Where is the Industry Heading: Interview with Ken Billington

In Our continuing Column, “Where is the Industry Heading”, we bring you our latest interview with Broadway Lighting Designer Ken Billington of kbany.com. Mr. Billington has been designing lights on Broadway, The West End and around the world almost his entire life. He shares his wisdom with us about some of the latest technologies in the industry and how it has changed over the years.

Click through to read the entire interview.

In regards to paperwork, how has that changed from when you started to where you are now?

It used to all be done by hand on legal pads. Then in the 1980 I had them typed up. In 1982 I had a lighting program written that did hookups and channel hookups and this was radical.

Then in 1985 I was working on a new musical GRIND and it was about to come to NY from its out of town tryout and my lighting program crashed. John McKernon was working for me at the then heading up the architectural lighting, he said he had a program that he had written for himself that did lighting paper work. I don’t remember if it was called Lightwrite or if it even had a name but John used it for his shows and it was not being used by anyone else. He ran and got his Compaq portable at home and brought it to the office, on a hand truck, and we entered the show and I have been using Lightwrite ever since.

What are your thoughts on LED’s in general for use within the industry?

When they dim smoothly from zero to full and don’t flicker we can continue this conversation. LED’s are getting better but the color rendering is not good on skin tones. I think we will get there shortly and if you want a magenta cyc they are great.

What challenges do you face with the ever changing console architecture?

I am lucky in that the manufacturers talk to me before and when they are developing new consoles. What you need to remember is that in its most basic it needs to do the following: CHANNEL ONE AT FULL ENTER. RECORD CUE 1 TIME 5 ENTER. If its cumbersome doing something simple like the above then you will get into trouble. New consoles come out all the time and finding programmers who are well versed on them can be hard. You don’t want a console that the programmer, no matter how good, has never run before. This will cost you a great deal of time in the theatre and frustrate everyone including the programmer.

Does 3D rendering provide a reliable method for developing a concept while designing out a production?

Have never done it. Sometimes set designers will send the set in 3D which is nice. I have used Wyswig and it was great to get some focus groups done and get some cues and timings written but my eye in the theatre looking at it for real is what I do.

Do you feel that projection media is a form of lighting or should it be considered a separate field?

I used to always do the projections when Pani scenic projectors were used. Now with video it is a full time job and needs a specialist. I could not do both and do both well. Part of what you do in the theatre is relate to the director, scenic designer and the rest of the creative team. You can not have your head buried all the time trying to figure out how the video, moving lights, color changers and the conventional lights are all happening. So the short answer is I do not do video projections.

Looking back at a past production, how would you change it with some of the latest technology out on the market today?

Old productions are old productions they were done the best they could be at the time. We move on and now do new productions and make them as good as they can be with the equipment that is available today.

Chicago the musical has been running 12 years and we do new companies all the time. It is still the same lightplot and same cues with no changes other than intensity adjustments. You can see the show anyplace in the world and it will look the same. The change has been we started with Vari*Lite 6C and now use Vari*Lite 2500 spots. Chicago was also the first complete Source 4 show done on Broadway and the West End.

What new or upcoming technology has the potential to change the lighting industry?

Perhaps LED lighting sooner than later. Quieter moving lights, better dimmers and consoles. Again I can’t worry about what is coming I have to light the shows with what is available. Sure I can be the first to use a new piece of equipment, which I have done many times before, but again you better have a backup plan if it does not work and it should be something that does not impact the producer’s budget.

What advice can you give to a beginner looking to make it in the industry?

Light shows. It does not matter if they are 6 dimmers with some flood lights light the show like it is the most important thing you are doing. No complaining that you don’t have enough dimmers or lights you probably knew that going into the project. So light light light and learn from it since there will be good and bad. Also admit to yourself what you did that was outstanding and what could have been better.

Do you have any tech-table rituals or traditions?

Put a bowl of candy on the production table. You get to meet everyone, since they come by for a treat. And you can keep the director and authors happy by letting them nibble when things are not going well.

What is your favorite gel color and why?

What ever I need to make something work. I have combinations that I know work but I always try and mix it up, I don’t want to be predictable.


Ken Billington (Lighting Designer) is currently represented on Broadway with Chicago as well as the current touring productions of The Drowsy Chaperone, Chicago, Annie, Fiddler ont he Roof and Riverdance for which he the lighting supervisor.  Ken has designed over 80 Broadway and 70 Off-Broadway shows including including The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe starring Lily Tomlin, Footloose, Candide (1997), Annie (1997), Annie Warbucks, Inherit the Wind, Moon Over Buffalo, The Red Shoes, Fiddler on the Roof (1990, 81,76), Lettice and Lovage, Tru, Meet Me in St. Louis, On the 20th Century, Side by Side by Sondheim, and Fame among others. Ken has been honored with eight Tony award nominations and received the 1997 Tony Award for his work on Chicago.  His Tony nominations include: Sunday in the Park with George (2008), The Drowsy Chaperone (2006), End of the World (1984), Foxfire (1982), Sweeney Todd (1979), Working (1978), and The Visit (1973). This fall he will be lighting tour, and on Broadway Finian’s Rainbow, Bye Bye Birdie, Minsky’s as well as the US tours of Dreamgirls , White Christmas and High School Musical 2 in the United Kingdom. In addition millions of audience members have saw Ken’s work at New York’s Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular from 1979 to 2004, Disneyland’s nighttime extravaganza Fantasmic!, the long running Las Vegas spectacular Jubilee!, The Waterfront Village at Sea World of Florida and Shamu Rocks! for Seaworld Orlando and San Diego.