GVH Parade (1).jpg
GVH Parade (1).jpg

AUdio recordings






AUdio recordings






On The Training of Theater Technicians, 1976

Speech given by Gilbert at the OISTAT conference in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The conference was coordinated with the 1975 Prague Quadrennial International Exhibition of Scenography and Theater Architecture. Gilbert was part of the USITT delegation from the United States consisting of professional designers, university faculty, and student participants as well as representatives of major theatrical equipment manufacturers.

Interview with Gilbert Hemsley, 1978

Gilbert discusses his training program in lighting design and production management at the University of Wisconsin, Madison as well as recent projects.


Informal discussion between Gilbert and the student delegation to the 1976 OISTAT convention on theater technology in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He discusses his perspectives on lighting design, production management, and things that young designers should contemplate when thinking about a professional career in the theater. This discussion was held over brunch in Amsterdam on the way to the convention in Prague. The background noises from the kitchen come and go and are worse at the beginning of the tape but improve after the first 8 minutes or so.


The LD Interview






The LD Interview






A Conversation with Gil Hemsley – Part I

One of America’s foremost lighting designers talks with Lighting Dimensions.

Editor’s notes … we recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Hemsley at a rehearsal of the New York Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The interview took place over several hours, including luncheon. We felt that the conversational {low of the interview should be maintained. Because Mr. Hemsley’s great ability as a raconteur would be interrupted by editorializing, we have chosen to do minimal reorganizing.

"Gil, how, when and why did you decide to become a lighting director?"

GH: There are several intertwined stories required to answer that. This will sound strange, but I never planned to be a lighting director. While at Yale, I started doing technical work rather than lighting design. However, I did light two productions. Imagine lighting just two productions in three years at Yale! In 1958 I used an assistant, and I was one of the first lighting designers to do so. All the big names used to come by and give us a lot of tips. Even with Jan Slager, Ed Cole, Oren Parker, Harvey Smith and Frank McMullen, they all wanted to give the lighting designers notes about what it should or shouldn’t be. My first assistant was Sally Schwartz. All the big names were giving notes directly to Sally and I went about lighting the show, which incidentally was a double billing of Agamemmnon and Homecoming in true academic form. I feel very indebted to all. Even though I did major in the technical side, l spent a lot of time at McCandless’ knee. I also went to some of George lzenour’s classes. No comment. I didn’t know it then but it was very good for me. I realize now that I would take something McCandless taught me and, rather than follow the form, I would interpret it.

In 1958 we had been taught that strip lights should always go horizontally. But the scenery was going vertical so I decided that the toning should go vertical. All I did was turn it the way the scenery went. Shortly afterwards, I came in one afternoon and somebody had written in chalk on all the strips “Gilbert’s folly.” Vertical strips have turned into one of my signatures. When I use them I think of toning, which McCandless had taught us so I just turned the bright side too. A lot of people disagree but that’s all right. I didn’t plan to go to the Yale Drama School, but because I couldn’t get into the Army, I went there by default. In 1960 when I left the school, I was the production manager in a theatre. And again by default I had to do lighting design. In the same year I was asked to get involved in the McCarter Theatre project at Princeton University. I thought I really should go to New York and work but, as usual, I had no money. So I helped the McCarter project launch one of the first performing arts centers outside of New York. We did repertory company, concerts, movies, children’s shows, Broadway, and everything in between. Milt Lyon, the artistic director at McCarter, said, “Can we do two shows in one day?” “Milton, you book it, I’ll play it.” Hugh Hardy at that point was the scene designer, and through Hugh I got to know Mielziner. Then by default again, I started doing technical work. In addition to the technical work I was also doing the lighting.

So in the early ’60s I got into lighting again. As I said earlier, I didn’t plan to be a lighting designer. I was working technically, and because I was in charge and hiring the people, I decided I could light as well as anybody and just did it. In 1962 1 took the lighting exam and of all those funny people who took it, I passed it. First of all there were 60 people there from all over the country. The best talent around. And they all wanted to be lighting designers and so took the exam. I decided at that point that I was never going to be as good as all those people. So when I came back from having taken the exam I gave up lighting at McCarter. I was just a stage manager, and I was going to be content with my new career as a stage manager. I was beeping along in stage management and found out three months after I took the exam that I had gotten the highest mark of all those funny people. And that’s how it all really began.

My first union job was that summer. I did Julius Caesar and Cleopatra in Stratford, Connecticut The summer before I took the exam I had been an assistant with Tharon Musser in Boston at what I called the pregnant hamburger on the Thames River (the Metropolitan Boston Arts Center Theatre). You could actually smell the dirty Charles River flowing by outside. I was also doing some technical production managing … not truly production managing but rather helping to make things happen. Not that I was very good at wielding a hammer but I could provide good people and the coffee to make the crew work better.

In the fall I was a stage manager for the Dallas Opera Company working for Jean Rosenthal’s office when her assistant became ill. So I was given the opportunity to do some assistant work for Jean. Nananne Porcher was there also. I feel that I am the last of the honest-to-God, second generation that knew what lighting really was. I knew Mielziner and I worked with his color. I took Tharon’s color theories as well as McCandless’ and Jean’s color theories.

