Theatre Lighting Designer

Winner of the 2001-2002 Barrymore Award for Outstanding Lighting Design (presented by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia), Jerold R. Forsyth was honored for his lighting of Tom Stoppard's India Ink at the Wilma Theatre. The 43-year-old Forsyth won his first Barrymore Award in 1995 for Gunmetal Blues, also at the Wilma, and he has been nominated almost every year in between for his work not only there (Passion; Cherry Docs) but also at the Arden Theatre Company (Death of a Salesman; Grapes of Wrath) and the Villanova Theatre (Angels in America, Part II Perestroika). Ellen Lampert-Gréaux checks in with this award-winning designer.

Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: How did you get started as a lighting designer?

Jerold R. Forsyth: I started out doing theatre in high school and community theatre, and went on to Drake University. I did most everything, from acting and directing to designing lighting, scenery, and costumes. I gradually specialized in lighting design and went on to receive my MFA from Temple University. A valuable part of my training was nearly a decade as assistant lighting designer at the Philadelphia Drama Guild, where I worked with and observed such designers as Mitch Dana, Jeff Davis, Craig Miller, Bill Grant, and Brian MacDevitt.

ELG: Do you concentrate only on theatre?

JRF: Primarily, my design work is in the theatre. I have had the opportunity to work on dance, opera, and the occasional industrial show. I would like to work in film, but there is very little crossover in lighting: different equipment, vastly different approaches to lighting, even different needs for color and texture.

ELG: Is there a project that was the most challenging, difficult, or demanding?

JRF: Many of the recent Wilma Theatre productions, primarily because of the resources available. When I started working at the Wilma in 1986, it was housed in a small theatre with 18 dimmers, and 40-50 instruments. Design then was about making choices. Of the 10 great ideas I might have, and the 10 great ideas the director would have, I would need to pick which four or five would make it to the stage. Sometimes this selection process was entirely successful, and the show would look great. Sometimes the process would be a bit less successful, and the show, though still looking good, would not have that extra touch that would have made it great.

The Wilma moved into a new theatre in 1996, and here, with over 300 dimmers, approximately 350 units, and an ETC Obsession 600 light board, the choices changed from what we could afford to mount to what we envisioned for the production. Of course, one could always have a few more units, or dimmers, or effects (scrollers, moving lights, etc.), but generally we can put our vision of the production on the stage. This is both liberating and challenging.

ELG: Can you comment on your long affiliation with the Wilma Theatre?

JRF: The Wilma has two artistic directors — Blanka and Jiri Zizka. I designed most of Blanka's shows in the early 1990s, and I have designed all of Jiri's productions since I started working with the Wilma in 1986. Unfortunately this 16-year run will be broken this fall, as Jiri is guest directing a production at another theatre where they have encouraged him to hire a different lighting designer.

ELG: Do you work within the confines of a rep plot at the Wilma?

JRF: The Wilma Theatre does not have a rep plot. All shows are planned from the ground up, primarily working out of the house inventory. There is a reasonable budget for special/additional rentals as necessary.

ELG: Do you have a certain process that defines the way you work?

JRF: I do not have a defining process, as I work with many directors who have very different working methods and I tailor my process to match their styles. However, my preference is to be involved in the design process from the start. I find that directors often do much of their exploration of the script while working through the scenic design process. Through many meetings, ideas come and go, proceeding to the culmination of both the set design and the overall blueprint of the visual production. If I can be a part of this early process, I can see the path the director and set designer have taken to the final outcome, not just the outcome itself. The final product onstage is important but, for the lighting design, it is often more important to know how the director and set designer arrived there. A key lighting element could come out of an idea that was discussed and jettisoned earlier in the design meetings. If the lighting designer is not brought in until late in the design process, the director is unlikely to be able to recap everything discussed to that point.

ELG: How do you define good lighting?

JRF: That is the $64,000 question (though, with inflation, I guess that should be a much higher dollar figure). To me, it is creating the best environment possible for a particular production of a chosen play. The lighting for a particular production may offer an opportunity to be bold and flashy, but most often, it is subtly creating an environment that helps the audience connect intimately with the show. Quite often, theatre patrons will tell me that they don't remember the lighting for a particular show, and that's fine with me. As long as the lighting supported both the location and the story, the audience doesn't need to remember my work specifically, they just need to have had a memorable theatrical experience.