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Frontiers of Enterprise Sculpting a more diverse future in theater

Seeing the light: lighting designer Mitchell Frazier

As the resident lighting director at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul, he brings to his work a fascination with the behind-the-scenes magic of theater and a commitment to telling the story using light.

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Only 4 out of the 37 shows scheduled to open for the 2020 Broadway season had two or more artists of color on their principal creative and/or design teams. Source: Theater Mania

Mitchell Frazier, 56, is a lighting designer who has worked on various productions in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis St. Paul, Minn.) and is currently the resident lighting director at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul. Frazier is also an actor and director, and is a company member of Nimbus Theatre Company in northeast Minneapolis. He started doing lighting design in high school, when he became fascinated with the technical magic of theater. 

“When I was young,” he says, “I went to a production. And I couldn’t explain how they did it. That’s sort of what drove me towards theater.”

In his work with young people, he works on productions ranging from fairy tales to socially conscious drama. Frazier sees his role as integral to how a story is told on stage.

“My approach to lighting is that I should always help to tell the story,” he says. “I never want to feel like lighting is more interesting than the story itself.” The lighting, he says, can “create a mood, set a place in time, set a season, create a feeling of cold or warm” and also set the emotional tone that fits the content of the story. 

“One of your main influences is to help the audience see what you want them to see, and not see what you don’t want them to see,” Frazier says. 

As a person of color working in the technical professions of theater, Frazier is aware of the importance of his role. “There are very few people of color in the technical,” he says of the theater industry, “and there should be more.” He believes his identity and experiences as a Black man, and also his lived experiences, provide an invaluable perspective in his work as a lighting designer and teacher. “I also bring who I am to a production. I understand. I understand racism,” he says, “I understand what it feels like to walk into a space and not be welcomed … it’s always going to color what I do. 

Frazier sees the need for change in the theater, but chafes at the increase in the use of colorblind casting—the practice of not specifying or overtly considering race during the casting process.

“I sort of bristled at that,” he says, “because if you’re blind to something, that means you’re ignoring it.” He would like to see more color-conscious casting, he says, “that idea that because you are a person of color, you are going to be perceived in this story.” He likes the idea that consciously thinking about race, and how race is portrayed, can provide a different interpretation or reading of a character or story. 

After 30 years in the business, Frazier has retained his youthful fascination with the theater. “I love when things happen that you don’t expect, and you don’t know how they did it. It is also a thing that drives people crazy when they go see shows with me because I’m always looking up in the air at the lights. And I’m always trying to figure out: ‘how?’” he says. “That technician in me that wants to explain, but I still enjoy the magical moments.” 

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Caroline Yang

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Episode Sculpting a more diverse future in theater