One of the things I realized 10 years later was that I had put all that together for my own particular color style. In 1963, 1964 and 1965 I continued at the McCarter Theatre as an associate producer. I was also doing lighting and technical work and taking very large pills for my stomach. I had a staff of 26 working for me and the pace was hellish. While there I met some great people. Dustin Hoffman and Geno Conforte, as well as a few others. It was a great time. People came out from New York to work at McCarter.

At that point I decided that I should give all that up and try being a lighting designer. So in 1965 I decided I would enter the real world, give up academic security and all that. I was out of work for only two days, nearly committed suicide, and didn’t know what to do, Lo and behold I got a telegram from Tharon Musser asking if I would come to Beirut, Lebanon and finish lighting a girlie show. Well, having nothing else to do, and going slightly nutso, I went to Beirut, Lebanon for six weeks to work on a girlie show. It was the first time I had ever been abroad. It’s one thing to go to Paris or London the first time, but to go to Beirut … I had a marvelous time. For two days I didn’t have to sit at the table with the flies and the imported help because the Arabs decided I was more fun than everybody else. I used to pray for Rosco gel because there was no toilet paper in Beirut and Rosco gel tissue sheets had better absorbency than Cinemoid. I used to hide the stacks of gels so I would have toilet paper.

While in Lebanon I received a call from Jean Rosenthal asking if I would work with her office and production manage the ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco. It was a very difficult decision. I decided I would work with Jean and I did four years on and off. I also started doing some independent stuff. I did APA on Broadway; I did a lot of American Ballet Theatre for Jean; and I did a lot of funny work in the provinces which paid off later. I went to Syracuse, New York and Orlando, Florida, and Verdonia. All the hot spots. Among the strange places I went to was Indianapolis to do the American National Opera with Sara Caldwell.

I was thought of as Jean Rosenthal’s assistant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I realized in 1969 that I really wasn’t getting anywhere. All I was doing was getting more and more in debt. Not that I had been the most frugal person but I wasn’t going anywhere financially. So, when the theatre went defunct, I lost all my credit cards, and to this day I don’t carry any plastic..

Now in the middle of all of this I began to realize that you got work on Broadway if you caught the critic’s eye. And you caught the critic’s attention if you had showy lighting design. I never believed in showy lighting design. I think it has to do with the fact that my father was a minister. I was always taught to be very honest and I have tried to maintain that integrity.

One of the fateful things about it all is that I went to Stuttgart on the day of Jean Rosenthal’s funeral. The end of my era with Jean just happened to be my first step to this new career in doing big productions.

Because of my mechanical and technical background I thought about the entire production. I thought that the Stuttgart should look bigger than any ballet that had ever appeared at the Metropolitan Opera (and we were following by a week the Royal Ballet). So I took the proscenium up to 32 feet where they’d never been before. It was really simple; all we had to do was press a button. So I decided that we would make the little Stuttgart Ballet look bigger than any other company. I’ve always kept it (the proscenium) that way at The Met, even with Martha Graham.

When we did Eugene Onegin it looked absolutely smashing. We did dissolves and bleed throughs; it was fantastic work and a lot of fun. We also got some wonderful reviews. The critics were raving about the scenics and I felt that I should get a little of the credit for helping to make all of them. The critics all wrote about utilizing the set and I didn’t get a single notice out of anyone. Unfortunately my mother, who loves to come to the ballet, was sitting in the director’s booth. Because we had become so popular, there were no seats. So Clive Bames’ secretary was put in the director’s booth with my mother, adding to the fate of my career. My mother in her wonderful honesty said to Clive Bames’ secretary, “Why doesn’t your boss ever write about my son?” And he didn’t for five more years.

In the fall of 1970 I went to teach at the University of Wisconsin where I started using my kids as assistants. As a lighting I designer you don’t get paid much and I had talented students who were as good as I anybody. I’ll never forget taking two innocents from Madison, Wisconsin, out to Los Angeles to do the Australian Ballet, and their first side trip was to Tijuana. They got to know Tijuana and the Australian Ballet all in one week.

The next thing that happened was a critical juncture in my career. At that time there was a “lighting designer’s club.” You were either a part of it or you weren’t a part of it and everybody helped to get everybody else work. The politics were fierce. I was just about to go to Dallas to do an opera and a ballet when I got a call from Saul Hurok and he asked if I would go to Moscow. He wanted to go to Moscow to bring back the Bolshoi Ballet to the Met. This had been his long time dream. Hurok had seen my work on the Stuttgart Ballet and liked it.

I didn’t go to Dallas. I didn’t do what the club thought I would do and should do. In my innocence I thought it would be good to go to Moscow instead of Dallas. Even the phone company didn’t agree. They thought I was a commie-pinko and I shouldn’t talk to Russia, but that is another matter.

That was in 1971 and because I went to Moscow instead of Dallas the club kept me from working in certain areas of the country for almost 10 years. I was bitter for awhile, but it was the best thing that ever happened in my career. As a result, I don’t owe anybody anything which is, I think, to my advantage.

"You had a turning point in your career at this point – what happened?"

GH: I was asked to do the Bemstein Mass to open up the new Kennedy Center. It was in the fall and I asked three of my students to go with me. One was Duane Schuler who is now very successful and is known all around the country. Anyway the four of us, Bill Burd, Lou Rackoff, Duane and I went off to light the Bemstein Mass. When I look back on my work in the ’60s I realize now that I was just another nervous twitchy lighting designer. One of the things in this funny professional world is that you worry about your dinner ticket next month. And your success depends upon how you do your light cues. So in the ’60s that was one of my biggest problems. I was so worried about egos, and whether things should be blue or green, and keeping everybody happy. Should I give them what they want or keep my integrity of what is right. It sounds confusing and I was.

