Lighting Design

I tried out for the Yale Glee Club the fall of my (first) freshman year, having sung bass in the choir and glee club at Hotchkiss and enjoyed it. Whoever heard my audition said I was not a bass, I was a tenor—singing bass had seemed supermasculine so this was a blow—and further they did not have a place for me. So I joined the undergraduate theatre group, known as the Dramat. The Dramat was not directly connected with the theatre department but it had the use at specified times of the Yale Theatre, a fine old-fashioned Broadway-type house with a well-equipped stage, flyloft, shop and scenery dock. As a newcomer I was put to work building flats, learning the traditional techniques for building and painting scenery. Then I was taken under the wing of Bob Leach, the Dramat’s light man, a senior, who was looking for somebody to take over when he graduated. I split the apprenticeship with another boy, Gil Helmsley, who went on to professional success as a lighting designer. Bob put us to work setting up lights for three original one-acts being done in the small Experimental Theatre downstage, and carefully taught us in the process the correct way of describing, using, and handling the cables and lights (“instruments”) and operating the dimmers, a bank of big rheostats in the wings. The Experimental Theatre had a plaster cyclorama behind and above the stage that had been designed so that strip lights correctly placed in the trough in front of it would spread light evenly over the surface, creating the illusion of limitless space around the small stage. When we lit it bright red, it was thrillingly dramatic.

I assisted Bob on several shows, including a science-fiction version of “The Tempest.” It was hard, dirty work, hanging and adjusting the heavy, complicated lights, sometimes from a very tall ladder dizzying among the swaying pipes, and running the thick cables that managed the electricity, but I liked doing it, and I loved running the dimmers, making one color or angle or whole stage picture transform before my eyes into something entirely different. Light was the medium in which actors performed, and it had extraordinary power to shape the dynamic and show the audience the structure of the play. I flunked out at the end of my freshman, went to summer school and got back in, but was not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, i.e., the Dramat. However I helped light an unofficial production in one of the colleges. The two plays, Eliot’s “Sweeney Agonistes” and Pound’s “The Women of Trachis,” were stark and vivid in a pared down classical style, done in the round and beautiful in all-white light from the many instruments we made out of lengths of stovepipe. In the spring I got to design the big musical and dip deeply into the theatre’s stock of lights: I was allowed sixty or seventy instruments, which seemed an enormous number. I doubled the area lights and used four colors, and I got to make some spectacular effects. I remember a green wash with big orange pools of light from overhead beam projects for a dance number. We had the latest experimental dimmer controls made by George Izenhour, a major creative force in lighting who had a lab on campus. It was the first ten-scene preset board, for those who know what that means, and I took full advantage of its capabilities. It broke down in one performance and had to be run on individual potentiometers; I was in the house and wondered what was going, and he board operator got so tense he threw up. I also learned to operate and appreciate a follow-spot, which is irreplaceable in many situations.

So when I took up with John P. Dodd, who was doing lights at the Caffè Cino and starting to take it seriously, I had more experience and technical knowledge than he did. When I had time I assisted Johnny on many shows over a period of several years. The Cino was small and one person could do it, but Judson Memorial Church was huge, and there came to be more and more lights to hang, circuit, focus, and gel. Johnny was the designer; I called myself Key Grip, meaning to be uniquely helpful. I was good at figuring out strange electrical systems and methods of running complicated cues, but he had the visions and his own strong ideas about what he wanted to do. I remember interfering in his design only once, when we were setting up for Paul Foster’s “Tom Paine.” Johnny planned to do it in many colors; I talked him into no color, white light only. It looked very good and was a hit. I also ran follow-spot for him when I had the chance; we made up wild effects. And I very often ran the lights for productions that he lit (he believed the word should be “lighted”), sometimes for weeks at a time, which I greatly enjoyed. Today lighting controls are computerized, but in those days dimmers were hands-on, and running the lights was really performing, in an almost telepathic relationship with the actors.

Johnny occasionally let me light something myself, and when we went separate ways I kept doing it whenever the opportunity arose. Light is a medium I love, and even when it is so subtle that the audience is barely aware of it, it has terrific expressive and affective power. From Johnny and the experience in those years of working with often minimal equipment, I have developed a rather conceptual, minimalist style, and it is always challenging and fun to figure out how to make a play look like something and be some kind of artistic statement, interesting to me. I append a list of many productions I have lit through the years, each one representing a set of personalities, a particular artistic aim, a specific set of problems and opportunities, a process, a unique design, and a series of performances.

In the late eighties, after Julian Beck died, Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov opened a new Living Theatre on East Third Street and Avenue C. By then Johnny had his own lighting company, and he gave the theatre dimmers and lights in memory of Julian’s beautiful lighting designs and designed lights for all their shows. By 1989 he was not up to it physically. I was back in New York and he passed it on to me. I had long admired and loved the Living Theatre, but I had passed up a chance to join the company in the late sixties; this was a way to make up for that. The Becks were key mentors, though I barely knew them in the early years, and it was great to work with Judith and Hanon. I lit “I and I” by Else Lasker-Schüler, a wildly ambitious, epic play directed by Judith, in the last weeks of writing speeches for Mayor Ed Koch. Every day for weeks I went from the City Hall to the funky theatre and fine-tuned my lighting setup, the opening repeatedly postponed, the last rehearsals running into the middle of the night. I went on tour to Europe twice with the Living Theatre (q.v.), which was more fun than anything. I especially enjoyed lighting Hanon’s play “The Zero Method,” a duet for him and Judith, who told me, “Just make me look beautiful.” Hanon’s stage directions called for “light waves” at one point: how wonderful to be handed such a challenge!

