using “patterns from the VL6s and the Technobeams, plus cleverly designed fog (by Terry Ghiotto) and sound (by Duncan Robert Edwards). We used three chain-link fences that went into different configurations, depending on which part of the scene you were in. It was a heartbreaking moment.” She adds that the second-act showstopper, “The American Dream,” was staged without the car that made it such a Broadway talking point. “It wasn't about the icons, the imagery — it was about the choreography and the lighting.”
When not designing at the Lincolnshire, Williams' work can be seen at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (recent credits there include The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing). She works frequently with director David Bell, in venues around the country, including Chess and Little Me at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company. With Bell, she's done new musicals, too — including Don't Stop the Carnival, written by the unlikely team of Herman Wouk and Jimmy Buffett, at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, for which she won a Carbonell Award, and Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, at Goodspeed Musicals. Then there are those unclassifiable projects: “I did a show at the Mogador, in Paris, with the Harlem Gospel Choir,” she recalls. “None of the crew spoke English. They had just purchased a Strand Light Palette 90, and they didn't know how to use it. How I explained tracking to them, I'll never know.”
At any rate, she's got plenty on her plate these days. As we went to press, Williams had just finished Funny Girl at the Lincolnshire and was off to Atlanta to do the Alliance's annual production of A Christmas Carol. Next up is Cats, the first regional theatre production, back at Lincolnshire. (“It will be quite fun,” she says. “We're going to set it in an abandoned amusement park.”) Also coming up is 1776 at Ford's Theatre.
In addition, she has plenty going on in her personal life, as well. John Woodbridge Williams died in 1992, and Ferry Williams married again in July 2002 to William L. Rondenet, a landscape designer. The two have recently moved to Valley City, OH. “We wanted a house, with dogs,” she says. It's an arrangement that suits her well: She's near her parents, yet Cleveland Airport is only 35 minutes away, when duty calls. Furthermore, she has her priorities in place. “Most people aren't lucky enough to have one great marriage, let alone two,” she notes. That's even better than a Jeff Award.