I really wasn’t worried about what anybody thought of my work on the Bernstein Mass. I was just there in this huge boiling cauldron. First of all Lenny was writing Beethoven’s Ninth. I was one of three lighting designers. There were three lighting designers and four light plots. It was crazy. In the middle of all that, no matter what happened, nothing bothered me. I just went about my business. I made sure that Oliver had his cup of coffee and Gordon Davidson had his and that they all had their own private ashtrays; and Lenny had his cup of coffee and Alvin Ailey had his cup of coffee. I view my role as more of a service organization to get the thing off.

I will never forget we did one light cue and I took out all the fronts and put all the people in the front in silhouette. Oliver Smith immediately said, “Oh, it’s wonderful; I love the silhouette.” Gordon said, “I can’t see the people down front” Alvin Ailey said, “More amber.” Lenny B. said, “I can’t see the children.” All reactions from one light cue. I sit up in the middle. You’ve got to understand all these guys all sat in different parts of the theatre. They had to come to my desk for their coffee and ashtrays. I had personalized beanbag ashtrays for every one of them. God forbid if I gave Oliver the wrong beanbag ashtray. Anyway, so I sit up in the middle of the auditorium. “Hey, guys, we’ve got to get it together.” I realized that when Lenny wanted it one way, and Alvin wanted it some other way that what I did was not going to interfere with my dinner ticket next month. So I just did it And I kept everybody happy and we had a swell time. The afternoon of the opening for the first public performance the show hadn’t been finished. The music hadn’t been finished. They hadn’t even finished blocking it. Of course the lighting happens after all that. We were operating on our tenterhooks. I was writing presets ahead of them as they would do them. I had a runner who would run up with the next couple of presets. We had six followspots and Lou Rackoff was getting all the followspot cues down. It was all done in one afternoon and at the very end of the afternoon they were all frantically writing it down. I got it all done and I wrote a couple of crazy orgasmic cues; it was beautiful. But I didn’t worry about it; we just did it.

After the Bemstein Mass opened I went back to teach. I also did some directing in the real world. I was back there on the East Coast and was sitting there on a rainy, snowy day when the phone rang in my office and it was Sara Caldwell. She had seen the Bemstein Mass and decided that I should light the Trojan War.

In 1967 I vowed that I’d never work for Sara Caldwell again because it had been so difficult. But I decided the Trojan War was too good a thing to miss. So I went to Boston and I took some kids from Madison as assistants. I designed a light plot that required no ladders because I knew we’d never get ladders on stage with Sara Caldwell. I could make anything happen in a moment’s notice. I did a square light plot with bridges because they were so much simpler and I knew we’d never get a ladder out to focus. So I made a light plot, no pipes, just a whole square light plot so you could send a man up it and he could walk on the bridges. If Sara wanted it blue she could have it blue, that didn’t bother me. My integrity of lighting design was not in question. She could have anything at a moment’s notice. Newsweek magazine ran a review of the Trojan War where they called me the “Rembrandt of Lighting Artists.” That was pretty smashing. When I got back to school all my kids called me “Rem.” I will never forget walking from one theatre to the other with two eight-inch lekos under my arm, and some kid came after me and said, “Did Rembrandt have to carry his own brushes?”

After that everything just started clicking. I began to realize that I was doing some good work. People started accepting my coming in with my kids. It’s very funny. Everybody called my people “Gilbert’s bunnies” which may have hurt a few of them. Most of those “bunnies” have done extraordinarily well because I used them in real life situations.

"Gil, do you think luck plays any part in getting started for the young, emerging lighting designer?"

GH: Every once in a while I think there is a piece of luck. However, I watch for the people who work. I will pick up somebody or look after somebody, not because of luck, but because I firmly believe in their personal commitment. You have to be dedicated to this crazy business. A lot of the people that I get now are very serious. By the time they are 18 or 19 they’ve had more sex and drugs than most people do in their entire lifetime. They’ve been through all that and now they want to be human beings. I find them extraordinarily sensitive at evaluating people and deciding what they want and don’t want.

"Was there any single production that really got you going?"

GH: The Bemstein Mass. That coupled with doing the Trojan War, two things one on top of the other within a period of about five months. I remember sitting down at the house left at Wolftrap reading the paper. There was my name, for the first time, a quarter of an inch high in the New York Times, along with Lenny and Oliver, Alvin and Gordon. That was my first big credit in the New York Times and I remember the seat and the precise moment that I could say I’ve finally arrived. Tah-Dah!

'Let’s talk a little about productions. Do you have a favorite type of production, something that you particularly like?"

GH: I love ‘em all. I know that sounds funny but I feel lucky and fortunate. I’m one of the few lighting designers who can work in all areas. I can shift from ballet to modem dance to opera. I can do a Macbeth in Toronto or three New Opera One Acts for Beverly in New York. Or I can do a tent for a Beverly Sills gala. A couple of years ago I even did a cave.

"What do you mean you lit a cave?"

