Groundbreaking Women in Theater: Lighting Designer Beverly Emmons

Second in a series for Women's History Month.

Only four of the 29 shows now playing on Broadway have female lighting designers. But it was a woman who invented lighting design as a theatrical profession, according to Beverly Emmons, who has designed more than 30 Broadway shows.

Emmons says that in the 1940s Jean Rosenthal elevated lighting design from one of the scenic designer's responsibilities to its own entity. Before there was a specialist known as a lighting designer, Emmons says, "electricians would have an instinct for the aesthetic ideas; they would arrange some lights; and the director would comment, or the scenic designer would take a hand in it."

Like Rosenthal, Emmons has designed lighting for dance as well as theater. She has worked for various ballet companies and such choreographers as Martha Graham, Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown. Her lighting for opera has been seen at La Scala and the Met, among other venues. Recent theater work includes John Patrick Shanley's Sailor's Song off-Broadway last fall; the Yeardley Smith solo act More; and two 2003 productions at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. Two shows lit by Emmons open this month—The Monkey King at the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis (with whom she's been associated for several years) and MCC's What of the Night, starring Jane Alexander, which is scheduled to begin performances March 16 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Though lighting design remains a male-dominated profession, Emmons is one of several women—including Peggy Clark, Tharon Musser, Nananne Porcher, Natasha Katz and Peggy Eisenhauer—who have risen to the top of the field. Emmons believes she was the first to have a family as well as her career. "The theater business is very demanding of one's time and energy, and one has to really focus on the artists that you're working with," says Emmons, who is married with a 24-year-old daughter. "A lighting designer's work doesn't exist unless it hits something, so what's going on is pretty ephemeral. And what we do is express and reinforce and reveal to the audience the underlying meanings of the piece, a lot of which are nonverbal. You have to totally concentrate on that and tune in on a very personal level to the people you're working with.

"On Broadway you work 16-hour days for three, six, eight weeks. It's all-consuming," she continues. "The home fires have to stay going. I had a great nanny, and my husband [a photographer] could be home, because his work didn't take him all around. So that provided a through line and a stable base, which is essential."

Emmons—whose last Broadway show was the Annie Get Your Gun revival—has been nominated for a Tony seven times, from The Elephant Man to Jekyll & Hyde. She designed the lighting for Amadeus in 1980 but was credited as associate LD; the Tony was given to John Bury, who had designed the original production in London and who, she smilingly points out, "neglected to thank me." Emmons has won an Obie, a Lumen Award (for Einstein on the Beach) and two Bessies, for her dance lighting.

She was just a few months out of college when she became an assistant to lighting designer Jules Fisher in the mid '60s, and worked with him for about five years, on such shows as You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running, Hair, Butterflies Are Free and Jesus Christ Superstar. For part of that time, Emmons was also lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which had hired her (on a professor's recommendation) before she even graduated. She also served as Cunningham's stage manager and company manager. Production management had, in fact, been her original job interest, and through it she discovered lighting design. But even before that, she entertained dreams of being a performer.

"I was interested in dance, studied dance at Sarah Lawrence College and worked at the American Dance Festival backstage in the summer. The best modern dance companies of the era came through for years, and the lighting designers who came with them were Jean Rosenthal and Tom Skelton, some of the best designers in the business," Emmons remembers. "As I became aware of the limited number of dance companies in which people worked regularly [as dancers], I got interested in what's now called production management... As I got into production management, or stage management, it occurred to me that I also could do lighting."

Rather than limiting her, starting out in dance opened up avenues in theater. "My work for Merce Cunningham vetted me for those who thought of themselves as avant-garde, and so through that I worked with Joe Chaikin, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, Lucinda Childs."

To this day, Emmons is honored to keep the company she does on the job. "Our profession is a meritocracy: The best get there," she says. "That's why it's a privilege to work on Broadway. Everybody there knows what they're doing. Sometimes it's a struggle just in the nature of making art to come up with the famous hit that everybody's looking for. But everybody there is just a treat to be around."

Lighting designers' success can be determined by their people skills as well as their artistry and technical know-how, according to Emmons. Gentle negotiating and a spirit of cooperation are preferable to dictatorialness—which may be why it took a woman to create the occupation. "The idea of having a lighting designer is sort of a female idea in the sense that the way Jean [Rosenthal] talked about it is: She'd like to make a suggestion," Emmons says. "Basically you're inserting yourself between three bulldogs: a director who wants his way, a scenic designer and the electrician—they're all butting heads. She was greatly respected because she found a way to gently evolve herself into saying: 'I talked to the director, and it occurs to me that we ought to perhaps plan this...' She very gracefully inserted herself and the concept of a separate person in that job. They always talked about her saying 'please' and 'thank you' to the crew; crews loved her because she honored their work."

While women have made a lot of progress in design, the most significant changes in the profession during the course of Emmons' career have been technological. Computerization has vastly expanded lighting possibilities, but also has made the job infinitely more complex. "Nowadays it's very technically complicated to keep track of the software," says Emmons. "It's a huge database management problem, in addition to the aesthetic concerns." For instance, with moving lights—which didn't even exist a few decades ago—"when you hang up one, you have 72 decisions to make before you move on to the next one," she says. "Now, multiple that by 100. It takes far longer and it's exponentially more complicated to keep track of what you had mind and how you're doing it."

When Emmons started out, "it was all hand dimmers, and the old dimmer boards were created for World War I submarines and just recycled," she says. "Everything was done by hand, which meant you couldn't have more than 300 lights because nobody could handle them. Now there are musicals of a thousand focusing units.

"Another thing is, what you wrote in the cues is exactly what will be there that night. It's exactly programmed, so it's perfect," she adds, further explaining: "When you take a light out on a dimmer, the wire inside the bulb slowly goes out, so even if you go zunk!—quick—the light fades out. Now you can have a light go out on a snap. Well, that's a much different punctuation in moments in songs and dance movements and transitions."

What hasn't changed is the lighting designer's objectives, which Emmons instills in those she instructs: "It's always about seeing. What's interesting is to get people [students] looking and seeing and responding to the work of art and responding to the physical space. That's where we intersect—between what the work wants to be and what the space will allow. Lighting design has to exist, to quote Robert Rauschenberg, 'in the gap between art and life.'"

Emmons is currently on the graduate theater faculty of Columbia University. She also teaches Broadway Master Classes sponsored by Primedia and at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. From 1997 to 2002, she was artistic director of the Lincoln Center Institute, which provides educational outreach to New York City schools.

For the previous installment in this series, about composer/playwright Elizabeth Swados, click here.

Photo of Emmons from Lincoln Center. Productions designed by Emmons, from top: The Monkey King [photo by Rob Levine]; Sailor's Song [photo by Carol Rosegg]; Jekyll & Hyde [photo from IESNA.org]. Homepage photo of Emmons by Blanche Mackey.

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