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Parnelli NextGen: Jennifer Fok

Michael S. Eddy • February 2020NextGen • February 9, 2020

Jennifer Fok

Every month, PLSN shines a light on a younger person in our business who has recognizable talents and is destined for greatness in the live event industry. Our Feb. 2020 Parnelli NextGen candidate is Jennifer Fok, a New York-based lighting designer for theater and dance with a BFA in theatre design and production from Ithaca College. Currently, she splits her design work 30/70 percent between NYC and regional theaters, including Long Wharf Theatre, Lincoln Center Education and Portland Stage. She’s also worked at HERE Arts Center, Brotherhood Dance, Theatre at Monmouth, Teatro Sea, New Repertory Theatre, Company One Boston, National Centre for the Performing Arts — Beijing, Queens Theatre In The Park, Ars Nova, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Detroit Public Theatre, Wild Project, Know Theatre Of Cincinnati, Flint Repertory Theatre, and The School of Drama at The New School.

Jennifer got started in theater—like many people do—when she took theater as an elective in high school. “My drama teacher, Rosemary Mallett, suggested that I come hang lights and that’s essentially how I got into it; I fell in love with lighting the second week of freshman year.” Fok, who grew up in Palm Springs, CA, opted to go east to attend Ithaca College in upstate New York. “I decided that I needed to go out of California, and my sense of feeling comfortable, and take a risk. In hindsight, it was the scariest thing, but it was also the right thing to do at that time.”

While attending Ithaca, professor Steve TenEyck would become one of Fok’s earliest mentors. “Steve taught me a lot about how to read plays and think about light as it relates to storytelling; how we use the controllable qualities of lighting to support the other storytellers, always justifying your choices and not being arbitrary. I also watched those American Theatre Wing Downstage Center video interviews. Through those videos, one of the first Broadway designers I’d ever heard of was Don Holder. I interned with Don once, and just seeing his work, and him working in the room, was just pretty incredible; I’m still inspired by him today.” At the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Fok got to shadow Tyler Micoleau, ML Geiger, Shawn Boyle, Matthew Adelson, and Japhy Weideman.

In 2013, Fok moved to New York City, dreaming of starting her career as a theatrical designer, but her path wasn’t quite straight and true. For the first two years in the city, Fok first got an internship as a grip in television. She also briefly worked for a rental house selling theatrical supplies. But she persisted holding onto her belief in herself and her abilities as a designer and, as she recalls, “by 2015, I was designing and I even got paid for the first time for a lighting design. After my television internship, I had assisted a few designers very briefly as a way to initially pay rent, but really for those first two years when I came to New York, I wasn’t doing theater, so I missed the boat on the assisting Broadway designers or being an electrician Off-Broadway. I sometimes wonder if I missed some larger learning opportunity that would have informed my sensibilities or path.”

Pride and Prejudice at Long Wharf Theatre. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Today, however, Fok finds herself in the position to be able to bring on designers to assist her on projects. “I just feel very lucky that I’ve reached this point in my career where I can bring in associates and assistants,” she says. “Because, as I said, part of my path was not getting that opportunity. So I try to have that opportunity open; and to be very clear, if I can’t pay people, then I won’t take people on, because I think everybody deserves to be paid.”

When asked about her design aesthetic, Fok finds it hard to specify “because I feel like I do so many different things, and it’s so varied. I try to be a chameleon and adapt. I think it’s also part of my upbringing in the downtown New York theater world — that I tend to try to pull away from technology. I mean, I use technology, but sparingly, I certainly don’t crave heavy cueing or heavy LED lighting, unless it’s the main tool. I try to get away from that in my work. It’s about clarity and making the strongest choice that best serves the storytelling.”

Fok’s recent work reveals a preference for deep, saturated colors. “I’ve been fascinated by finding moments in a story where I can really push and be bold with color. Creating depth of field and being able to boldly shift mood.” But she doesn’t see LEDs completely replacing incandescent and tungsten sources. “At least in my work, I try not to replace tungsten. If I’m using an LED source, I try to mix it in with a tungsten source or some other type of source. I try not to make an entirely LED look. A lot of the work that I’ve been doing just doesn’t call for that. I’ve tried it, and for me, it just doesn’t feel right. Hopefully the audience won’t notice the different qualities of lighting sources, unless I want them too.

“The color quality and output with LEDs are definitely getting better,” she continues. “My favorite unit now is the [ETC] ColorSource Deep Blue. I really love how I can get nice full saturate colors and be able to dial in subtle pastels without feeling like I am sacrificing too much with intensity. I’ve loved using them as color changing templates through haze or to accent scenery, they also come in handy when lighting multiple skin tones.”

Skin-Deep at Lincoln Center Education.

Having a career as a NYC-based theatrical designer can be difficult. Fok shares some advice that she got early on. “Your tenacity can be more important than your talent. I don’t ever think talent is an issue. It’s just being in the right place at the right time and having the resilience to roll with the punches and understanding that rejection is a step to move forward. And be kind and courteous to everyone you meet.

“Also, that your success, or how many shows you’re lighting, or how much money you’re making, can’t be tied to your self-worth. You have to find other things that bring you joy of being in the city and being in the theater world. try to remember that, especially when things are slow. It’s important to find other interest than theater, because it will serve you as a better human and artist.”

When she’s not making theater, Fok likes to relax and refocus. “When the weather is good, I like to go hiking; go to museums. I also take a month during winter and go to California; being on the beach, going to theme parks, and reconnecting with family.” And when she is making theater, Fok enjoys “getting to travel and getting to work with new people in various theatre communities. I love that each project has a story to tell about humanity and how we as a team get to immerse the audience in our storytelling. Currently, I am working on I Am My Own Wife at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, directed by Rebecca Martinez. It’s the first time I’ve been on a primarily queer, transgender, non-binary design team in a larger regional theatre setting. It feels really incredible to be working with an artistic team and staff that is so supportive and inclusive. Lately, I’ve been working with more female identifying directors of color and that is so important. We need more designers and artists of color to be given the opportunity to tell their stories.”

See a sampling of Jen Fok’s work at http://jenfok.carbonmade.com.

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