GH: I lit a cave. No where to go in this world but down, so I lit a cave. There’s a cave outside Madison, Wisconsin, and I lit the hell out of it turned out gorgeous. All lights were clear. We didn’t use a single gel. Because one has to be honest in cave lighting. It’s natural light and we didn’t want to fake it It was very interesting because each lamp required six people for approval. It was lighting by cave committee. All total, we used about 90 luminaires. And in the end it looked beautiful. It was designed around the guides doing the show. They would go into certain zones and as they directed the attention to something they would raise the lights with the use of dimmers. The idea was that the guide went from one dark spot to another resulting in a nice dramatic presentation.

"But that doesn’t differ from any other kind of lighting assignment does it?"

GH: No. You just have to make it happen, be aware of the committee, and the needs of the assignment. The basic concept behind it was to take what’s fantastic and illuminate it Essentially, it was scenery by God. Unfortunately, he didn’t get credit on the poster outside.

"Who are some of your favorite directors?"

GH: Oh, there are so many of them. They’re all different. At the top of my list would have to be Jerry Robbins, Amalia Hernandez in Mexico City, Alicia Alonzo, John Cranko, Jack O’Brien, Gordon Davidson, and of course Sara Caldwell. I try to make working with each director a special event. Some directors are supposed to be horrible, and I go in with the attitude that if he’s so terrible let’s see how good of a time we can have with it anyway. Michael Kahn was supposed to have been hideous, but we did wonderful work together. It just required my understanding what he expected from the lighting designer. He wanted a social wit. But that’s all right because I understand when you’re at that point in a production and you’re trying to make things happen, each director views the function of a lighting designer differently.

One of the most important skills is the ability to communicate well, warmly and openly. I think that’s just a common human element to doing any assignment whether you’re directing or lighting or doing a film or a commercial. You try to minimize the bullshit. I say to people, “Here’s my heart. Take a look, it’s pulsating, and it’s throbbing. Here’s everything I know and that’s it.” Very simplistic in that respect but it’s very disarming. I always try to design what I call “the atmosphere at the desk” to fit the production.

"What do you mean “the atmosphere at the desk?”

GH: The atmosphere at the lighting desk is where all those people concentrate. It’s a focal point The ashtrays, the pencils, the communication, the coffee cups, the fresh fruit, flowers, always flowers, again one of my signatures. Most people don’t think about flowers. At some of my Broadway shows I now have a pet stuffed frog. When I came in to do Sugar Babies, in New York, at the beginning everything was so tense around me. I had a toy train … when everything got tense I played with my train and we all knew we were getting it on. You know when you get nervous. I once had a gardenia that every time I got tense at some production with Sara Caldwell, I would spray it and you could hear it pshht .. pshht … pssht. Poor thing got watered to death but it was one of the things I tried to do to take a little of the curse out of it.

I have what I call the pistachio nut theory for the desk. This is one of my secrets on making directors happy. First of all most directors have just stopped smoking so they don’t know what to do with their hands. I provide white pistachio nuts. They can’t be red, they have to be white (as in cigarette white). They also have to be the giant white pistachio nuts because the nervous nibblers have to feel that once they’ve shelled them, they’ve really gotten something.

"So that’s the Hemsley Pistachio Nut Theory?"

GH: Right. Besides that, I put them in a box with padding on the bottom so that the director can quietly take the pistachio nuts not out of a bag, but a padded box. This way he can take as many nuts as he needs and nobody else is the wiser. I also provide the director with a beanbag ashtray so he can shuffle off to some dark corner of the theatre and nervously munch his pistachio nuts and put the shells in the beanbag ashtray. There’s a bit of sense in this. Before the director quit smoking he carried an ashtray around the theatre. So he has something personal to clutch to his heart. Besides that you provide a padded wastepaper basket where he can dump the shells quietly before he reaches into the padded box for more.

I always try to have little goodies. I was brought in at the last moment to redo Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera and Rudy Kuntner, the lighting designer, got sick. I had just read it on the airplane. As soon as we landed I went out and I bought about 50 pounds of eight inch diameter chocolate chip cookies. Anybody who came to that desk and wanted to help me light, I’d give them an eight inch chocolate chip cookie. It would take them so long to eat it that I could get lighting done while everybody was busy eating chocolate chip cookies.

"Now we have the Pistachio Nut Theory and the Chocolate Chip Cookie Theory."

GH: No food was allowed at the desk and we used to work through lunch. I said to them, “Do you want to get Lohengrin lit or are we going to bend the rules a little?” So we just passed out chocolate chip cookies. That was my solution to getting Lohengrin lit. It’s very funny. When I see chocolate chip cookies I think of Lohengrin and when I think of Lohengrin I think of chocolate chip cookies.

"How about trends in education? Where do you think education is going?"

GH: I’m not very happy with the trends in education. ! think that lighting designers are rapidly becoming the primary designers. It used to be the scene designers. You know before 1962 lighting directors weren’t even allowed in the union. Because of the direction scenery has been taking, and because of some of the things that I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been hired before the scene designer. In many cases I even get to pick the set designer. People are much more discriminating about lighting. Television has set a standard of high visibility.

