Imagine taking a black sheet of paper and using white chalk to draw something. This is Kristeen Willis’ basic perception when she’s designing theater lights.
“It starts with seeing,” she says. “We tend to see shadows. It’s important to reverse that. You have to see light as a character.”
Willis is designing the sets and lights for PassinArt’s forthcoming production of Seven Guitars, by August Wilson. And she’s bringing some major chops.
A proud card-carrying member of United Scenic Artists USA, Willis has a masters degree in theatrical lighting design plus 18 years experience teaching and actually wearing all of the backstage hats – production manager, stage manager, technical director, lighting designer, scenic designer, properties designer, everything-but-costume designer.
As she works visualizing Seven Guitars, Willis said she’s finding music in August Wilson’s words.
“It’s a jazz-blues piece in the way it unfolds. What’s tragic and beautiful about Seven Guitars is seeing the characters walking through the racism of the times. Seeing what they believe they can and can’t do.”
Willis says she feels particularly fortunate, as a white woman, to have the Seven Guitars job with PassinArt when many theater companies are attempting to prioritize diversity in hiring.
She appeciates how times have changed. “There’s a great emphasis now on ensuring roles are assigned to people who culturally represent those roles. On allowing for a more clear understanding of cultural identity at the core of the work.
“There’s lot more to be done,” she adds. “I feel very blessed to be working on this project at this time.”
Willis started out as a Navy brat. Her peripatetic life changed when she arrived in Portland in 2006 to teach at Reed College. She’s been teaching – LInfield, Western Oregon University, Portland State University, University of Portland – and doing theater – Third Rail, Artists’ Repertory, where she’s a designer in residence – and winning awards ever since. Well, until Covid.
Willis’ life changed forever two and a half years ago with the death of her beloved mother Susan, in an auto accident. Willis’ mom, who worked as a middle-school librarian,
“always told me I could do anything I wanted to. She had a huge impact on me,” Willis said, recalling “the number of times she came and painted with me on a set, just so we could be together.”
Willis attributes her survival in a typically male-dominated profession to her mom. “She’s the reason that I’ve succeeded,” Willis says. It’s been tough. “I’ve had to control my feelings. I’ve spent my career walling them off, not allowing them to be shown so I don’t get labeled hysterical,” Willis said. She adds, “I made the choice not to have children. I know a lot of women do. But I couldn’t have done it if I’d had children.”
Even so, Willis notes, to this day “There is definitely a glass ceiling.” And, there’s hope. “#MeToo is epically change-making.”
Following a full-time theater-making career, Willis switched gears 18 months ago and went to work managing projects for a commercial lighting company. Theater is freelance these days, forming what Willis describes as “a better work-life balance.”
Willis says she knows she’s done her lighting job well when it’s more felt by an audience than noticed. She makes a lot of hard work disappear.
“I love planning towards a goal – strategic planning,” she says. “I’m able to see micro in the macro all at once. To see a path, the big picture, then a long list pops up in my brain” steps that she accomplishes one at a time.
She drafts the light plot. Then the lights are colored, hung and aimed.
“Light is very musical. It transitions from cool to warm. It follows a path as it moves,” Willis explains. “It moves and transitions through tones to make people feel.”