September 27, 2021

Moulin Rouge won an impressive ten Tony Awards at Sunday’s ceremony, but for UMass Theater, one win was particularly wonderful: Lighting Designer Justin Townsend ’97 became the first UMass Theater design alum ever to win a Tony.

Professor Lighting Design Penny Remsen, who was Townsend’s mentor at UMass and is still in touch with him, was extremely pleased with news of his win.

“Justin is such a thoughtful, creative, and passionate designer, and I’m thrilled to see him receive this recognition for his work,” said Remsen. “I’m so proud to have been one of his teachers.”

Townsend is one of a group of UMass Theater-alumnus designers who’ve made an impact on Broadway over the past decade. Aside from Townsend, Hamilton Scenic Designer David Korins, Fun Home Lighting Designer Ben Stanton, and Jitney Lighting Designer Jane Cox have all been nominated. Townsend, Stanton, and Cox were all mentored by Remsen.

Moulin Rouge represents Townsend’s first win in four nominations — in past years he was nominated for The Humans and American Psycho, and this year, he competed against himself, with his design for Jagged Little Pill also nominated. 

Moulin Rouge also represents a milestone in Townsend’s collaborations with director Alex Timbers. Eleven years ago this fall, Townsend made his Broadway debut designing lights for a musical directed by Timbers, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

In 2010, he spoke with UMass Theater’s Stages about his that first collaboration with Timbers. "I like working with people who make beautiful experiences," he said then. 

The two have gone on to work together multiple times since, including on Here Lies Love, which received a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting.

Townsend began his studies in lighting at UMass and went on to receive an MFA from CalArts before building a career in New York City, where he regularly received recognition for his work, including, in 2014, a special OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence of Lighting Design. He is also an associate professor at Brooklyn College.

In 2016, UMass Alumni featured Townsend in its “In The Spotlight” series, for his pair of Tony Nominations that year.

“UMass taught us to be great artists, great thinkers and great makers. I learned how to become a lighting designer by trade, but a storyteller first,” he said then.

Telling a story through light is a craft that Townsend says offers much more to a production than meets the eye.

“As a lighting designer, I manipulate tools to paint a picture. I have to know the physics behind how light works and predict what the result will look like when it’s emitted from state-of-the-art robots,” he explained in the Spotlight feature. “At the same time, I need to approach each project with an open mind to allow for creative tangents.”