People want to see faces and dimples and eyelashes. I think that lighting design is rapidly becoming more and more important. The lighting designer is expected to communicate with directors more and more. I don’t deal with somebody who majors in theatre as an undergraduate. I want a history major, a communication arts major, or an English major. I want somebody who can talk about the history of the 19th century. It is crucial that students have a sense of time and place. It is impossible to do opera unless you understand the 19th century. Or the 20th. Thank God I had taken a lot of classics at Yale before I talked to Martha Graham. You’ve got to remember all those gods and goddesses. She is a goddess and she doesn’t let you forget it. She is down there with Cassandra. She just happened to be born in the wrong century. Actually she was born in the right century. She has changed the world of dance. She was a goddess of dance. That’s not meant to be sarcastic. I’ll never forget her telling me the story of her telling her psychiatrist that she was a goddess. You can’t get into those wonderful, fantastic conversations unless you do have a knowledge of the world behind you. One foot in the humanities, the other in the technical side. It’s no longer leko, leko, leko. A broad education is needed not only of the real world but of the humanities, finances, art, and architecture; then they can be a lighting designer or a person in the theatre.

"Or a human being?"

GH: In the end that’s what counts. When you’re 45 what are you going to do with your life? Talk about lekos? I worry a lot because there are many schools teaching people to be lighting designers and nothing else. I worry that they’re not being taught the complete world. Not only do you have to be artistic but you’ve also got to be a person who can withstand the problems of making it happen. People yell and scream and people have to be able to lose their tempers. Some of my students would have been great lighting designers but they took everything personally. The student’s first lighting assignment is like having sex the first time. You can’t really tell anybody where to put it; you’ve just got to get through it. When you get through it then you start dealing with it and getting advice from the side. Well that’s not a standard Madison reference. One of the things I do in Madison is to always let them use as much equipment as they can get their hands on and just let them overdo it for the first time. I’d much rather have them muck it up the first time. I let them come up with crazy ideas. They’re all going to make it beautiful. And of course when they fall down I pick them up.

"What advice do you give the fledgling, recent graduate when he is on his way looking for a first job?"

GH: Most of the time I don’t have any. Generally they are out there working before they’re finished with school. For example, last fall’s assistants have had so much independent work outside I’ve just given up on them. They’re out of the nest before you know it By the time they’re out there doing it I’ve given them all the advice they need. What is really great about what has happened with the “Gilbert bunnies” is that they all talk to each other. There’s a whole new group out here on the West Coast. I don’t want to call it a cult … but they all talk to each other.

"Hemsley clones"

GH: It’s hard to think of myself as cloned. I pride myself that they’re all independent and they all use different color and they behave differently. And they all do their own thing. I find that they all correspond particularly by phone. I find that they come for advice after they’ve done a couple of shows. They’ve seen me go through most of the hard situations. There are about 20 of us now working professionally and most of them as I said have talked with each other. I guess there’s no real answer, because there’s no “final advice.” The interesting thing that happens is we keep coming back and doing things together. You know when I did the Carter inaugural gala some people were already out doing the preliminary work because I was production managing. I brought out a couple of lighting designers so we could do it together. That’s kind of special.

Editor’s Note … Next month, we shall continue this interview.

A Conversation with Gil Hemsley – Part II

In this second part of the interview, Gil Hemsley talks about everything from architectural lighting to problems in education.

"Let’s talk a little about techniques. When given a choice. are you using computerized memory boards exclusively?"


GH: Well. I use anything I can, When I’m lighting in Cuba I’m very happy with the resistance board there. When I did Charlton Heston’s A Man for All Seasons at the Ahmanson a couple of years ago, it was a two-scene preset. I sincerely love computer boards. And I love all of them when they work. Sometimes they don’t work but you’ve got to support them because we’re at the beginning of development in that industry, God knows you don’t want to be tied down to resistance boards any more. I like designing for memory boards because they make multiple things happen. For example you can do a long sunset; and the board gives you a better range. One of the things that I’ve found is that computer boards now have as many of the good points as the system boards have. You can make anything happen at any time, and in any sequence. One thing I found early on in my teaching is that people easily adapt to computer boards if I teach in terms of ideas. We don’t teach leko, leko, leko. Those four lekos are sunshine; those are early afternoon sunshine; that’s impending doom; and those strips are daylight.

We talk about systems and ideas. And the computer board helps you to feed ideas into the system. We don’t think about dimmer numbers and lekos; we think in terms of ideas and mood, The real value of the memory system is that it eliminates all the nitty gritty, mechanical bullshit.

However, I’m very happy with Madison’s system because we have all the good things like three scene presets with nine submasters. I’m very happy with that because you still have to use those boards in some of the smaller theatres. The submasters become systems; so once you’ve got that going it’s very easy to write cues.

"Do you think the younger people are relying too heavily upon memory systems? In the event something happens in the middle of a show do they go bananas if the system has a failure?"

GH: No, I find that anybody will cope if they’ve been brought up right. And if they have to go back to resistance boards or to transformers fine. I have sent people to Mexico, South America, Japan and Australia and they keep going back, so they must be coping.

"Do you ever make models of a stage to help you in your design?"

GH: I love working with models. However it’s an unusual luxury, One of the first things we teach in Madison is the use of the light lab. Starting from the second semester, students work consistently in the light lab with objects and colors and things. For example, I’ve been working on a production of Hansel and Gretel. I didn’t make the model but the set designer did; and we carried the model around from opera board to opera director and we’d also carry around a couple of flashlights and gel wheels. I much prefer doing a model. A lot of people deal in terms of light sketches but we really are dealing with models. Particularly in the opera world. If you do a set for grand opera you don’t do sketches, you do models. You’re expected to deal with flashlights and be very smooth in handling all of that. I like doing it. But sometimes you don’t get the time to do it all. and then you’re expected to imagine it and just do it.

