Lighting Designer Reflects: Part 1 of 2

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lighting design“I think the performing arts should move the audience to think differently or see the world in a different way,” says lighting designer Robert Wierzel, who has achieved acclaim for his work in theatre, dance, opera, music and museums.

“Art should express the times in which it was created.”

He believes the performing arts are unlike a painting, sculpture, or even today’s video arts, which represent a moment in time, whether 300 years ago or last week.

“You can admire those in a museum and see how they reflected their era; they might even spark a larger dialogue,” Wierzel explains. “But a performing arts experience lives in the moment – in context and space – and then it’s gone.”

Childhood Memories. Wierzel grew up on Staten Island in New York City, which he recalls as rather rural at the time. His father was a policeman and his mother was a housewife; he had one brother and two sisters.

“We rarely went into Manhattan, but when I was 7 or 8, our family attended a Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall,” Wierzel recalls. “I had led a very sheltered life and that whole theatrical event was stunning…very eye-opening.”

Several years later, Wierzel’s eyes were opened again when he accompanied his father and brother to the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” at a majestic Loews movie house in Manhattan. “To see the movie on such a huge scale, with all that wonderful music, was just amazing to me.” Wierzel traces his ongoing interest in science fiction to that experience.

Dramatic Move. When he was 16, Wierzel’s family relocated to New Port Richey, Florida. He loved learning and credits his English teacher, Mr. Hicks, for altering his life’s direction.

“It was a classic example of one teacher in the right place at the right time,” Wierzel notes. Hicks created a drama club and Greek mythology class to interest some of his students. Wierzel’s first acting role was playing Shrdlu in “The Adding Machine” by Elmer Rice.

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One day after school, when Wierzel and his friends were bored and walking around town, they saw poster advertising the play “Dracula” at a local theater. Curious, and without other entertainment options, they attended.

“It was a hokey production but I was still fascinated,” remembers Wierzel. “My friends and I laughed during parts that weren’t supposed to be funny.” Older patrons told them to be quiet; eventually Wierzel and his friends left. The teenagers had discovered the Richey Suncoast Theatre, a community theater operating inside a building that traced its roots to 1926 and the end of the silent movie era.

Arts Awareness. After ‘Dracula’ Wierzel investigated RST and soon became involved. “It was a wonderful experience, with the family atmosphere and camaraderie of working together to put on a play.” Offering to help wherever needed, Wierzel was steered toward lighting; he was 17. “I became the lighting guy, learning through trial and error.” Eventually Wierzel even joined RST’s board, as its youngest member.

During this time, Wierzel recalls a memorable experience in his career path, described here in excerpts from a 2015 blog by the Atlanta Opera:

One day I remember coming home from school to make lunch, I turned on our small, black & white TV as background noise. The only station we received was the local PBS station and…”Dance in America” was on. Valery and Galina Panov, the Russian dance couple, were in concert. The announcer stated that they would be performing the grande pas de deux from “The Nutcracker.” Well, for me, I had no idea what a pas de deux was. In fact, I did not know what “The Nutcracker” was either. However, I just continued to make my lunch. Then this beautiful music began. They started to dance; it began to pull my focus. I had never seen or experienced such striking physicality, strength and artistry. It was completely outside my frame of reference. I found myself transfixed…focused on this small image on the TV. As the duet ended, it literally took my breath away. I remember standing there dazed, and somehow, I thought, “Whatever that is, that’s what I want to do.” I see that experience as the moment I decided to become a theatre artist and designer. 

At this time, Wierzel recalls making an immediate, completely non-verbal connection between the visual spectacle of ‘The Nutcracker’ and his emotional self. At RST, he was also touched by the messages in some musicals he worked on, including “Gypsy” and “Carnival.”

Educational Trajectory. When Wierzel’s friends suggested he study theatre in college, the idea of a theatre profession was new to him. After a year attending junior college and a year working, Wierzel enrolled at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa to study theatre.

At USF he discovered the vocabulary for equipment he had used for years at RST – words like “Fresnel” and “ellipsoidal” His interest in a performing arts career blossomed.

During his college years, Wierzel worked as a waiter and in a metal shop; he considers those jobs great life lessons. “Needing to earn money put my passion for the performing arts on hold, but also strengthened my drive to follow that passion,” he states.

Friends again encouraged him to chart an unconsidered path – to graduate school. Wierzel applied to several programs and still recalls his surprise at receiving his Yale School of Drama acceptance letter. “I was stunned; I spent my first semester thinking they had made a mistake and would discover it any day.”

Wierzel was one of the first two lighting design students for Jennifer Tipton, who was starting her Yale career. To this day, Wierzel considers Tipton an important mentor and he returns to Yale as a guest lecturer.

“I’ll always have a warm spot for Jennifer and Yale in my heart,” Wierzel notes. “Those were intense, formative years.” Yale had a small, tightknit drama program with approximately 15 students across all disciplines.

Opening Doors. Wierzel believes he’s in the theatre today to give others the same experience he had watching ‘The Nutcracker’ as a teenager. “In the performing arts, we’re striving to create an intense, direct connection that makes the audience think in a completely different way,” he comments.

For each of us, Wierzel believes our own life is like a hallway we must walk down. “For young people especially, the performing arts can open a door to something they would have never thought or experienced before,” he concludes. “I intensely believe this is a vital experience, especially given how dysfunctional our world can be.”

Next week: Wierzel describes how the performing arts tap our human desire for shared experiences and the importance of giving back.

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