Once again LD TJ Gerckens is working with director Mary Zimmerman. After their last collaboration on Metamorphoses, Gerckens is lighting Galileo Galilei, an opera by Philip Glass, featuring a libretto by Zimmerman with Philip Glass and Arnold Weinstein, and directed by Zimmerman. Galileo Galilei presents the life of the 16th-century scientist whose support of Copernicus' radical hypothesis that the earth revolves around the sun led to a lifetime conviction of heresy. Beginning at the end of his life and moving backwards in time, this production relays the life story of the famed astronomer who turned humanity's conception of the universe inside out. After capping the end of the Goodman Theatre's last season and running through this past summer, the production toured to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), appearing as the opening event of BAM's 20th Next Wave Festival. It then moved to London's Barbican Theatre, appearing in the Barbican International Theatre Events.
This production has Gerckens' signature style, little frontlight with a lot of strong side- and toplighting. When asked about the strong sidelight that he used in Galileo, Gerckens laughs, "I would have to say, if people have accused me of having a style that may be it. Frontlight, of course, fulfills its function, but is often not very visually interesting. Often we will work on it. When we mounted this play the first time, we started out the first scene, and Mary had mentioned to me that it was more realistic. I had taken that to be theatrical realism, i.e.: a well-crafted light plot of frontlight, backlight, and sidelight. And I had started to water down the images with a lot of frontlight and she said to me 'Oh, no, TJ, this is not really the direction we want.' So I said, 'You mean something more like this?' and I yanked all of the frontlight out and created a much bolder directional statement and she said, 'Yes, that is where we are heading.' And once we had that kind of vocabulary set up, we moved forward."
Gerckens adds, "One of the things I love about working with Mary is that she wants to make sure you see the people, that there is a certain obligation we have, but she is also one that is willing to take risks to really put forth a strong image. That is wonderful in a director."
Fortunately for Gerckens, the strong collaborative nature of the design team aided in his quest for getting "interesting lighting" onstage. Gerckens teams up again with Zimmerman's long-running design team Dan Ostling handling the scenic design and Mara Blumenfeld handling the costume design. This is the same design team that gelled so well on the many incarnations of Metamorphoses. The designers and Zimmerman spent a week last spring traveling through Italy following in Galileo's footsteps. Gerckens elaborates on their research trip: "Having been together on the trip to Italy, we all know what we saw, and we often know where the inspiration for a certain costume or a certain set piece came from, the way I am lighting a certain scene. We can really call upon a common experience with that research trip. We spent a week traveling where Galileo had been, soaking up the culture, the architecture, and the history."
Zimmerman and the design team came up with a creative framework to start exploring as they began work on this production. Zimmerman was looking for a more realistic approach for Galileo than the team had done on previous shows. "Largely, it came out of a sense of wanting to be a little more concrete in this play. We did not have a set concept statement we were working from, as much as a sense from Mary that we wanted to be a little more concrete," says Gerckens. "A little bit more realistic framework than we often work in. Dan created architecture that is obviously not realistic, but is drawn from the reality of what we saw in Italy as opposed to the blank canvas that we worked on to a degree in Metamorphoses. Mara's costumes are much more rooted in the reality of the periods that the play covers and a lot of my lighting then took cues from the way the light was that we saw in Italy, tagged in with a bit of the art of the period, the lighting in the art of the period. I think on this play we really, from a design point of view, were rooting things a little bit more in a historical reality than we have in projects like The Notebooks of Leonardo daVinci, Metamorphoses, or Arabian Nights." This was a bit of a departure for the team. "Inside this framework of the design, we explored the tone and tenor of each scene and the imagery," adds Gerckens.
Some of the artists that Gerckens' referenced were the works of Caravaggio, as well as the sculptures of Bernini and Michelangelo. Gerckens adds that they viewed "A lot of the architecture of the time that was all around us in Italy." The research trip put all of the designers and Zimmerman on the same page. Gerckens comments on the rare luxury of the week spent researching in Italy. "One night at dinner we talked about how the show turned out and what parts related to what we saw. A tremendous amount of the show really related in many ways. We didn't really pick up anything wholesale from what we saw. You could not take a photograph that we had taken in Italy and say, 'This is what we saw,' onstage, but there were elements and feels that translated to the stage."
There is a strong rapport between the designers and director Zimmerman. "As Mara describes it, it's kind of like a love fest every time we get together," laughs Gerckens. "We know each other well enough and we really have a lot of interplay in each other's work without becoming territorial. Whenever we get accolades on our work, we often try to share it among ourselves, because Dan and Mara have much to do with the way I light shows and I have much to do with the way the scenery ends up looking. We all take primary responsibility for our design area, but there is a much greater degree of interplay between the designers than I have experienced in most of my other work. We also have a shared vocabulary, now having worked together so much; it makes it a lot easier to communicate a lot quicker."
Gerckens has been working with Zimmerman since 1994, when he had his first professional solo design credit on Zimmerman's The Notebooks of Leonardo daVinci. "In 1994, I lit daVinci for her at the Goodman, where we originally premiered it," says Gerckens. "I had actually been an assistant designer on a show that she directed the year prior called Baltimore Waltz, which I just thought was genius. I found myself very fortunate to be working with her that following season on daVinci. That started a relationship that we have had. I am not the only LD that she uses, but she uses me a great deal, and I count myself lucky each time."
Gerckens takes time off from his day job as production manager for the Contemporary American Theatre Company (CATCO), based in Columbus, OH. "I have an arrangement with them to production-manage and I have in/out privileges, so to speak, to go out and do my lighting," says Gerckens. "Every couple of months I will take a couple weeks off and go do Galileo, or Metamorphoses, or whatever our new project is, and come back. It is a company that I really like. They are very supportive of my outside work," he adds.
Next up for Gerckens is putting up Galileo at the Barbican in London, back to CATCO, and next spring re-mounting daVinci at the Goodman and again at Second Stage. "That will be fun, because it's going way back for me. You evolve as a designer and sometimes going back to something you did very early reminds you of things that you knew but have forgotten. And daVinci was really my first solo professional design and was the first show that I did with Mary, and looking back at my paperwork there's colors I was using that I have not used in a while. Things that I do very differently now, and the show worked really well, so I think it's going to be kind of a fun thing to go back and see how I used to light a show. It should be interesting how it will fit in the new Goodman theatre, though. We originally premiered it in the old Goodman Studio space, which is a very, very intimate proscenium and the new Goodman space is very flexible. There may be some re-design or re-conceptualization in response to the space."
Gerckens likes working at the new Goodman, where he lights about one show per season. "The new mainstage is beautifully equipped," says Gerckens. "It's the same crew from the old Goodman, and they are a phenomenal group of people to work with, so it's like working with some of the best people that you want to work with in an even better space." There is one item from the old space that Gerckens misses about the new. "The only thing that I miss a little bit is that the old Goodman had that compound curve, concrete and plaster cyc. Although it had its pitfalls--there were some divots in it--that thing used to take light unbelievably. You could do things lighting-wise on that curved cyc that were just stunning with very little effort and equipment. The new Goodman has a traditional flat cyc which is more flexible for 90% of the shows, but for the 10% of the shows that we used to use the concrete and plaster cyc . . . well, I will miss that."
Photos: Liz Lauren