Brian MacDevitt Lights the Famed Story of the War Crimes Trials

Theatre lighting designers, as a rule, don't choose their projects because of their thematic relevance to one another. (If they did, they'd be spending a lot of time in the unemployment line.) But once in a while, interesting patterns can be discerned in a designer's work. So it was with Brian MacDevitt who, this spring, designed back-to-back Broadway shows that made for an interesting matched set of meditations on the meaning of history.

At first glance, Judgment at Nuremberg and The Invention of Love (see the July issue of LD, and the issue contents section of this website, for more on the latter) have little do with each other. But each play, in its own way, is concerned with the verdicts rendered by history, verdicts that may or may not have little to do with the truth of human events. Judgment at Nuremberg, based on the notorious Nuremberg war crimes trials held after World War II, asks whether the entire German people can be held accountable for the crimes of the Nazi regime. The Invention of Love looks at English poet A.E. Housman, whose inner life stood in marked contrast to his place in the literary pantheon. In each production, MacDevitt's lighting played a key role in helping to illuminate the play's theme.

Judgment at Nuremberg was written by Abby Mann, based on his television drama and 1961 film. All three versions are set in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1947, as a number of mid-level judges are on trial for their alleged cooperation with the Nazis in the implementation of the Final Solution. The action moves in and out of the courtroom, as the American Judge Haywood, through courtroom debates and encounters with everyday Germans, struggles with the concept of collective guilt.

To accommodate this dramatic structure, scenic designer James Noone created a unit setting that featured an upstage courtroom, with a downstage playing area for other scenes. Surrounding the stage on three sides were mirrored walls that, when backlit, revealed photographs of the faces of Holocaust victims. Each scene featured a different configuration of these faces, providing visual variety yet making them a constant presence, the silent witnesses to the courtroom debate.

The idea of the design, says MacDevitt, was "to create an Elizabethan style of production—the most important things were the actors and the text. Also, we wanted to keep the courtroom present throughout the show." The photographs on the walls are, he says, "light boxes, each with a two-way mirror. Each light box was 150' (46m) of rope light coiled up behind it, on its own individual dimmer. It was [production electrician] Brian Lynch's idea. We started with 50' (15m) in each box, and then tripled the amount to 150'. It gave off a beautiful light and you couldn't see the source with anything else, there'd be a hot spot." There were also a number of faces built into the stage floor; "they were lit with these tube-shaped units, like music stand lights," adds the LD, who adds that eight units were used to light a single image.

On entering the theatre the audience saw a show curtain with a German military eagle in front of it. As the house lights dimmed, the eagle unit flew out and there was a terrifying opening sequence in which projections (by Elaine J. McCarthy) of bombed-out Germany were accompanied by the sounds of explosions and a series of intense lighting cues that created the devastating reality of an air raid. Here, the designer made use automated units, including two Vari*Lite® VL6Bs™, 11 High End Systems Studio Colors® and five High End Studio Spots®. MacDevitt is not the biggest fan of automated lighting, because he doesn't like the look of HMI light on actors' skin, but here he used them to create a barrage of pyrotechnic effects. (In both productions ETC Source Fours made up the bulk of the lighting inventory.)

Because of the set's mirrored walls, lighting the rest of the play was a tricky endeavor. "There was a lot of toplight in the court scenes," he says, "with zero light on the mirrors—otherwise, the whole audience was lit up. I loved the challenge of it." (The designer also made extensive use of sidelight, especially for the early scenes, which were played in front of a projection of a map of Nuremberg.) To provide maximum flexibility, he says, "I had two [City Theatrical] AutoYokes, which [as refocusable specials] were my workhorses for the interior scenes." Very little color was used: "The backlight was no color and everything was 201 and 202." The lack of color and the use of toplight gave the court scenes a chilling, extra-theatrical quality. "There was nothing naturalistic about it," he adds. "In the courtroom, there was no window gobo, no key light." In stripping away any vestige of naturalism, MacDevitt, working with his fellow designers, gave a sense heightened sense of urgency to a debate that has is as relevant today as it was half a century ago.

On Judgment at Nuremberg, which played at the Longacre Theatre, Jason S. Lyons served as associate lighting, with Charlie Pennebaker as MacDevitt's assistant. Other personnel included house electrician Manny Diaz. Lighting equipment was supplied by Westsun America. Judgment at Nuremberg closed May 13; The Invention of Love ended its run on June 30.

Photos © Joan Marcus