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Andersonville Resident in the Spotlight for Lighting Design

By Adeshina Emmanuel | October 7, 2013 9:46am
 Cat Wilson, a 27-year-old lighting designer on Chicago's Off-Loop theater scene.
Cat Wilson, a 27-year-old lighting designer on Chicago's Off-Loop theater scene.
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Cat Wilson

ANDERSONVILLE — Andersonville resident Cat Wilson said lighting design is not an aspect of theater to master if one craves the spotlight.

But the young designer's skills on Chicago's Off-Loop theater scene have already garnered accolades — though she's lived in Chicago for just a year.

The 27-year-old Seattle native and three-month Andersonville resident recently won a 2013 Jeff Award for her work on the film-noir inspired “City of Dreadful Night” at Wicker Park's Den Theatre (her first show in Chicago).

She is also nominated for a 2013 Black Theater Alliance Best Lighting Design award for her work on "Hoodoo Love," a Collective Theatre Company production directed by Collective co-founder Nelson Ellis, who is best known for playing "Lafayette" in HBO's "True Blood."

The Black Theater Alliance award ceremony is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Wilson said working as a theater stage manager in middle school and high school piqued her interest in set design. But Wilson didn’t get serious about theater until her sophomore year at  Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when she joined a student theater group and started designing the lighting in college productions.

She was intrigued, she said, by a lighting designer’s power “to control the entire emotional world of the play."

“You affect everybody, everything: the set, the audience, the actors,” Wilson said. “It’s my job to tell the story emotionally, and tell the audience how to feel about what they are seeing. It’s not just to make sure the actors are seen.”

There’s a saying when it comes to lighting design, she said: “‘If I do my job right, nobody notices.’”

“I think if I do my job right, people will come out of the play saying that was fantastic. Not: ‘The lighting was fantastic,’” said Wilson. “It’s always great to be recognized and noticed but the goal of any design is to create the world of the show, not say, ‘Look at me, look at me!’”

Wilson loves her job but has aspirations beyond theater — helping train the next generation of lighting designers.

She’s spent the past few summers teaching a six-week introduction to lighting design class at Carnegie Mellon for high school juniors interested in the craft. Wilson wants to eventually teach at “a liberal arts college or a pretty advanced high school," she said.

She remembers being wowed by lighting design as a fourth grader watching "The Phantom of the Opera." There’s a lighting effect in the play where a catwalk descends, when the phantom takes the young singer he has fallen in love with down to his lair, that gives the impression that the characters are walking down into a pit.

“I just thought that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Wilson said. “I see that in kids, where they see an effect and it just blows their mind...to see that click in kids is why I want to teach.”

First, Wilson said she needs to build "a career that I would want in a professor if I was a student."

"Getting involved with some groups that I haven’t been involved with is something I’d like to do soon,” said Wilson, who lived in the Old Irving Park neighborhood before moving to Andersonville in June.

She’s currently working on lighting for "The Odd Couple (Female Version)," at Lincoln Park's Greenhouse Theater. The play opens Oct. 17.

Wilson's biggest as a lighting designer challenge on Chicago's Off-Loop theater scene has been balancing creativity with very limited resources, she said.

“A lot of storefront theaters have zero money, zero budget; you’re using the tin can you found in your neighbor’s yard and making a light out of it,” she said. “But storefront theaters think big.”