Last February, when a piece called Theatre of Light opened Off Broadway, reviewer Anita Gates wrote that its creator, Rudi Stern, “seems to be doing something again that is completely forward-thinking. His graceful, inventive, evocative combination of light, painting, and music add up to theatre as meditation and it couldn't be needed more.”
Gates recalled seeing, over 30 years ago, another piece by Stern, titled Global Village. Between those two productions, there is a picaresque tale of a man's many lives, in which light appears again and again, a recurring idea that never manages to go away.
Beginning in 1954, Rudy Stern studied painting, with such notables as Hans Hoffman and Oskar Kokoschka. After graduating from Bard College, then spending a year at Columbia University studying scenic design and painting, he went to Italy, where he spent four years (in Liguria) working on his painting skills. Back in New York, and at loose ends, he says, “I was walking around the city and I saw a theatre, where I met Jackie Cassen, who was doing projections for a dance piece. I ended up working with her for five years.”
Thanks to Cassen, Stern entered into a new phase of his career, making projections for performance, working with such names as director Joseph Chaikin and choreographer Glen Tetley. He designed projections for The Rake's Progress, by Igor Stravinsky, as staged at Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera Company, and he performed similar tasks for the famed rock group The Doors. Meanwhile, Cassen introduced Stern to Timothy Leary; soon Stern and Cassen were involved in Leary's Psychedelic Celebrations, using lighting and projections to explore consciousness. One of these, called Death of the Mind, was based on a chapter from Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf.
In the late 60s, Stern got interested in video and co-founded Global Village Video, which he calls “the first portable video production group,” which included a multiple-channel video theatre on Broome Street in New York. A few years later he founded Let There Be Neon, which he calls “the first gallery, workshop, and experimental studio for the creative development of neon as an artistic resource.” He adds that the space “looked like the Milk Bar in [Stanley Kubrick's film] A Clockwork Orange.” Stern ran the gallery for 20 years, moving it from Broome to White Street. During this time he produced commissioned work and ran a neon workshop. His projects included the facade of a 78-story building in Hong Kong's Wanchai district--“the only architectural use of neon in Hong Kong” at the time, he adds.
Let There Be Neon was a creative hothouse, but eventually, he says, he realized “the days of being paid for ideas were over.” It was time to move on again, and this time he went to Haiti, where he spent five years traveling with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, making over a dozen documentaries. Haiti: Killing the Dream, was shown nationally on PBS, while others were seen at festivals around the world. Disillusioned when Aristide returned to power--“I didn't want to stay and make propaganda,” says Stern--he returned to New York again and took up work with projections.
The result is Theatre of Light, which blends lighting, projections, and puppets in a program Stern calls “magic theatre;” it's a continuation of the artist's exploration of Steppenwolf, which he began over 30 years ago. Theatre of Light is created using over 2,000 slides, hand-painted on 2"x2" glass. Projection is achieved via 37 Kodak Carousel projectors. “In this program, there are mostly eight overlays per screen at any given moment,” he says. “The ideas for the visual compositions might come first and then I try to find the right sound, or I hear a piece of music which inspires the imagery. In either case, the images are always made for a specific composition and never used again for any other.” The projections appear on one stationary screen and three 7'-diameter discs. Stern adds that he likes to use shadows and puppets in his shows, as well; the music ranges from Mozart to Ry Cooder to Donovan's “Season of the Witch.”
The result, as described by Gates in her review: “There are, among other things, geometric patterns, faces on tabloid covers, window panes that turn into a skyline, an egg that turns into a street map, a red spider web that weaves itself into batik, lush foliage in jungle colors, royal purple fabric with gorgeous gold thread, and the surface of Jupiter as Keir Dullea saw it in [2001: A Space Odyssey].”
It's all in the service of consciousness, says Stern, based on the idea of the psychedelic experience as a kind of sacrament, a way of knowing oneself. “I wanted to go back and work with light projections,” he says, “painting stories with light, telling stories with light, using it in a personal way.” In other words, the curtain has risen on Act II of Rudi Stern's Theatre of Light.