"Let’s talk a little more about the relationship between director and lighting designer. How would you describe the ideal relationship between director and lighting designer?"

GH: The first thing you’ve got to do if you don’t know him is to eat together. That’s my solution to everything. My feeling is that you have to understand that person and that everyone is different. And they all go into different arrangements within themselves when they come down to those last few days. I am very conscious of myself being a director because I get very nervous and I don’t yell, but I had to yell one day just to get it out. I realize some directors just have to do these things and get on others because it is their naked soul up there doing it. They’re in fierce competition. It’s their next meal ticket more than mine. They are more dependent on what happens up there. I guess my feeling is that the ideal relationship is where the director has to say very little and the lighting designer is good enough to be able to “feel” the needs of the show. However, I do like to communicate back and forth; and I’ll ask some directors if they want to do it. I ask them to give me a list of cues with the count. Some directors like to do it. With those types I send them home and I say, “Now I want you to make a list describing every cue,” And I give them a little form and I tell them to fill in how many counts they want and where they want them. They can think about it all night!

"And you get a good night’s sleep?"

GH: I get a good night’s sleep and they do all the work! Usually, it works just the exact opposite, because I’ve been doing so much work. We have a series of forms for getting the cues ready, Very often I’ll have my own cues but then all of a sudden the director wants to do them. Directors can only rehearse so many hours a day and then they don’t know what to do with themselves from five to midnight So I go home, I don’t care if they want to cue. Fine. So I guess the ideal thing is that the lighting designer has to talk the director’s language. A director should not have to learn a new vocabulary.

We’re there to strengthen his position and to put him in a position where his decisions are simple to make. I think the lighting designer, even though it’s usually at the expense of his ego, has to be subservient to all that is going on. Because if he’s not he can’t make the director function well. At that point he’s just going to damage the production. If you don’t want it green and he wants it green and he’s going to get nervous about the whole thing, then make it green. Why not? Maybe he will see the light of day and change it to blue. The ideal situation is that you shouldn’t talk. I just do it.

"What are some of the most exciting things happening in lighting design today?"

GH: One of the most interesting things is being more knowledgeable and sensitive about what’s happening on stage. For example, one of the things I get excited about is having a black cast to work with. I put as many lights as I can on the balcony rail. The reason for this is I’ve begun to understand the performer on stage and I believe that I can help a performer by thoughtful positioning of the lights.

"How do you mean that? How does that affect the performer?"

GH: When you deal with black performers, they are very conscious and very sensitive of the fact that they’re being seen by a largely white audience. I did a Broadway show where everybody was unhappy with my work except for the performers. They knew that they were so well lit, when they got out there they could feel it. It wasn’t artistic at all, I’d be the first to tell you that. But those people performed better. The lighting wasn’t aesthetic but for a lot of crazy reasons I could help the performance. And that’s what I mean. It all worked better because I understood. Method performers get slower when there is less light on them and if there is more light they will talk faster, That’s how we maintain the pace and the pulse. I try to control the pace of the performance by being careful to understand what that performer is doing. I am now aware and I think that’s what’s exciting. I can help a performance because I am sensitive to it. If the performance works, I don’t really care what the lighting looks like.

I had to relight a show for television once. The two best performances were when it was lit for television; the performers can’t hide. You bang them with so much light when they come out I’ve done that for many performers. If they were dull, I’d hit them with two followspots. AII spontaneousIy. I know that sounds terrible and crazy but I think that’s what I’m excited about. I know what can happen because people do respond to light like crazy and the audience responds; I love lighting the audience.

"Where do you sit when you’re trying to record the audience’s feeling? How do you know that the audience is really responding?"

GH: I like standing in the back of the orchestra.

"How do you measure audience reaction?"

GH: One of the ways is by knowing how quiet they are. For example, I did Macbeth once and I let the frosty blue light spill over into the audience. They could actually feel the chill. I love lighting the audience. You’re not supposed to. It’s not really done much anymore. But I feel I made many a mediocre production look better by that kind of imaginative treatment.

"It’s not all roses being a lighting designer. What are the areas and aspects of your life that are most troublesome?"

GH: One of the things that has happened, and I don’t know why, is that the lighting designer has never been very high on the totem pole of design. For example, with most Broadway shows the lighting designer will lose money when it gets to be a long run. Our pay is terrible. Something like $1700 for one setup. I did a Broadway show recently and I was expected to sit around and wait. It was opening in New York and previewed for five weeks. We had settled on a simple one-time fee. And we were expected to baby sit this f … er from eight in the morning until 12 at night for five weeks. I lost a fortune. The other thing is there aren’t that many people making any money.

"Did you ever think you would become lighting demented?"

GH: I’ve become crazy. It’s very hard to have any kind of a personal life in the middle of this crazy business. When you are the lighting designer sitting at that desk, the primary focus has to be on the director. You can’t go off and take your child to school or go to a PTA meeting in the middle of a dress rehearsal./

"What are some other areas that trouble you in the industry?"

