This spring, the hugely successful lighting design team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer accomplished the rather formidable task of opening two major Broadway musicals within a week of each other: the Roundabout Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, directed by Joe Mantello, and the transfer of the Public Theatre's production of Tony Kushner's Caroline, Or Change, directed by George C. Wolfe. Both received generally positive reviews; Assassins earned the duo a slew of award nominations, including the Tony, and they received the Drama Desk Award. Caroline, however is the one to which the designers appear to have the closest emotional attachment. Interestingly enough, in their nearly 20 years together as a design team, they'd never before opened two major musicals so close together; it was, they both concede, a grueling, unfortunately unavoidable but rewarding experience.
David Johnson met with the duo between the opening of each show in the space they share at their Flatiron offices (which comes complete with a dramatic, two-sided show curtain that can be closed when one needs some privacy), where they'd just begun the process of decompression. The goal was to talk about the upcoming Broadway Lighting Master Classes, the two shows they'd just finished, and their working relationship.
David Johnson: It occurs to me that I don't know the story about how you two first met.
Peggy Eisenhauer: I met Jules when I was a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon. Jules at that time was producing regularly on Broadway as well as lighting, and came back to his alma mater to give a series of talks. It was a big dream-come-true to get the chance to meet him. This is the really great part: I called home that night, thrilled that I had met Jules, and told my mother that it was worth the price of tuition. My mother wrote a little personal note to him in New York City and said, “my daughter was thrilled to meet you.” And Jules wrote back to her and said, “it was very nice to meet your daughter and I'd be happy to help her if I can in New York.”
So I started pursuing him, from the time I graduated. During the pursuit, Jules allowed me to use his name at the New York Shakespeare Festival, which was where I got one of my first jobs as a spot operator. Then I worked with Richard Nelson and got real experience as a second assistant. And then Jules called and said I have a job, so we started working together.
DJ: What was the show?
PE: The first show was Song & Dance. And that was 19 years ago.
DJ: How has that working relationship evolved over the last 19 years?
PE: I started out as your basic assistant. There weren't even associates in those days; I was just the assistant, so I did the paperwork, I helped with all the mundane tasks of getting something on. But I was so excited to learn anything from Jules, so I just dedicated my entire lifestyle to it. I was very young, and I didn't have any life to speak of.
I think there was an awareness on Jules' part of my musical background; I studied piano seriously for 12 years, music theory, and played a number of other instruments as well. At one point, it was a possible career path. Jules picked up the musicality I came with; it fit into solving lighting sequences musically while we were in the theatre.
Jules Fisher: Very quickly I saw that you approached things the same way I did. And I was kind of in awe [of your musicality]. I love musicals, but if I hear a piece of music I have to listen to it over and over again before I can locate where the cues will go. Peggy has a musical memory. She can hear it once, and sing it back to the choreographer. So I thought, well, I'll take advantage of her.
PE: I assisted Jules for many years, as a full-time assistant, from show to show. And there was a period where a lot of people said to me, when are you going to stop being an assistant, and start making a name for yourself.
DJ: The classic dilemma of every aspiring lighting designer.
PE: I figured for the amount of time that we had been working together that I would at least pose the next logical step to Jules first, rather than just packing up and moving out. So it evolved; I became an associate. Basically it comes down to sharing the billing. It's unusual in design, but it's not unusual in other areas: composer/lyricists and writing teams. I think it's a great thing to be a team of two. I feel like we have a lot of power as two.
JF: Lighting can be very lonely. It's an expression in the theatre that's the least vocal; it's hard to put in words. Light is not something that can be easily transferred. The costume designer can do a pretty sketch, and it's almost exactly what the costume will look like. The scenic designer can build a model. But the lighting designer can't do much. You can say, it's going to be blue and it's going to go from here to here, but you can't really communicate really what the lighting is. All theatre is stressful, because you're baring your emotions in order to get to something that touches your soul, and the lighting designer, I've often felt, is very lonely. So to be able to share it with someone else has been wonderful. At some point, I think I was able to say: my work was better while working with Peggy rather than alone. And that was when I asked her to be a partner.
DJ: Is there a set method you have when working on a project, or does it just depend on what happens?
JF: I think it has evolved in a certain pattern. Initially, we'll talk about getting jobs, and contracts, and the like — I tend to do a lot of the talking to managers, getting through the more mundane stuff. Then we start talking over all the elements of the design. In the theatre, it works best when Peggy actually sets the cues. She talks directly to the operators and programmers and sets the cues. Together we modify them, and then get together with the director and the choreographer.
PE: The conceptual discussions that we have are one of the most fruitful parts of how we collaborate. We express the things we visualize, and it can be very abstract. I can come in one day and say, ‘In terms of restricting the palette, I feel it should be restricted down to x, y, or z.’ Or someone will say, ‘I have a singular idea for this.’ Over the course of two or three weeks, that dialogue all gets compiled into real design information; it's that dialogue that's the fertile soil for where those designs really come from.
Assassins is a perfect example of that, because it's a very stark expression of what we talked about together. It's very specific. It's not been injected with all kinds of other things later in the process; it's really streamlined from the discussions in the studio, and the discussions with the director.
