The New York Times
and Playbill On-Line reported recently that California-based lighting designer Martin Aronstein, a five-time Tony Award nominee, died on May 3 in Van Nuys, CA. He was 65; the cause was heart failure, according to his companion of over 40 years, Lawrence Metzler. In addition to Metzler, Aronstein is survived by a niece, Rosemary Diglio, of Sunrise, FL.
We at ED/Lighting Dimensions were informed of Aronstein's death last month when costume designer and United Scenic Artists Local 829 western representative Charles Berliner called to report this sad news. Berliner and Metzler and members of the West Coast theatre community will remember Aronstein in a memorial gathering, which Metzler prefers to call a celebration of his life, at the Mark Taper Forum this Sunday, June 30, at 11am.
Aronstein's numerous Broadway credits—some put the count at 150, some at 90—include Tiny Alice (1964), Cactus Flower(65), The Royal Hunt of the Sun(66), Marat/Sade(67), How Now Dow Jones(67), George M!(68), Promises, Promises(68), Play It Again, Sam(69), Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (72), Kennedy's Children (75), The Ritz (75), the 1979 revival of Hello Dolly! starring Carol Channing, Noises Off(83), and the recent Peter Pan (98) starring Cathy Rigby
His Tony nominations were for Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a New York Shakespeare Festival revival of Much Ado About Nothing in 1973, In the Boom Boom Room, another NYSF production, in 1974, Medea, starring Zoe Caldwell, in 1982, and Wild Honey in 1987.
Born in Pittsfield, MA, he and his family moved to Queens when he was 12. It was in Queens, at the Mobil Theatre, where Aronstein saw a performance by a traveling troupe sponsored by the New York Shakespeare Festival perform in 1957. Metzler relates, "Marty was a young kid when he went to work for the Shakespeare Festival. John Robertson was the principal lighting designer at the time, and Marty wandered into the Mobil Theatre and said, ‘Can I help?’ And John Robertson said, ‘Yeah, pull this cable.’ " Metzler adds that Robertson "sort of mentored" Aronstein for five years; when Robertson died in an automobile accident in 1959, Aronstein began to light all the NYSF productions, then became NYSF's principal lighting designer. He held that position until 1976, lighting every play by the Bard, according to Playbill On-line. Aronstein also served as the resident lighting supervisor for Lincoln Center Theatre.
In 1969, Aronstein contributed an article to Theatre Crafts detailing his work on Promises, Promises. Robin Wagner’s set featured shiny metallic and Plexiglas surfaces conveying contemporary New York. "My first reaction to the scenic concept was, naturally enough, panic," Aronstein wrote. "I decided that I must work with the reflective materials, deliberately use them as a part of the lighting scheme," he continued. "As I worked on the initial layout of the show, I began to realize that if I used angle and focus carefully, all of the reflections could serve my purposes."
This article—and the lighting design it describes—so impressed Berliner that he says he plans to read excerpts from it at the memorial service on Sunday. "I think I sort of stole that copy of the magazine, because I have it here and it says ‘San Francisco State University,’ " he laughs, adding that he was also amazed at Aronstein’s lighting of the "Popularity" number in George M!
Metzler says of the groundbreaking design of 1966’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a play about the Spanish invasion of Peru that played at the Virginia Theatre: "All the lighting was exposed; it was part of the design, and there were rows of instruments that followed the cyc—focusing instruments, not just washes. It was a spectacular look." He continues, "It was a very large stage, I think about 40’ deep, and there was a trough with a wraparound cyc and a scrim in front. There was a center plinth in the middle of the raked stage, about 25’ high, that had a big circle on the upper half. That was the sun, and it split in half and exposed [the Inca king.]"
In 1977, Aronstein and Metzler moved to southern California, where he designed for local theatres, including the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum, Pasadena Playhouse, and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
In 1996 he was awarded the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's Angstrom Award for career achievement in lighting for Taper’s A Month in the Country.. He also served as an adjunct professor at the theatre school of the University of Southern California and was associate professor of stage lighting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts (a school that has since ceased operation). Aronstein also designed for the San Francisco Ballet Company and for 10 years, the St. Louis Muny Opera.
Guest speakers at Sunday’s service will include Cathy Rigby; Tom McCoy; designer John Iacovelli;the Muny’s Steve Gilliam; Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Taper; television producer David Nash, and other friends and collaborators. One tribute to Aronstein will be sound designer Jon Gottlieb’s audio collage of overtures and music from the many productions Aronstein designed; judging from his prodigious output, the tribute will be a long, well-deserved one.