With the Broadway Lighting Master Classes just one month away (June 16-18 in New York) Entertainment Design editorial director David Johnson sat down recently with lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who had finally wrapped up a grueling couple of months designing two major Broadway shows—Assassins (for which they just won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting) and Caroline, Or Change—to talk about this year’s BLMC, as well as Caroline, the show that will be the focus of this year’s classes.
David Johnson: Tell me about the genesis of the BLMC.
Jules Fisher: At various times I’ve taught—at NYU for six years, and then at the New School for a number of years—but I always found I didn’t have enough time to do it well. I was out of town or out of the country, and I couldn’t devote enough time that I felt teaching required. I felt I was hurting the kids, not giving them everything. So I stopped teaching. And Sonny Sonnenfeld one day said, why don’t you write a book, or give a lecture. I said, well I’m not a writer, but I have lots of thoughts and pages of notes. So Sonny said—and he named it—why don’t you do a Broadway Lighting Master Class? You can be the consultant and give it the artistic shape. So the credit’s all Sonny’s. I may have thought of it, but I wouldn’t have carried it through. It was his pushing, his salesmanship, that caused it.
DJ: What was that first one like?
JF: It’s had the same format every year, almost identical in shape. What I wanted to do, as I thought about it, was to not have a program about nuts and bolts and hardware and machinery, and this dimmer board vs. that one, or this leko vs. that fresnel, but to be about the aesthetics, and why we make choices: The how of it. So the way we shaped it in the very beginning, and it still carries through, was that it would be about concepts, and aesthetics, and why you do certain things, why you make these choices. What is the design process? How do different designers approach the same problem? We have not varied from that. Some of the core faculty has been the same, and each year at a post-mortem I try to figure out how to make it better the next year. I also try to vary it a little bit by having some special speaker each year. And we’ve had some really rich, interesting people, some of whom are no longer with us—Abe Feder, Craig Miller, Tom Skelton—so it’s a rich legacy of talks.
DJ: Have the students changed much over the years?
JF: I think I’ve noticed them getting a little more sophisticated. It’s always, luckily and wonderfully, been a real broad mix from all different countries. I think its international-ness has grown; there are more people coming from different countries.
DJ: We have people from New Zealand, Singapore, and Peru coming this year.
JF: We’ve had people from all over South America and China over the years. I think it’s wonderful that someone’s willing to travel that distance.
DJ: Peggy, you’re speaking on a new topic at this year’s BLMC.
Peggy Eisenhauer: I was sponsored by Fourth Phase to speak at Showlight, the UK lighting show, last year. It’s similar to the Broadway Lighting Master Classes, with different speakers on different subjects. I always ask what people want, and suggested a few topics, and it boiled down to a discussion of moving lights. But we prefer to discuss concepts surrounding motion in lighting. It was something we thought a lot about, and have always wanted to do. This talk is a discussion that was borne of a series of questions that Jules asked me to answer about philosophically, using movement artistically and emotionally in theatre lighting. There are some practical aspects to it, but it’s mainly about the emotion of integrating motion into one’s work. It seemed like a natural level of discussion for designers, which is outside all the technical aspects of moving lights, which is occupying so much space in everybody’s psyche, about what does what and how it’s done. This is really about why to choose something, what can you hope to create with it from the point of view of design.
JF: Most of the literature, most of the catalogues, most of the talk are about a light having this feature vs. that feature. But there’s very little talk about why should you not use a moving light, and where do moving lights belong in this play. People are just using them, swinging around stages, with no purpose. Why should a beam of light move across the stage? How do you get to that decision? And this talk is the first that I know of this nature.
This fits right in with the BLMC, because I want the student body to leave with information, and understanding, that they didn’t have when they got there. Hopefully, it’s something they don’t get in school. One of the questions I ask a lot of the faculty is: Go back to school; what didn’t they teach you? Now that you’ve worked on Broadway, what did you learn in the last 15 years that they didn’t teach you?
One of the other things I wanted to mention was that based on the survey’s we’ve done on past BLMCs, I want to put a little more emphasis on question and answer this year, for my own talk, but also for others. There’s value in those.
PE: I agree. I’ve attended a lot of different kinds of workshops and people become more engaged if they feel they are participating. Everyone has that one burning question they want to ask the person they’re coming to see, and they need the chance to get that out. I remember I asked Jules that burning question years ago when I was a student at Carnegie Mellon and he came to speak. It meant a lot to me.
DJ: I wanted to talk a little bit about Caroline or Change, since that’s the show you picked for this year. Tell me why you chose that show and what you think students are going to get out of that production.
PE: George Wolfe, the director, told us he wanted a very strong sense of isolation from moment to moment. That was borne of the play and of the dysfunction of the people in it. He often wanted things to float. We took to heart the word isolation and wanted to be sure we prepared a design that had the capability of great isolation. And then we tried to add a certain fluidity to the transitions of the lighting. We've been talking a lot about lighting as liquid plasma, and this is a good example of that.
JF: I feel it’s a level of lighting George has allowed us to deliver that fulfills the emotional and storytelling aspects of Tony Kushner’s script. It’s a terrific example of lighting that serves the play. It’s quite involved lighting, extremely musical; the rhythm and movement of the lights, whether done with or without moving lights, is connected to the storytelling. I feel they should see it because it’s the kind of lighting you rarely get to do.
The Broadway Lighting and Sound Master Classes will be held June 16-20 at John Jay College in New York. Other faculty for the BLMC includes Brian MacDevitt, Donald Holder, Bev Emmons, Clifton Taylor, Vivian Leone, and Wendall Harrington. There will also be a special projection roundtable with Harrington, Laura Frank, Peter Wexler, and Peter Negrini.
For more information about the classes, please contact Ellen Lampert-Greaux at 212-204-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on registration, please contact Kim Good at 913-967-1865 or email@example.com.
For travel information, please contact Michelle Kilian of Carber Travel at 718-457-1000 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manufacturers interested in participating in the BLMC/BSMC, either by sponsoring a table or students for the classes, should contact East Coast/Midwest sales manager Aimee Eckert at 856-985-2753 (email@example.com, or West Coast/International sales manager Holly O'Hair at 805-557-0945 (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
For additional details:www.blmc.net.