JF: Assassins was a good example of the two of us talking over, thematically and conceptually, what each scene should look like, explaining it to the director, and the director saying, ‘Okay, I agree with that.’ Then we went into the theatre and pretty much used all our ideas, scene after scene, and in every one the director said okay. We put them up there, made some modifications in tech rehearsal and dress rehearsal, did our first preview, and hardly changed a thing. And within a week, week and a half, the director said, ‘Okay, we're done.’
JF: Yes. That's about the only time that's ever happened. Joe Mantello has a vision and a good eye. He can look at something and say, ‘No that's not what I have in mind, I want it to feel a little more like this,’ or ‘It should happen in this rhythm.’ He was very articulate when he didn't see what he wanted to see. But he was also wonderful in that he had the ability to say, ‘That's it, I'm done.’
He allowed us a lot of freedom. For the opening scene in the show, at some point Peggy said, ‘What if it's all yellow?’
PE: That was borne out of a whole long series of discussions about the lightbulbs in the set, and the emotional filter that we want to put on the sparkle and the glare of those lightbulbs. That was a week's worth of discussions, which landed at: what if we state the opening in a monochromatic way that's borne out of this lightbulb at this level? So we explained it to Joe, and gave him the lead-in to what we had in mind, and eventually said, ‘Yellow.’ It was actually hard to say the word.
JF: Well, it's a yellow that's not pretty. It's not a color you'd put on makeup and look attractive. It almost has touches of green. It gives the opening of the show a stark strangeness.
PE: It's our version of white, but set through a filter. One of the things we told Joe was that it's almost as though we're holding up a filter to the audience and saying you're not going to be seeing this thing through your regular point of view.
[For more on Assassins, see the sidebar at left on Robert Brill's set design]
DJ: Tell me about the genesis of the BLMC.
JF: At various times I've taught — at NYU for six years, and then at the New School for a number of years — but I always found I didn't have enough time to do it well. I was out of town or out of the country, and I couldn't devote enough time that I felt teaching required. I felt I was hurting the kids, not giving them everything. So I stopped teaching. Sonny Sonnenfeld one day said, ‘Why don't you write a book, or give a lecture?’ I said, ‘Well I'm not a writer, but I have lots of thoughts and pages of notes.’ So Sonny said — he named it — ‘Why don't you do a Broadway Lighting Master Class? You can be the consultant and give it the artistic shape.’ The credit's all Sonny's. It was his pushing, his salesmanship, that caused it.
DJ: What was that first one like?
JF: It's had the same format every year, almost identical in shape. What I wanted to do, as I thought about it, was to not have a program about nuts and bolts and hardware and machinery, and this dimmer board vs. that one, or this leko vs. that fresnel, but to be about the aesthetics, and why we make choices: The how of it. So the way we shaped it in the very beginning, and it still carries through, was that it would be about concepts, and aesthetics, and why you do certain things, why you make these choices.
DJ: Peggy, you're speaking on a new topic at this year's BLMC.
PE: This talk is a discussion that was borne of a series of questions that Jules asked me to answer philosophically, about using movement artistically and emotionally in theatre lighting. There are some practical aspects to it, but it's mainly about the emotion of integrating motion into one's work. It seemed like a natural level of discussion for designers, which is outside all the technical aspects of moving lights, which is occupying so much space in everybody's psyche, about what does what and how it's done. This is really about why choose something, what can you hope to create with it from the point of view of design.
JF: Most of the literature, most of the catalogues, most of the talk are about a light having this feature vs. that feature. But there's very little talk about why should you not use a moving light, and where do moving lights belong in this play. People are just using them, swinging around stages, with no purpose. Why should a beam of light move across the stage? How do you get to that decision? And this talk is the first that I know of this nature.
This fits right in with the BLMC, because I want the student body to leave with information, and understanding, that they didn't have when they got there. Hopefully, it's something they don't get in school. One of the questions I ask a lot of the faculty is: Go back to school; what didn't they teach you? Now that you've worked on Broadway, what did you learn in the last 15 years that they didn't teach you?
DJ: I wanted to talk a little bit about Caroline, Or Change, since that's the show you picked for the BLMC this year. Why this show?
JF: I feel it's a level of lighting that the director, George C. Wolfe, has allowed us to deliver that fulfills the emotional and storytelling aspects of Tony Kushner's script. It's a terrific example of lighting that serves the play. It's quite involved lighting, extremely musical; the rhythm and movement of the lights, whether done with or without moving lights, is connected to the storytelling. I feel they should see it because it's the kind of lighting you rarely get to do. Very few plays call for it. It's very operatic; it's almost all sung. Because it's George and Tony, it's three scenes in different time and space interweaving, both vocally and by location. It has a very Tennessee Williams feel. It's not like any other musical you'll see.
PE: George had this great phrase about the production. What was it?
JF: I think it was ‘Southern Black/Jewish Magic Realism.’
PE: George communicates both in discussions about the piece and in the rehearsal process so clearly visually that, because we've been working with him for over 10 years, we sort of just act as a conduit for him. He uses words that are visually expressive. He told us he wanted a very strong sense of isolation from moment to moment. That was borne of the play and of the dysfunction of the people in it. He often wanted things to float. We took to heart the word isolation and wanted to be sure we prepared a design that had the capability of great isolation. And then we tried to add a certain fluidity to the transitions of the lighting. We've been talking a lot about lighting as liquid plasma, and this is a good example of that.
DJ: Sounds great. Looking forward to seeing it on June 17.