“Light trails paradoxes, among them this one: that light is not visible until it reveals something, but in dance, it is light that creates a sense of space out of emptiness. If dance is to theater what poetry is to literature, then light may be the haiku of dance poetics.”
– Jean Rosenthal
This excerpt from a New York Times article written twenty years ago still rings true. How much do audiences take for granted the special effects that happen on a Broadway stage or a performance that involves special lighting? Perhaps it’s because the lighting is seen and not heard.
But until Jean Rosenthal’s electric insights permeated stage productions across New York in the 1930s, producers in theater and dance paid little attention to the sweeping ways that light could enhance character performances, plot designs, and audience impact. Jean invented stage lighting as a separate role in stage and theater productions.
Yet, Jean’s foray into the theater was an unlikely one. Born in New York City on March 16th, 1912 as Eugenia Rosenthal, Jean was the daughter of two Romanian Jewish immigrants who were both doctors. Growing up, Jean was attracted to theater and hoped to become an actor and dancer on stage. She studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse at Yale University just as the Depression hit in 1929 and soon found her place as a technical assistant to Martha Graham.
Martha was a member of the school’s dance faculty and admired dancer and choreographer. Martha would go on to serve as a cultural ambassador to President Roosevelt, performing at the White House in 1938 where she received the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is the highest distinction awarded to civilians for their service to national interests, world peace, and culture.
This meeting would be Jean’s foray into stage productions and a thirty-year career that spanned from 1936 to her death in 1969.
Jean became a much sought-after designer in stage lighting and a trailblazer in the industry for her ideas and the integral way she incorporated lighting into each production.
Before Jean, lighting production was simply handled by an electrician. At first, Jean’s role was seen simply as an “electrician with notions.”
But the impact of Jean’s lighting designs for Martha changed the industry. They were included in numerous New York shows – the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera Company.
“On Broadway, Jean produced the lighting for musicals such as West Side Story (1957), The Sound of Music (1959), Take Me Along (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Hello, Dolly! (1964), Cabaret (1966), and The Happy Time (1968).”
Over the course of her career, Jean focused on ways to eliminate shadows with the use of floodlights, placing them in various positions and locations around the theater. By controlling the angles and varying their diffusion, lights were more than a prop for Jean. Her designs enhanced the theatrical effects of dancers on stage and elevated the story.
Jean knew the power of her work. She was known to have said,
”Dancers live in the light as fish live in water. The stage space in which they move is their aquarium, their portion of the sea. Within translucent walls and above the stage floor, the lighting supports their flashing buoyancy or their arrested sculptural bodies. The dance is fluid and never static, as natural light is fluid and never static.”
In 1958, Jean created a theatrical consulting firm that soon expanded her influence beyond the New York area. She became a frequent speaker, lecturing on theatrical lighting and set designs, and set about recording her ideas, works, and philosophy in a book.
Unfortunately, Jean’s work was in such demand that she had little time to assemble her insights. It was only with the help of Lael Wertenbaker that Jean’s book was eventually published. The Magic of Light: The Craft and Career of Jean Rosenthal, Pioneer in Lighting for the Modern Stage was published posthumously in 1972, three years after Jean lost her bout with cancer and died in 1969.
What’s remarkable is how many of Jean’s designs are still used today. Shakespearean companies, the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, and the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy B. Chandler Pavilion all use updated modern equipment. But Jean’s concepts, special treatments, and cue placement principles remain.
(Photo credit: Getty Images)
The Magic of Light chronicles Jean’s autobiography and the history of lighting for plays, musicals, operas, and a production house.
There are also samples of Rosenthal’s paperwork which detail things like light plots, hookups and focus charts.
In all, her orchestrated designs help designers to appreciate the critical artistry that brings a stage to life, and Jean’s work remains an eternal vessel for light.