GH: A lot of people, although not directly related to the industry, but with an impact on our lives, simply don’t understand what lighting designers do. For example, it troubles me that the National Endowment for the Arts has been giving money to dance programs, opera people and all kinds of other programs, but they haven’t trained anybody to keep up with what’s happening in the dance program. The National Endowment has gone downhill in part because no one trained the stage managers, lighting designers, and managers to cope with the touring they set up. That’s now happening particularly in opera repertory. There are very few technical people around the country to make operas work. We had a technical person come out of Madison last June, and he had nine major offers because he was one of the few competent people around. So what has happened is that a lot of opera companies across the nation have second rate or even third rate technical people. The major opera companies with the people who are supposed to be making it happen just aren’t there.

Another thing is that the people who make decisions on which lighting designers to hire are not aware that good lighting designers will save them money; and that a good lighting designer with a good assistant will pay for himself in preplanning. It was very funny. Even David Merrick thought Jean Rosenthal was expensive until he discovered how much time was wasted by using untalented, unorganized, young, fresh lighting designers; and how much cheaper it was in the long run to hire or pay a fee, because the experienced designer didn’t waste time on stage. l will tell you now that all my Broadway fees are based on union minimums. Because that’s all producers want to pay. The great hope is that you can negotiate a better royalty if the show runs for any length of time.

"Do you think critics have any effect on lighting?"

GH: I never think of the critics. It is wonderful to get a nice review. You could live a living death waiting for them, however. I did Aida in New York; and in one paper I got one of the nicest reviews ever and for the same show I got one of the worst reviews in another paper. Both the critics saw it the same night. One of the things I’ve started doing is to educate the critics on what to look for in lighting. I’ve gotten to know a lot of critics. For example. Dance Magazine did a review of Martha Graham last year and they made some wonderfully astute comments. The critics seem to be becoming much more alert and sensitive as to what lighting can do and should do.

"My question is do they really know enough to be critical and constructive in their criticism?"

GH: Yes, most of them do. For example, when I had dinner with Martin (Bernheimer) the other day, I also had the director there. We discussed the lighting problems so that Martin would be aware of our problems.

"Let’s talk a little about equipment. What kind of improvements in Lighting equipment and control would you like to see?"

GH: The development in control equipment is going faster than I can keep up with. I would much rather have a light board operator who knows how to make the board operate and just give him the problem and say “solve it.” I never say, “I want this or I want that.” I like things to develop and for the board operator to know what’s happening on stage. I don’t like to tell a board operator his business. For instance. George Maas, the board operator at New York City Opera, knows that when I get into a difficult situation I say, “George, now this is what I want to have happen”; and he can translate my suggestion into reality. He watches like crazy and George says, “That’s crappy, Gilbert Too many cues.” “Too many cues? Okay, George, how many cues?” We’ve gotten so we work together so closely that we enjoy it. When we did the Sills gala for television, we didn’t have to mutter to each other, and we both had a wonderful time and loved it. When you work together like this, to me, a lighting designer is only as good as his electrician. It’s the same thing as an architect being only as good as his engineer. I never see it as “my” show. It’s just as much the board operator’s show. In some cases I will design the show for the board operator. If he’s backstage with nothing to do, I give him plenty of light cues, so the show goes faster and he won’t get bored. For example, I give George at City Opera fun stuff to do and he loves it.

"Any other improvements you’d like to see in instruments and lamps?"

GH: Actually I would love to have more PAR lamps available. I seem to be using them a lot recently. I love raising the threshold of acuity. I love everything being very bright, working in broad strokes of light, which you only really get with PAR lamps. My only complaint is that I wish that they didn’t spill so much. But I love the effect that PAR lamps can give. I feel that the audience’s eye has been very affected by television and people are expecting to see things as good as they see on television. When people come to the theatre and they’ve paid all that money, they’re here to see what they want to see. They watch TV for 35 hours a week and they have that preconditioned idea as to what things should be.

"Do you ever have a secret desire to get involved in a TV show or film?"

GH: Yes, I really do. The colors and the problems that television creates are so different from the stage. I don’t think there’s any great mystery to lighting for television. A lot of people would like us to think that there is some mystique involved and that the secrets are known only to a very few specialists. But that’s really not true.

For my Cinderella on television, I did the show on paper. We never had a lighting rehearsal for it, and we got a very good picture for very little money. You have to be good and know what you’re doing but I don’t think it’s any great mystery. A good lighting designer is a good lighting designer. It takes many years, but once you get to know your business, I think you grow up in it like you grow up in any other business. Twenty years is a good period to grow up in.

"Speaking of growing up, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

GH: Who wants to grow up? I don’t think I’ll ever grow up. I have no lines, my hair has no gray because I have never grown up. I am serious about my work but you know I don’t let it show. Of the problems of being “grown up” is that you aren’t supposed to show excitement. And that’s hard for me. I was so excited about doing the Beverly Sills gala. I was also the production manager worrying about sound and security, costumes, maintaining the good sense of humor and keeping everybody else on schedule. And then at six o’clock we had to dash outside. We worked on setting up the searchlights to light Lincoln Center Plaza. Not only were we lighting the outdoors but we were lighting the indoors. Then we raced over to the tent, which was the largest tent ever put up in Manhattan, for a small sit down dinner and dance for 2000 people! The criteria for the lighting was that everyone should be able to see each other’s gowns and still keep things looking festive. To have lit the entire event, I felt like Fiorentino Associates. I had lit all of Lincoln Center Plaza and my feet hurt terribly.

