Lighting design professor Heather Gilbert reflects on Tony Award nomination

By Olivia Cohen, Staff Reporter

Ryan Brumback

As the world began to shut down in early 2020 due to COVID-19, Heather Gilbert’s latest successes were just getting underway.

Gilbert, an associate professor of lighting design in the Theatre Department, won two awards in 2020, one being the Joseph Jefferson Award, which was for her work on the play “Bug.” Gilbert also won the 2020 Drama Desk Award for the Broadway play “The Sound Inside,” the same play that secured Gilbert her very first Tony Award nomination for lighting design.

“I was teaching first-year [students] and I went into my office and watched [the Tony nominations] and was totally freaking out,” Gilbert said. “It was super exciting; it felt kind of surreal. … That afternoon we celebrated with the students, we had a party in my career class … the kids decorated the whole thing and made a red carpet down the hallway.”

Due to the pandemic, Gilbert’s nomination for “Best Lighting Design of a Play” was announced in October 2020, four months later than usual. To find out if she won, Gilbert waited another 11 months until the in-person 2021 Tony Awards, which took place on Sept. 26.

While she did not win, Gilbert was grateful for the opportunities that came from the nomination.

“For me, because it was during a pandemic, it was sort of nice and gave me moments throughout the pandemic to feel connected to myself as a successful theatre artist,” Gilbert said. “It made me feel good; It made me feel like not all hope was gone.”

The majority of Gilbert’s freelance lighting designing can be done around her teaching schedule, allowing Gilbert to remain in her professor position, whereas, during the rehearsals of her plays, she then has to negotiate those hours around Columbia.

Throughout Gilbert’s career in lighting design, she has explored the use of alternative light sources in plays that differ from the average overhead stage lights used throughout theatre.

“I like to use a lot of theatrical lighting fixtures that are created just for theatre,” Gilbert said. “They’re designed to get a lot of light in small areas or long distances; there are all these optics and all these lenses that are a part of that.”

Despite not winning the lighting design award, many of Gilbert’s collaborators for “The Sound Inside” won awards, including the award for Best Leading Actress, won by Mary-Louise Parker, who played the main character, Bella Baird.

“Just being there felt like a win the whole night,” Gilbert said. “My expectations were super low going in [but] everything about it was great; it was the best night of my life.”

Jackie Penrod, associate professor and associate chair of the Theatre Department, has worked with Gilbert first hand and said her work is valuable in and out of the classroom.

“[Gilbert’s] work is so good and really subtle, but mostly, the fact that she brings the quality of her work, her intentionality and her ability to work with directors … she brings all of that to her students in a very real way,” Penrod said. “I think that’s what makes her a really good professor, not just a really great lighting designer.”

Easton Dippel, a sophomore theatre technology and design major, agreed with Penrod.

“When Columbia says they hire professionals that have experience in the field that they are teaching … Heather is the prime example,” Dippel said. “Her style of teaching may not be completely traditional, but it is practical and she teaches her students what it’s like working in theatre in real life.”

When it comes to educating the next generation of theatre tech artists, Gilbert takes on that role just as seriously as she does with her own work.

“I’ve always been focused on each one [student]… it’s very personal. I don’t ever expect students to be in competition with each other or having to live up to each other; There is no one standard in my class,” Gilbert said. “I am super grateful to this generation, the Gen Zers out there; I feel like it was a group of people who were meant to come along and teach me.”