The first issue of Lighting Dimensions (June 1977) is a real trip for baby boomers with a bent for nostalgia. Scattered among the ads for Meteor Light and Sound Company ("The Disco Source"), Packaged Lighting Systems, and Berkey Colortran are articles with titles like "HMI: A New Name in Lights," a product report on Aluma-Floor ("an elevated illuminated dance floor"), and a report on how Imero Fiorentino designed Neil Diamond's most recent tour, with its special segment devoted to the song "Jonathan Livingston Seagull."
The first issue has a letters column, which is perplexing, since how can there be a letters column when there have been no previous issues? Nevertheless, there it is, and believe me, already the readers are not mincing their words. My favorite: "I hope your magazine is realistic in its articles and not filled with 'fairy tales' like Theatre Crafts." As editorial director of both publications (Theatre Crafts is now titled TCI), I hardly know what to say.
One thing that doesn't date, however, is an interview with Tharon Musser, conducted by an uncredited writer. Musser is a pivotal figure in the history of theatre lighting design. She came to maturity in the world of 1950s Broadway, ruled by such figures as Abe Feder, Jean Rosenthal, and Peggy Clark. Yet her design for A Chorus Line (1975), which brought the memory board to Broadway, transformed theatre lighting forever.
In that Lighting Dimensions interview, Musser looks forward and backward. Her comments point the way for the enormous changes of the past two decades. For example: "Twenty years ago lighting design was low man on the totem pole. Barely 5% of the programs you picked up had a credit for lighting other than 'Sets and Lights by whomever.' Now, you won't pick up more than 5% of the programs that don't have 'Lighting designed by....' It's been very exciting to see that happen. It's exciting to see that lighting is becoming known as an art form and not just a director saying to an electrician, 'Can I have some moonlight through that window?'"
You said it, Tharon. By 1977, the battle was over; lighting design was an accepted profession. And since then it has grown enormously. Look at some of the names covered by Lighting Dimensions in the last couple of years: Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer, Ken Billington, Richard Pilbrow, Paul Gallo, Beverly Emmons, Jeff Davis, Jennifer Tipton, Peter Kaczorowski, Kenneth Posner, Brian MacDevitt, Rick Fisher, Mark Henderson, Peter Mumford. You can add dozens of other names from resident theatres, opera companies, and dance groups. Any profession that attracts people of this caliber is no more afterthought.
"It's exciting that the computer age is allowing us to realize the kind of movement in light and the flexibility we want to achieve. We can make light move in ways we never could before. And we haven't even begun to tap what computers can do."
Tharon, you didn't know the half of it. In 1975, shows were controlled manually on piano boards; most Broadway theatres were still on DC power. But the times they were a-changing. Six years later, Musser's lighting for Dreamgirls, brilliantly and seamlessly joined with Robin Wagner's scenery, sent lights moving over every inch of the stage of the Imperial Theatre. And there was more to come: By 1990, Vari*Lite(R) automated luminaires were seen in the national tour of Starlight Express, designed by David Hersey, and on Broadway in The Will Rogers Follies, designed by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. After that, the deluge. Now Broadway shows use every type of moving light; there are increasingly sophisticated consoles to control the increasingly complex designs; and there's no end in sight.
"More and more people don't want to work without a lighting designer. The years have proved the value of light in supporting a production. We've come an incredibly long way in 20 years alone," Musser said. "While not everyone will make an immediate living as a lighting designer, the field is a valid one, and that validity is growing."
Valid is not a strong enough word. Playwriting has changed enormously in the last two decades. Today's writers have created a more fluid, cinematic style of construction derived from film and television. Plays such as Angels in America and Love! Valour! Compassion! contain dozens of locations. With them, realistic scenery is impossible; the ability to make quick transitions between scenes is paramount. Musicals like Rent and the current revival of Chicago deliberately de-emphasize scenery, relying on lighting to drive the action. Under these conditions, it's not too much to say that lighting has become the pre-eminent design element in the theatre. In all probability, it will only become more so.
On the other hand, some things never change. Musser, never a sentimentalist, offered one final comment: "It's a great field. Theatre's a great field. Lighting--lighting's the greatest." Tharon, there we're in complete agreement.