"Does architectural lighting design have any interest for you?"

GH: Yes, very much so. Architectural lighting presents some unique problems. There are a number of specialists who do it very well. One of my strangest assignments was lighting the tent. That was a form of architectural lighting and it was a funny problem. This is how we did it First of all, I ordered 2000 candles. If Louis the XIV could have 2000 candles why couldn’t Beverly Sills. Of course nobody’s going to say no, except the fire department. Next, I decided to do a blue and white tent. My solution was to light the tent in a field of blue with star gobos; the stars come out for Beverly, and that was my theme. The 2000 candles took an hour to light. We used votive candles in glass containers so they wouldn’t go out in the breeze. They were effective and low cost.

"What is the “Hemsley Touch?” When people call you up and say, Gil, I want you to do a show, they do that for a reason. What is that touch?"

GH: I think they buy my spirit; the philosophy; the rest of the working relationship. It’s not always smooth but we have a good time doing it. We have fun and do a good job. I’m now known for doing big events. We’lI come in and do a big event and we’ll have a good time. When I brought the Bolshoi to this country I was production manager of the largest theatrical transfer in history. There were 40 truck loads of scenery, props and costumes. That was extraordinary fun.

Another example of fun was when I had the Chinese Performing Arts Company over here two years ago. I called them my gang of eight. I decided the Chinese should become familiar with the American theatre process. So I showed them their first TV broadcast; I took them to Kliegl, Rosco and to the Drama Book Store. Against everybody’s wishes I took them to see Star Wars. Because the bad guys wore Chinese looking jackets, people thought that might be offensive to them. They loved it. The next week the gang of eight had grown to 150 and all insisted we go see Star Wars again. And all 150 of us did. It was all wildly funny.

"What else are you working on now and in the next year or so?"

GH: I’m working on a preliminary schedule that calls for something like 30 productions a year. That’s more than most people. I’ve gotten myself into a mode of great excitement. That kind of schedule takes a lot of imagination, a lot of fireworks, and a lot of energy, but for me it’s also very exciting. Doing all that, I find, keeps me very sharp; and I think very highly charged creatively because I’m used to working fast. Occasionally I even forget the name of the electrician I’m working with. Sometimes I wake up in a strange city and say, “Where the f…k am I?”

One of my students has been doing a great deal of television lighting for Fiorentino Associates. He’s also been doing a lot of work in Las Vegas. I like the fact that I’m training people who are working in television, because they can bring to television a wide range of lighting experience. They are all excited because they got their start in theatre. Through my students I feel good about my teaching, and I feel good about my shows.

"Let’s get back to some of the techniques you use in teaching. Do you agree that the art and emotion of light is one of the most difficult concepts to teach?"

GH: I don’t think it is difficult to teach. One of the first assignments I give to my students after their first six weeks at Madison is to have them go out and watch God’s light cues and have them record a sunset. They do it not in color, but look at it rather in terms of layers. I make them go around the parking lots and stores and industrial complexes to look at how lighting is designed. I tell them to watch the daylight and ask them to create a feeling, color and mood in their heads. They spend time in the light lab developing how to talk about light. Our light lab is unique in that it gets used about 80 to 90 hours a week. And there is a 24-hour sign up for set up and then you just go in and work on problems. We have a complete light lab for student use with a wide array of old equipment as well as current gear. Another unique aspect is the fact that it is an open area. It’s in a main traffic area where people come to see what others are doing. The light lab is in constant use by all kinds of people including television and photography students.

And, of course, we teach in there and we constantly have students doing cues. We have them doing cues early on in their program. Because students will be working to set up cues all night and the next day for class, everybody comes by and watches. So all the sets go down in there. It is unique in the fact that it is used so heavily.

What is also unusual about the Madison program is there are a lot of different people in it. I will not deal with just theatre majors. I don’t like people that major in theatre so they can be lighting designers. Every once in a while they get lost and you’ve got to bring them back to graduate school to get their education finished. But generally I prefer to have a lot of artists, scientists, linguists and others from different departments.

"Why are theater majors such a pain in the ass?"

GH: Because their education is all theatre. They haven’t learned about history and art and all that first. You should learn about history and art before you learn about the Greek theatre. They should know about Greek architecture before they start learning about Greek theatre, and they should know about the history of the 19th century before they start reading Bernard Shaw. Most of the people aren’t from the theatre department. There are lots of art and art history people. You never know what they’re going to be like. There’s a sequence in education, and whether it’s formal education or just feeling life, it doesn’t matter; the attitude is the same.

"Do you have any outside interests or hobbies other than theatre and communications?"

GH: Oh yes, cooking. I go home and I relax by cooking. I’m taking off for two days and I’m going home to cook for 50 people. One of the things people do a lot in Madison is get together regularly and prepare meals together, which I find very important. It’s a great time to really meet people. It’s neutral territory and it reduces people to essentials, It eliminates a lot of the bullshit.

"Bon appetit! Thank you!"

(Reprinted from Lighting Dimensions magazine January 1981 and March 1981 issues. Lighting Dimensions articles are courtesy of Live Design magazine and its parent company Prism Business Media.)