Wizard of Watts: Alum masters art of illumination
Jon Kusner has one of the most significantly subtle jobs in a working world that is known for glitz and glamor. Television audiences of multiple thousands have seen his talent displayed on live productions for years, and yet few viewers know of the 1995 School of Theatre alum.
That’s because Kusner prefers to put everything but his name into lights.
Kusner is a lighting designer for live television events. Such a short and simple title belies the enormity of creativity he brings to chaos. The first is crucial and the second inevitable for the work Kusner does with celebrities and high-profile politicians.
He has served as designer or director of lights for the Academy Awards and Emmys for more than a decade. MTV Video Music Awards and Grammy telecasts are on his resume as well, with his work on the latter bringing him two Emmy wins and numerous nominations.
Kusner has brought to life stages and stars at the Country Music Awards (CMA), Billboard Music Awards, MTV Movie Awards and in VH1, Nickelodeon and BET productions.
Other assignments have included the Salt Lake City Olympics and the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and 2012, where he met President Barack Obama. He later worked the Kennedy Center Honors, which included a White House event with Obama again at the podium.
From “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: 50 Years of Beautiful” to more than a decade working Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, Kusner has traveled across the country and around the world to elevate the art of lighting from mere illumination.
He does it with humor, humility and a level of calm that is baffling given the potential for nationally televised glitches that can happen despite months of team planning and years of personal experience.
“We get in the door and hit ‘go’ at the same time. We have one shot to get it right. We are in the background flirting with disaster,” Kusner said in discussing live shows of grandiose proportions, such as the Grammys and Academy Awards.
“The worst and most complicated circumstances are when the artist doesn’t come back to stage as planned,” he said, recalling instances where an entrance was delayed or opposite what was expected.
Planning is tricky for award programs, as Kusner revealed in explaining the work done prior to the 2015 CMA Awards. “We sat down months in advance as a creative unit with a producer, director and set designer. We knew what set we were using and discussed how to augment it. But we had to guess who would be nominated and probably performing, so it became a spitball session of visuals appropriate to an artist and particular song.”
Even if assumptions are made correctly, issues surface when talent opts for a new direction shortly before the curtain rises. “We have gone through rehearsals and then had the artist come back with the decision to do a different song,” he said, which requires an immediate new lighting plan to set the appropriate mood and helps explain 16-hour days prior to a show.
Such is the work of Kusner, who was inducted into the College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame last fall. In the two decades since entering the profession, he has never regretted the decision made as a teen. A self-described mediocre student, he was literally drawn to the theater within Maine East High School in his hometown of Park Ridge.
“It was parent orientation and I walked past the theater, which had lights on and there was music playing. It grabbed my attention.” His enthusiasm grew exponentially under the wing of David Jeffers, chair of fine arts at the school, who gave Kusner the opportunity to work in productions. He became comfortable with the technical side of performances and was determined to study theater in college. Jeffers pointed Kusner in the direction of Illinois State, where he “jumped in with both feet.”
“I was ready to do shows from day one of my freshman year,” Kusner said. From the start of his first semester, he was working with Dennis Mays in the theater department’s shop. “The best part of my ISU experience was the hands-on work with shows.”
He handled props and lighting for several campus productions, including Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Adding Machine and Bloody Poetry, for which he also did scenery. When not working for a College of Fine Arts production, Kusner was across the Quad at the Bone Student Center. There he joined the Braden Auditorium crew to gain more experience.
Always eager for the next challenge, Kusner convinced his parents he should attend a trade show in Texas during his senior year. An impromptu conversation while there with the CEO of Vari-Lite, a premiere lighting company in the 1990s, resulted in a two-month internship.
“The first three days I sat quietly, then I sorted equipment,” Kusner said. It was an early lesson in the wisdom of making himself useful. That first real-world experience resulted in valuable networking opportunities that opened unexpected doors for Kusner, who also met lighting designer Ken Billington that senior year.
Billington has done more Broadway shows than anyone the past 40 years, including Chicago. The connection resulted in a significant career boost for Kusner when he headed to New York University after completing his undergraduate degree.
Plans to complete a graduate program in lighting were scrapped as Kusner pursued working with Billington. For seven years Kusner honed his theater skills, learning the important lesson of what he calls doing the homework.
“You have to know what happens when you are on site,” he explained. “What are the physical needs once you get to the venue? The rigging, the lights, scenery, physical set all have to come together as pieces of the narrative.”
The puzzle is complicated on Broadway but in a different way, as theater incorporates months of rehearsals and numerous performances to allow for perfecting and executing a plan that is repeated. That is a luxury Kusner left behind when he began to do corporate productions with fellow ISU fine arts alum Joseph West ’85.
The steady income from such high-end productions as the WorldCom and Mary Kay Industrial Show gave Kusner the freedom to explore another sphere of lighting—live television. It was through Billington that Kusner met Bob Dickinson and became part of the Full Flood Lighting Family.
“Bob is involved in 85 percent of live television productions,” Kusner said. “He is the second generation of TV lighting. Fearless, he brought moving lights into the television world. Before it was more of a mechanical or practical approach.”
In his early days with Dickinson, Kusner was far removed from the executive work he now leads. “I got coffee and did script revisions,” he recalled without complaint. “I learned in high school to pick up a broom and sweep the floor. Make yourself useful. Attitude is as important as finding your niche.”
He patiently studied the intricacies of his craft under Dickinson and gained wisdom that carries him forward today. “I made a career by learning how to light under someone else’s name.”
And what a professional journey it has been. Now 43, Kusner readily admits he never anticipated all he has experienced while working projects in Sweden, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Japan, India and Sri Lanka.
Now most of his work is in New York or Los Angeles. He chooses to live in Utah with his wife, Anne Brahic, who is a professional production designer; and their daughter, Lucie.
Regardless of his work location, one constant exists. He must problem-solve.
“The circumstances we work in are never linear. There is never enough time to finish, and no one cares,” Kusner said. As an example, he recalled the China World Exposition in Shanghai. The head of the Communist Party wanted a light show that would encompass two bridges two miles apart. Kusner was responsible for the design of one small corner of the project, which was only partially completed when the party leader called for the performance to begin.
The White House event, which included as honorees David Letterman and Dustin Hoffman, presented a completely different challenge beyond a litany of security rules.
“From a camera perspective, we had to expose the room so it would look like a happy place and not a dark hole, but from a theatrical sense you would have asked what we are lighting since it seemed very under lit. It was like working in a museum,” Kusner said. Even the most glamorous of events, such as Victoria’s Secret, is a struggle.
“There is a lot more science to that show. There is the long distance of the runway to cover with a flattering and consistent manner of lighting. It’s difficult.”
Whether working in an outdoor tent or Hollywood theater, the end goal is always the same. Kusner and a production team unite to move beyond “the vanilla” of ensuring visibility to make an event an experience. As his mentor Billington has explained it, the job is to paint with electricity.
“It’s an intangible, as the sense of lighting is visual but not quite physical,” Kusner said. Creating that sensory experience is what drives him and remains his focus.
“I am totally thrilled where I landed,” he said, and equally excited about what lies ahead. “There is the demon out there called success, of getting where I want to go. I can’t tell you where that is, but I have a never-ending thirst for what is next.”