Lighting designer and educator John Gleason died on October 28. He was 62. A native New Yorker, Gleason was drawn to lighting in his student days at Stuyvesant High School. At Hunter College he lit 75 shows, while majoring in zoology and chemistry; he passed the USA exam while still a junior at Hunter. Upon graduation, designer David Hays hired him to assist on a production of The Changeling, directed by Elia Kazan for the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, which was then living in temporary digs at the now-departed Washington Square Theatre. He soon earned his first design credit there, with a revival of Tartuffe in 1966. In 1968, he was named resident lighting designer at Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center.
He was soon designing regularly on Broadway, beginning with the flop musical La Grosse Valise. Many more productions followed, including The Great White Hope (1968), We Bombed in New Haven (1968), In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1969), the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two (1970), Lorelei (1974), Over Here! (1974), a hit revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family (1975), the 20th anniversary revival of My Fair Lady (1976), and An Evening With Diana Ross (1976). His last Broadway show was The Guys in the Truck (1983).
Beginning in the late 70s, Gleason's growing disenchantment with the level of professionalism in the commercial theatre, combined with a lifelong love of opera, caused him to cross over to that medium. Among his opera designs were The Marriage of Figaro (Manhattan School of Music, 1975), Macbeth (Dallas Opera, 1977), Manon Lescaut (Dallas Opera, 1979), Peter Grimes (Dallas Opera, 1980), The Mikado (New York City Opera, 1984), Werther (New York City Opera, 1986), The Magic Flute (New York City Opera, 1987), Doktor Faust (New York City Opera, 1992). He also designed many opera productions for the American Opera Center at the Juilliard School.
Gleason also worked at resident theatres, such as the Mark Taper Forum, American Shakespeare Festival, and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. But his longest-running job was at New York University, where he taught lighting design for a quarter of a century, from 1971-97. “Teaching has made me a better designer,” he told Entertainment Design (then known as TCI). “I always allow my students to ask any questions they want about my work, and so I have to be prepared to answer.”
He also told TCI, “When I began to teach, I also started to think about what I liked about lighting. And there were certain things I liked, that straight through to this day: The fact that I don't hold a nine-to-five job, never have-that's pretty terrific. Sometimes I get asked by my students ‘Why do you still do it?’ And I'll laugh and say, ‘Well, think about it: where else can you get paid by someone to spend their money to fulfill your fantasies?’”
The following tributes to John Gleason are from friends and colleagues who worked with John in the theatre and at NYU over the years:
John Gleason's passion for life, lighting, theatre and teaching was operatic. He began to revel in performances at the old Met on 39th St. and Broadway when in high school. In 1962, while in college at Hunter, he attended the legendary debut in Verdi's Il Trovatore of Italian tenorissimo, Franco Corelli. This great artist was no stranger to putting heart and soul into every role undertaken. So it was with every show designed and class taught by John Gleason. The news of John's passing has touched and saddened many a heart of those who knew and appreciated him as man, teacher and artist. I cannot escape feeling that there is some meaning that John and Franco Corelli, 20 years his senior, left us on the same day.
Ten years after that memorable debut night, John came to the old NYU School of the Arts design studio to give a guest lecture. He was a huge hit. He sounded the note that informed his teaching philosophy, that lighting was first and foremost an art form and that lighting designers were artists first and technicians second. Thirty years ago, this was not the view held by many as it is today. It was our great good fortune that he came to join us and worked his magic as a master teacher of lighting for a quarter of a century, and, for many years, as associate chair of the Design Department. Like the great lighting artists of our time, he understood all facets of what went into making the stew of a play, dance, or opera. His critiques on scenery and costumes were often deeply penetrating. He always insisted on his students understanding the heart of a play or opera. His light labs were famous for demonstrating the importance of lighting cues in relationship to music
If I were forced to choose one aspect of his art that made him unique in his generation, it would be his sense of color. He never put a foot wrong in his imaginative color choices. He once said of the great American pianist, Murray Perahia, and his traversal of all the Mozart piano concerti, “He gets it.” John Gleason “got” color. In a few short paragraphs, I can't begin to scratch the surface of what John meant to the early planning of the then new design department at NYU, to its evolution and to its future. When I was at Carnegie Tech as a student there was a song lyric written by a talented actress just graduated, Nancy Marchand, called “There's a Place up in Heaven for the Light Man.” I suspect that Oliver Smith is busy designing skyscapes and that John has been recruited to make more of sunrises and sunsets. I trust that Franco Corelli is now teaching the angels how to sing out in the great opera house in the sky.
