"Lighting is destiny" may very well be Jane Cox's credo. Had fate taken a slightly different twist, Cox might now be a combination flutist/stablewoman instead of a lighting designer combing Canal Street for Chinese lanterns to light a low-budget dance piece on New York City's Lower East Side.
A little background: Raised in Dublin, Ireland, Cox moved to England to study classical music at the University of London. Bored with her fellow students (a bit too single-minded in their musical pursuits), Cox sought a more eclectic mix of comrades, settling into the theatre department where she ran light board for a production of Oh, What a Lovely War! But Cox held no great fondness for London and so sought out the overseas study programs her department offered. She was offered a year at a women's college in Texas, which was, according to Cox, a sort of finishing school. Dissatisfied with a curriculum that involved learning "to ride horses and stuff," she wanted to apply to one other US program: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But Cox still had to convince her academic committee why she should be sent there, so the quick-thinking designer-to-be figured out that the one subject the University of Massachusetts had that the women's college didn't was design: "So they sent me to Amherst and that was really where I got involved in lighting more seriously."
Thus Cox escaped from London and the monotony of what was, to her, a positively leaden study-abroad experience. And the now-28-year-old designer, who has since received her M.F.A. in lighting from New York University, now lights cutting-edge projects by theatrical elites such as wunderkind Richard Maxwell (whose play House was awarded a 1998/99 Village Voice Obie award), Maria Irene Fornes (Enter the Night), Suzan-Lori Parks (In the Blood), and Mac Wellman. Cox often works as the idiosyncratic Maxwell's production designer. On House, which takes place inside, well, a suburban house, she followed Maxwell's "anti-design" aesthetic by recreating the rehearsal space and its fluorescent lighting. Her lighting for Enter the Night was a progression of looks based on painters ranging from Vermeer ("a lot of straw and pale green sunlight") to Caravaggio ("hotter and shadowy lighting that had a disturbing undercurrent") to medieval artists ("flat, intense lighting").
While at Amherst, she worked on a number of productions, albeit ones she describes as "crazy projects," which were performed in what was once a cafeteria space. It was also at Amherst that she met the person who would most effect her foray into lighting, teacher Penny Remsen. The "extraordinarily charismatic and challenging" Remsen, now head of the department, was, laughs Cox, the person who "pushed me into lighting."
But more than anything, Cox knew she wanted to live in the United States. After returning to England to finish her undergraduate degree in music and theatre, she came back, and proposed to her former Amherst beau, an actor. The two married, and the couple now resides in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
First Cox lived in Massachusetts, then Philadelphia, working as a designer, but her lack of a visual arts background began to affect her work. Says Cox, "I felt I was treading water in a way. I've always been a big reader, so I got the work done because I was able to have conversations with the director about the script. But as far as visual composition went, I felt I had a lot to learn, so I applied to NYU."
At NYU, Cox had a graduate assistantship. (Thereby accumulating fewer student loans than her classmates. As she observes, "You're not able to do the interesting stuff when you're in debt.") She studied with John Gleason (whom she assisted at the Juilliard Opera post-graduation), who was "an extremely important part of my learning as a designer. One thing he always said was that you have to find what is interesting to you as an artist about any project to be a good designer. It sounds obvious, but too often I think young lighting designers are taught to think about working on a project only in relationship to the script, the director, the scenery, the producer, and the practical challenges, forgetting about the designer's intrinsic interest in light as an abstract and sculptural art form (and if you don't have the interest you don't have anything). If there was nothing in the script to get a handle on emotionally or artistically, he would come up with some personal challenge to make sure he was always alert and interested in what he was doing on an artistic level, never just going through the motions of elegant illumination."
Since her 1998 graduation, Cox has worked in Off Off and Off Broadway theatre and dance. While she has reached a new level with her Maxwell, Fornes, and Parks gigs (In the Blood was performed at the Public Theatre), Cox still makes time for the smaller pieces. Her advice to young designers working in the often ill-equipped, cramped spaces of downtown theatre is: "Approach a design based on the space. You can't think about all the things you would love to do if you had real lights and then pare it down. You have to think about it in terms of making that space an environment that's appropriate for the piece."
The former flutist grieves not for her abandoned musical career. Instead she sees music in lighting: "I think of lighting as visual music, and in a way it was the thing that had always been waiting for me."