Conversations with a Globetrotting LD

On occasional Monday evenings, lighting designer Robert Wierzel can be found tucked into a booth at a popular little restaurant in New York City, deep in discussion with a few colleagues over dinner. The fact that Wierzel lives in Connecticut (he is married to his high-school sweetheart, and is the father of 10-year-old twins) and travels extensively from theatre to theatre, makes these Monday night get-togethers all the more valuable. I met him there one night last fall as he was on his way to the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre, just a few blocks away, to check on his lighting for a new production of Othello, directed by Doug Hughes. The evening proved the perfect opportunity to catch up with Wierzel about his life and prolific career.

Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: I saw your powerful lighting for Doug Hughes' production of Othello at the Public. It is quite interesting visually. Can you comment on the design concept?

Robert Wierzel: One aspect of Othello is about corruption; about destroying faith in oneself and in others. Doug talked about the romance and fragility in the play, especially the fragility in the relationships between characters. This led Neil Patel to set the piece in an open, classic-looking space which gave the actors, and the story, the freedom to move. Cathy Zuber's costumes had a romantic edge to them. Everyone was part of the same world. There was a sense of abstract reality, with gold-painted columns and red screens to represent the opulence of Venice. Yet there is also a modern context: very spare, very considered. The back wall had a horizontal slit, like some idea of a window, or light, and gave the space a contemporary feeling. The floor was beautifully stained wood with metal bands, But this production was really about watching what was going on in Iago's head, being part of his private moments.

ELG: How does lighting emphasize that idea?

RW: There were moments in the lighting (and the sound by David van Tieghem) that take you out of the reality of the play and into Iago's thoughts, his private thinking. I tried to shift our perception, to deaden the space in those moments, to negate it. This translated to a fluorescent footlight idea to light Iago. At one point there is a giant shadow of Iago on the back wall. Is his ego that big? This is a turning point for him. He realizes that his plot is working. We see a larger-than-life Iago because that is how he perceives himself.

ELG: What about the use of color?

RW: I hope the use/not use of color had a coherency about it. One of my goals was to infuse the space with various qualities of light that would reveal something about the moment. The slit in the back wall, for example, is lit with two sets of striplights to bounce into the back wall and one set to shoot straight down. There are also PAR-64s coming in from the sides. The color changes from acid green [Rosco 86 Pea Green] to yellow [R312 Canary], white [Lee 161 Slate Blue], and blue [L119 Dark Blue]. The thought is to communicate with light; to create a vocabulary of ideas with light. How it moves, what it reveals, when it commands focus, and why things happen.

ELG: What lit the water at the bottom of the back wall?

RW: There were L&E Mini-Strips, and ETC Source Fours focused on the water. The bottom of the trough was mirrored Plexiglas, and stagehands moved the water to create a sense of movement.

ELG: How do you respond to scenic constraints in a given production?

RW: It seems to me that set design is becoming highly architectural. People tend not to design sets but spaces. Therefore, light has a bigger role in how that space is revealed. It is all in how you think about the light — the color, the angle, the architecture of the light itself and how you reveal the space. You can force the light to have a certain attitude, but you do not always have sidelight or backlight.

For example, take Othello. There is a back wall and a floor. Yet we can move from a violent storm at sea to a violent storm of the mind. That's something theatre can do. You can create atmosphere after atmosphere with the light. For example, I combine L120 [Deep Blue], acid purple, with sickly amber, R17 [Light Flame], very dim, for a dense and thick night light. Othello was a good collaborative process. Doug would be sensitive enough to see what was there and use it. What the light started to mean is something we did together. We brought our visual vocabularies together. When the questions you have start to be answered by the choices you are making, I believe this is the best place to be.

ELG: What was your path to becoming a lighting designer?

RW: I thought I was going to be a dancer first. My father was a retired New York City policeman and we moved to New Port Richey, FL, from Staten Island when I was 16, in 1972. At first I hated Florida, later I loved it. At the time, the school system was many years behind. Our television received only a very few stations. One of those was PBS. One day, Dance in America, I think, was on with this couple from Russia. The Panovs had recently defected from Russia and I watched them dance in a televised concert. I had no experience in the theatre and had not gone into Manhattan too often as a child. But I became totally entranced by how the Panovs were dancing, which was in the grand pas de deux from The Nutcracker. It took my breath away. I wanted to know what it was.

ELG: Did you rush from the living room into a dance studio?

RW: No. Actually, I found a little community theatre called the Richey Suncoast Theatre. I got involved there and helped with the lighting. I was very young, just 17 years old. I also began to study dance with an eccentric Romanian woman of Martha Graham's generation and we gave concerts at the community theatre. Then I discovered you could do this professionally and took courses, first at a community college, then at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, where I took dance and theatre, working my way through school. I went to be a dancer but eventually moved to lighting, which I had been doing at the community theatre.

ELG: When did you move back north?

RW: After freelancing a little while, I felt that I was missing something. I had begun to discover what looked good, and how to shape light. The college courses helped organize something I thought I knew in my mind's eye. But I decided to go to graduate school, and applied to NYU, Yale, and Cal Arts. I went to Yale in 1981. Peter Maradudin and I were in Jennifer Tipton's first class. Yale was very hard at first, and I was a little apprehensive. I did not think it was anyplace I would ever be. I was the first person in my family to finish college and go to graduate school.