In Santa Barbara I was on the boards of a couple of theatres, the Lobero and Center Stage. Both of them had new state-of-the-art lighting setups by the time I left. When I arrived in Silverton, Oregon, in 1992, I noticed a tiny theatre just two or three miles up the road, Brush Creek Playhouse, and soon got in contact. Nobody was doing lights so I volunteered, joined the board, and did the lights for a few years. It was no fun, though. The equipment was beyond pitiful—six rotary household dimmers and tin-can lights—and there was not much you could do. I rented dimmers for my production of “The Flight of the Butter Boy” and gott the theatre a grant and put in a decent setup. It made a big difference.

Some of the shows I designed and/or ran:

1955: “So What?,” Yale Dramatic Association.

1967: “A Funny Walk Home” by Jeff Weiss, directed by Carlos Martinez, Caffé Cino, New York; “The Machine That Couldn’t: a Tragic Grandeur” by H. M. Koutoukas, 13th Street Theatre, New York (with Charles Stanley); La Mama Troupe: “Times Square” by Leonard Melfi, “Melodrama Play” by Sam Shepard, “Futz” by Rochelle Owens, directed by Tom O’Horgan, lighting design by John P. Dodd, Mercury Theatre, London;

1967, 1968: Sundance Festival, Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania

1970: Play-house of the Ridiculous: “Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit” by Jackie Curtis, “Cock-Strong” and “Son of Cock-Strong” by Tom Murrin, directed by John Vaccaro, lighting design by John P. Dodd, La Mama, New York

1971: “Country Music” by Michael Smith, also director, Theatre Genesis, New York

1972: “King of the United States” by Jean-Claude van Itallie, Theatre for the New City (Westbeth), New York

1974: “Prussian Suite” by Michael Smith, also director, Theatre Genesis

1977: “West Side Story,” also director, Taos Community Auditorium

1978: “Fiddler on the Roof,” Taos Community Auditorium

1979: “Life Is Dream” by Calderon, also director, Taos Theatre Company

1980: Mystic Paper Beasts, “The Last Crumb,” Connecticut College, New London

1985: Mystic Paper Beasts, “Rappacini’s Daughter,” directed my Daniel and Melisande Potter, Pennsylvania State University

1989: “I and I” by Else Lasker-Schüler, directed by Judith Malina, Living Theatre, New York

1990: Living Theatre European tour, “I and I” and “The Tablets” by Armand Schwerner, directed by Hanon Reznikov, Augsburg, Berlin, Prague, Brno, Bergamo, L’Aquila, Chiei, Malaga

1991: “Rules of Civility” by George Washington, directed by Hanon Reznikov, Living Theatre, New York; “Ancient Boys” by Jean-Claude van Itallie, directed by Greg Keller, La Mama Annex, New York; Living Theatre European tour, “Rules of Civility,” Rome, Salerno, Naples, Torino, Caglieri, Urbino, Padova, Marano sul Panaro, Budapest, Szekesverhervar; “The Zero Method” by Hanon Reznikov, directed by Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov, Living Theatre, New York1993: Living Theatre New Mexico tour, “Mysteries and Smaller Pieces,” collaborative creation, directed by Judith Malina, “The Zero Method,” “Rules of Civility,” Taos and Santa Fe

1998: “Trouble” by Michael Smith, directed by Maurice Lord, Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara

2000: “Featuring Loretta” and “Criminal Genius” by George F. Walker, Center Stage Theater; “Escape from Happiness” by George F. Walker, Lobero Theatre; “Dogs Bark All Night” by Michael Smith, Center Stage Theater

2001: “Mud” and “The Danube” by Maria Irene Fornes, Center Stage Theater

2002: “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Manuel Puig, directed by José Angel Santana, Center Stage Theater; “Turnip Family Secrets” by Michael Smith, music by Joe Woodard, directed by Deanne Anders, Center Stage Theater; “Happiness” by George F. Walker, directed by Maurice Lord, Sacred Fools, Los Angeles

2005: “The Flight of the Butter Boy” by Guy J. Jackson, Brush Creek Players, Silverton, Oregon; “Blue Heart” by Caryl Churchill, directed by Maurice Lord, Genesis West, Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara (Indie Award)

2006: “Far Away” by Caryl Churchill, directed by Maurice Lord, Genesis West, Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara; “A Man for All Seasons” by Robert Bolt, directed by Norman Gouveia, Brush Creek Players, Silverton; “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” by Edward Albee, directed by Maurice Lord, Genesis West, Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara

2007: “Bad Dog and Other Plays” by Michael Smith, directed by the author, Center Stage Theater; “The God of Hell” by Sam Shepard, directed by Maurice Lord, Genesis West, Center Stage Theater