Lighting designer and educator John Gleason died on October 28. He was 62.
A native New Yorker, Gleason was drawn to lighting in his student days at Stuyvesant High School. At Hunter College he lit 75 shows, while majoring in zoology and chemistry; he passed the USA exam while still a junior at Hunter. Upon graduation, designer David Hays hired him to assist on a production of The Changeling, directed by Elia Kazan for the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, which was then living in temporary digs at the now-departed Washington Square Theatre. He soon earned his first design credit there, with a revival of Tartuffe in 1966. In 1968, he was named resident lighting designer at Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. That summer, he began the first of many seasons at the as lighting designer at the National Playwrights Conference, held at the Eugene O’Neil Center in Waterford, CT.
He was soon designing regularly on Broadway, beginning with the flop musical La Grosse Valise. Many more productions followed, including The Great White Hope (1968), Joseph Heller’s We Bombed in New Haven (1968), In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1969), the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two (1970), the Carol Channing musical Lorelei (1974), the Andrews Sisters musical Over Here! (1974), a hit revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s The Royal Family (1975); the 20th anniversary revival of My Fair Lady (1976), and An Evening With Diana Ross (1976). His last Broadway show was The Guys in the Truck (1983).
Beginning in the late 70s, Gleason’s growing disenchantment with the level of professionalism in the commercial theatre, combined with a lifelong love of opera, caused him to cross over to that medium. Among his opera designs were The Marriage of Figaro (Manhattan School of Music, 1975), Macbeth (Dallas Opera, 1977), Manon Lescaut (Dallas Opera, 1979), Peter Grimes (Dallas Opera, 1980), Madame Butterfly, Dallas Opera, 1981), Der Rosenkavalier (Dallas Opera, 1982), The Mikado (New York City Opera, (1984), Werther (New York City Opera, 1986), The Magic Flute (New York City Opera, 1987), Doktor Faust (New York City Opera, 1992). He also designed many opera productions for the American Opera Center at the Juilliard School.
Gleason also worked at resident theatres, such as the Mark Taper Forum, American Shakespeare Festival, and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. But his longest-running job was at New York University, where he taught lighting design for a quarter of a century, from 1971-97. “Teaching has made me a better designer,” he told Entertainment Design (then known as TCI). “I always allow my students to ask any questions they want about my work, and so I have to be prepared to answer.”
He also told TCI, “When I began to teach, I also started to think about what I liked about lighting. And there were certain things I liked, that straight through to this day: The fact that I don’t hold a nine-to-five job, never have—that’s pretty terrific. Sometimes I get asked by my students `Why do you still do it?,’ And I’ll laugh and say, `Well, think about it: where else can you get paid by someone to spend their money to fulfill your fantasies?’”
A memorial service will be announced at a later date. Look for a full tribute to Gleason in the January issue of Entertainment Design.