ELG: What did you do when you first graduated from Yale?

RW: One of my first projects was The Mystery Plays at Hartford Stage, with sets by John Conklin. Our world is a very small one and sometimes people recommended recent grads for projects. This is how things started. Also, about that time I started working with choreographers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. Bill has changed the way I see the world, and somehow helped me understand the role of the artist in our culture. His piece Still/Here made a really incredible impact. I connect to dance. Dance and lighting are both nonverbal art forms. Dance asks questions that you, the viewer, must answer.

ELG: What makes it art?

RW: It is art if when you leave the theatre you are moved, or changed, because of what you experienced, even temporarily. Also, when you look at a piece and it resonates beyond its parts. When it is seamless somehow.

ELG: What about the transitions from scene to scene?

RW: Transitions are very important. They are the engine that propels us forward. The quality of the light has to have a meaning we react to psychologically or emotionally.

ELG: Is your approach to opera different from theatre and dance?

RW: No, I think basically the process is the same. Music is also a nonverbal medium and therefore allows many points of interpretation. I enjoy 18th- and 20th-century opera, when it has a point of view. When we can make those pieces live for today, opera can be thrilling. For Roberto Devereaux at New York City Opera, the space was very unreal, with red, black, and white sets. The floor was like a checkerboard with lit squares. The lighting was harsh white and violently red. It's about the world of the opera, not the reality of it. This production was very emotional.

ELG: What is your response to new technology?

RW: Technology can be your friend, but you still have to have the process, and know how to work with it. You need to apply your ideas to technology and not the other way around. The use of the technology has to be born out of something you want to say. If you want a beam that moves around, okay, that's an idea, now find the technology to match that.

ELG: It seems like you really love what you do.

RW: I do; in fact, I feel privileged, but not compensated enough financially. Artists are still considered a luxury in our society. Our culture is very diverse, but also very narrow in many respects. However, I am happy to do work that challenges people, and affects the way they think. I like the shared experience of theatre. It is important to give back as well as take from one's culture. I work with dancers who cannot afford to pay much, but still do their projects. I wish the arts were considered more important in the world we live in. As a 16-year-old, I saw an event on television and it changed the way I saw the world. What do 16-year-olds see on television today?

ELG: How long have you been on the faculty at NYU?

RW: This is the fifth year, and I teach the first-year graduate students. M.L. Gieger, Allen Lee Hughes, Heather Carson, and Curt Osterman are also on the faculty. We are a very diverse group. Susan Hilferty [design department chair] has recreated the program at NYU. She has brought a fresh energy to the training of young designers.

ELG: You also travel extensively. Do you find that difficult?

RW: As you get older, it gets harder, but one goes where the work is. And when the work is interesting it makes it more worthwhile. But I do spend about 50-70% of the year on the road. This year started off with a very busy month of January. I was in Buffalo working, then flew to Virginia to work on an opera. Then back to New York, where I was in production with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company working on three new pieces, then back to Virginia to premiere the opera. Then to Iowa to premiere the Bill T. Jones piece, then back to New York to premiere the same piece with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Then on February 2 I flew to Los Angeles to work on some Molière plays with actor/director Brian Bedford.

ELG: Does all this travel take a toll on your personal life?

RW: It does, but Michele, my wife, and I try to involve the twins more in what I am doing. We took them out of school for a day for the New York premiere of the Bill T. Jones concert. And when I am at home, we try to separate our private time from my work time, which can be very hard to do sometimes. It's difficult to juggle the roles of professional LD and family, but we have found that putting work aside and spending quality time is extremely important, as well as realizing that with time so distilled the highs seems higher and the lows seem lower, so you try to keep things in perspective. A sense of humor is important. Having a wife that is a therapist is a major plus!

ELG: Your studio is in your home. Do you work with assistants?

RW: Yes, I rely on two assistants very much: Marcus Doshi, a Yale graduate, and Aaron Black, an NYU graduate. They are both fantastic. Both strong, inventive lighting designers which is what I enjoy about them! Depending on the project and what we have to do, they will travel to my studio but they have their own studios as well. In this electronic era, it is very much a virtual office. My agent, Russ Rosensweig, also has a big hand in keeping my professional life in order.

ELG: In spite of all the travel, you make it all sound so enjoyable. What makes it fun?

RW: The people I work with, and what I learn from them. I learn something on every piece. I also like the generosity of spirit in the people I work with. There are certain directors and designers, including Mark Lamos, John Conklin, Jennifer Tipton, Michael Yeargen, Jim Ingalls, and Tazewell Thompson, to name but a few, who make working in the theatre a most rewarding experience, as well as lighting designers Mark McCullough and Jeff Harris, who are my good friends. I still relish it all, and it rarely seems like work. The traveling is hard, and I'd like to be home more with Michele and the twins. You need to balance all that. That is why the Monday evenings with the other LDs are so important. There is only one lighting designer on a production and therefore we rarely get to see each other, to share experiences. This is a nice way to get together and see what their perspectives are. And to stay in touch.

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