Casey Duke, a graduate student in lighting design at the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, won the United States Institute for Theatre Technology’s Barbizon Lighting Company Jonathan Resnick Lighting Design Award for 2021.

The judges noted that she had showcased excellent lighting design in the School of Performing Arts’ productions of “Balm in Gilead” and “The Wolves.”

“She has a really good eye for composition,” said John Ambrosone, an associate professor in the School of Performing Arts, who nominated Duke for the award. “She executes the elements of angles, color, and texture of lighting really well.” 

Duke’s passion for the arts started in her high school theatre program and led to a degree in theatre at Mississippi University for Women.

She was introduced to lighting design during her first internship, at Lees-McRae Summer Theater in Banner Elk, North Carolina. She started in set building for theatre productions, but realized that the department was overstaffed. When she noticed a shortage of electricians, she switched her internship to center on electrical work and lighting production.

“That opportunity gave me my first hands-on experience in lighting,” said Duke. “And that’s when it clicked. Lighting combined my love for the arts and the sciences, and I’ve always wanted to pursue both in some way.” 

After her internship, she worked with the Utah Shakespeare Festival and traveled to many places she had never been before. 

Duke started thinking about getting her master’s degree. Originally, she planned to stay in her job for another year, but then she saw an advertisement for a graduate assistantship at Virginia Tech. After visiting the university and the surrounding Blacksburg community, Duke decided to become a Hokie.

Her entry into the United States Institute for Theatre Technology’s competition included the first production of her graduate program, Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead.” The plot focuses on a rundown café in upper Manhattan where struggling members of society gather to escape from their lives.

A cafe theatre set.
The café in “Balm in Gilead” showcases Duke’s lighting design. Photo courtesy of Casey Duke.

Duke’s challenge was to create a sense of togetherness in the café while still portraying it as rundown and even sleazy. It was her first opportunity to light an intentionally dark and ugly setting.

“I usually design mostly musicals and feel-good theatre,” Duke said. “My default is to go bold with all of my color choices, and ‘Balm in Gilead’ was the first chance I got to design something more hard-hitting.”

Duke’s favorite aspect of working on the play was collaborating with her colleagues. They would bounce ideas off of each other to achieve cohesion in all the aspects of theatre production. Duke ended up working with set designer Diksha Pilania to cast her lighting on the chimney of the café to create an eerie, depressing, and yet ultimately hopeful mood.

The second production Duke submitted to the competition was “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe. This story centers around a group of female high-school soccer players who share with each other their triumphs and struggles.

Theatre set featuring soccer players in blue uniforms at the goal line. Green netting is reflected on the ground.
Duke’s lighting design from “The Wolves.” Photo courtesy of Casey Duke.

The play posed another challenge for Duke. Instead of creating a set with a multitude of bright colors, she needed to provide a monochromatic scheme. She ended up creating a net-pattern template that extended across the floor of the set and up into the walls, to suggest the ensnaring effect of the problems the teammates were experiencing.

“The lighting designs for these two plays were very different,” Duke said, “and it made me stronger to have done both of them.”

Written by Clay Williams, a junior majoring in multimedia journalism