Lloyd Burlingame, Chair Emeritus
Department of Design,
Tisch School of the Arts, NYU
I was very young and quite immature when I had the chance to go to NYU 21 years ago — a green undergraduate from the Midwest in the graduate design program in New York City. Keeping up in Gleason's class was the most challenging thing that I ever had to do in my life. A light plot and complete paperwork for a new Broadway play due every week! John's crits, with red pencil on ‘precious’ original drawings, often seemed merciless, but his challenges prepared me for a real career in the theatre, and I will be forever grateful to him. I think about his lessons almost every day in my professional life: his stress on communication; his rejection of any standard methods for lighting the stage (“That's not design, that's stage lighting”); his dogged entreaties for clarity, economy, and substance; and his articulate statements on color forged my thinking in fundamental ways. Thank you, John. You will be forever missed.
I was very sorry to hear of the passing of John Gleason. For many years he was a friend, both personally, and professionally. We had many conversations about lighting in general and specifically color in lighting, and he certainly influenced the development of Rosco. I use the word “conversation,” but, in fact, some could better be described as debates. What John believed, he believed strongly, and his positions were propounded with passion.
Although a member of the faculty at a prestigious university, John never was seen as making declarations from an ivory tower. He did shows…he made the choices…he set the cues. Year in and year out, he taught and he worked at his craft. And his performance in both roles earned respect. He invested time, effort, and energy in his teaching because he felt that it was important work. At the entry level, his mission was to turn young students on to the possibilities of a career in design. For those already committed, he sought to give them a solid technical foundation by passing on the knowledge accumulated over years of professional experience. He brought the real world to academia.
In addition to his other unique strengths, John was the first to recognize the logic of a relationship between film and theatre lighting. Having had his own epiphany, John went on to open eyes and minds first in the theatre department and later of young filmmakers.
I regret that I never expressed my thanks to John for all the help, which he gave me over the years. He was a friend to me and to Rosco.
John Gleason was a great teacher and mentor. I remember him for his color theory, his conceptual thinking, his love of true collaboration, and his call for commitment to an idea. He was a man who embraced controversy by shaking up the academic world with his teaching theories. He had the courage to fight for his convictions and he fought for those he taught. Color, concept, courage, controversy, commitment, collaboration. John was associated with many words than began with the letter ‘c.’ The day and the word I will never forget from John is the day he called me colleague.
Allen Lee Hughes
Johnny and I met, as I recall, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center when he was doing his beautiful lighting and I was doing clothes for a number of productions under artistic director Jules Irving (Amy's dad). I don't remember how many we did together, maybe half-dozen, maybe a dozen. But every one was a pleasure. I knew I never had to worry. Dark subtle fabrics somehow never went muddy, even in low light. Light-colored clothes never looked like walking refrigerators. I always gave him swatches of things I knew might be problematic early, and he made it all wonderful.
One time we did a Broadway show that ran perhaps a week or two. But we all worked long and hard on it as one always does. I had an idea of creating a tintype/old-photo kind of look for a flashback sequence (not innovative or brilliant, but an idea nonetheless). I used a range of sepia stuff, of course, and hoped it wouldn't be too bland or too obvious. John worked his usual color magic, which I had come to count on, and the scene came alive, chirascuro'd in rich tones of gold to deep shadowy umber. I asked him what in the world did that. He said, “It's just the right color of gel.” “What do they call it?” I asked. “Chocolate, of course.” Now there's an apt name. I still to this day don't know if he was kidding me or if there really is a chocolate gel.
Johnny and I worked side by side at NYU, too. Again, I don't remember how many years, but it was always clear to me that he loved teaching, loved talking about light and color and drama and music. And how to put it all together. He loved looking at light rendered by the great artists. And he often talked about how he wished he himself could draw.
I told him that if he could paint with light as well as he did, I knew he could learn to draw, but that he'd have to commit to a serious, regular, and somewhat lengthy schedule of time. I said if he were willing to come with me up to the Art Students League at West 57th Street for two or three days a week, about three hours an afternoon, for an entire summer, I promised him results he'd be proud of. And I said he must be open to criticism by great teachers, something I thought might be difficult for John. He said okay. And so off we went to the Art Students' League. I wish I had a copy of some of his first attempts. Truthfully, there were not at all promising. But he didn't give up. And some weeks he went five days a week. His improvement was vast and incredibly fast. After the summer, Johnny continued our routine, and told me this summer that he had become a lifetime member of the Art Students League. He was so proud.
After his own mom died, John unearthed a collection of her beads. They were all colors and shapes, bugles, caviars, many in colors I've not seen around today. He called to tell me about his find; thought maybe I could do something with them. Are you kidding? What a treasure trove. A huge box arrived. It weighed a ton. And now I have it all organized by color and type. But my biggest problem is using them. I can't seem to part with any of them since it was a perfect gift from Johnny. Other people probably saw other sides of John that I never saw, but to me he was always just a great guy, hanging around the life drawing class, talking pure art.