Pirate Nation


Internship may light up another Broadway career

Howell Binkley
’77, one of the world’s top theatrical lighting designers, will welcome an East Carolina University student to New York City this fall for a three-month internship. In a field that relies heavily on networking and experiential learning, Binkley wants to give up-and-coming designers a taste for work in the heart of America’s theatrical world. The ECU intern will work with Binkley and his team of 12 lighting professionals who are involved in shows on Broadway and in regional theaters.

See a Howell Binkley show
on Broadway this summer

Howell Binkley 

Million Dollar Quartet

Nederlander Theatre, (212) 921-8000. Nightly except Monday, with weekend matinees, tickets from $46.

Jersey Boys
August Wilson Theatre, (212) 239-6200. Nightly except Monday, with Wednesday and
weekend matinees, tickets from $97.

Schubert Theatre, (212) 239-6200. Nightly except Monday, with Wednesday and
weekend matinees, tickets from $116.

All About Me
Henry Miller Theatre, (212) 239-2820. Opened March 16, call for show times,
tickets from $146.

West Side Story
Palace Theatre, (212) 730-8200. Revival opened March 9, call for show times,
tickets from $188.

In the Heights
Richard Rogers Theatre, (212) 221-1521. Opened March 9, call for show times, tickets from $40.
Binkley, 54, created the internship to give back to the school that gave him his start in the business. “This is the Mecca for theater, and I want to help as much as I can,” says Binkley, who grew up in Winston-Salem and won a Tony Award in 2006 for lighting the musical Jersey Boys. That show was among six productions showing on Broadway this spring for which Binkley designed lighting. The others are West Side Story, In the Heights, All About Me, Memphis, and a new one, Million Dollar Quartet.

John Shearin, director of ECU’s School of Theatre and Dance, says Binkley approached him last year about establishing the internship, which will be open to advanced lighting students or recent graduates who had a concentration in design and production. For students still enrolled at ECU, they could receive course credit for the internship.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for a student to learn at the highest levels of the profession,” says Shearin. “Building networks is incredibly important in this business.”

Binkley’s latest project is The Million Dollar Quartet, a new musical based on an actual recording session in 1956 with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. The “teching process” he initiates pulls together all the play’s elements— lighting, sound, scenery and acting. It’s a time of great collaboration between all aspects of play, which Binkley says can be quite invigorating.

“That’s the great thing about live theater— all the departments are layering in their part, and it’s a process to see if it all works together,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll find things that are horrible, and you have to find that alternative you have up your sleeve.”

His challenge in Quartet is lighting the crucial flashback scenes. The play takes place mostly in the recording studio, so the lighting creates the atmosphere to set it apart from the room where the music is being recorded on vinyl. “My visuals are helping the audience to absorb and learn the characters,” says Binkley.

“In the flashbacks, the lighting has to take you out of reality and create a dream-like fantasy. The lighting is so much a part of the story-telling process.” That process has developed significantly since Binkley graduated from ECU and headed out on the road with dance companies and touring rock n’ roll bands. Today, much of the lighting is wireless, and one fixture can carry up to 120 colors of light, which can be mixed to send just the right hue to the stage.

His break on Broadway came in 1992, when he was hired as the lighting designer for Kiss of the Spiderwoman, which won the Tony Award for best musical and ran for 905 performances. He has since been the lighting designer on 31more shows, including Grease, Avenue Q, Steel Magnolias and Minnelli on Minnelli.

Among his current Broadway shows, Jersey Boys has played the longest, having opened on Nov. 6, 2005. The musical has seven companies performing at venues around the world; Binkley designed the lighting for each of them. “Some shows, like Jersey Boys, are successful, and some shows have opened and closed in three months,” he says. “You think of all the people who have worked on the show, and then a critic comes in and rips it apart, nobody buys tickets, and they pull the plug. I guess that’s the nature of the business.”
—David McKay Wilson