A Life in the Theatre: Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
 
Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.
From Left: Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher
From Left: Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher

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"Our job," lighting designer Jules Fisher says, "is to inhabit the mind of the director, so we can translate the director’s image into a living form onstage, whether or not the director can express that image in words. It’s not always easily translated into language, because light is ephemeral — it floats in the air. Yet we have to make it concrete. Is it midnight? Is it a person coming out a door?"

Fisher has been translating those images for nearly 50 years. Lighting is a crucial element in the magic of theatre, yet it’s perhaps the least noticed. Audiences may ooh at the sets and aah at the costumes, but lighting is intrinsic and subtle. Yet in setting mood and tone, it’s essential.

"The movement of light," says Peggy Eisenhauer, Fisher’s lighting colleague for the last 20 years, "is something we interpret in a visceral way, something that happens below the level of consciousness. We are organic creatures. We process change in light as change in time, and change of perspective, and change of reality."

Fisher and Eisenhauer are among the most honored in their profession. Between them they have 10 Tony Awards and are approaching 30 nominations. Their Broadway credits, individually or together, include last season’s Tony-winning Assassins; Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk; Ragtime; Jelly’s Last Jam; The Will Rogers Follies; Grand Hotel; Dancin’; Pippin; and the original productions of Chicago and La Cage aux Folles. Theirs is a total collaboration. "There is no pride of ownership," Eisenhauer says. "It’s not his or mine. Everything we put out there is instantaneously ours." How did it happen? It goes back to the musical Pippin, more than 30 years ago. But not in the way you’d expect.

Fisher grew up in Norristown, Pennsylvania. "I was an amateur magician, and that introduced me to the glamour of theatre." When he graduated from high school, he got a job in a nearby summer theatre, the Valley Forge Music Fair. "I also loved science and physics, and at Valley Forge, it all came together. I took my scientific interest in light and my interest in magic — which was about entertainment and illusion and make-believe — and combined them." He studied at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh and moved to New York.

"For many years I did Off-Broadway — my first was All the King’s Men at the old Stage 74 on East 74th Street in 1959. Then finally, I got a chance to do Broadway." His first Broadway play was Spoon River Anthology in 1963, at the Booth Theatre. That same season, he lit his first two musicals: Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, and High Spirits, based on Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

Eisenhauer grew up in Nyack, New York. "I thought I wanted to tap dance, so I hung around a community theatre in Nyack, the Elmwood Playhouse, as a helper. Somebody hadn’t shown up. One day, they stuck me on a lighting board. I loved it." In 1972, she went to see Pippin. "I was 13. I was thrilled by the lighting. The lighting designer was Jules Fisher. I knew this was a hero I needed to find out about. I learned he had attended Carnegie Mellon. I applied. And I got in."

In her sophomore year, Fisher spoke on campus. That night, Eisenhauer called her mother and said she had been thrilled to meet him. Her mom wrote a letter to Fisher describing her daughter’s excitement. Fisher replied that he would be happy to help Peggy in New York.

"Jules allowed me to use his name to get a job at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Before long, we started to work together." She began as his assistant, and eventually became his partner. Their first Broadway show was Song and Dance in 1985. "I realized," Fisher says, "that Peggy had talent beyond anyone I had met before. She has this innate musical ability to capture time with light. I realized that all the work I was doing could be that much better if I worked with her."

One reason for their collaborative success, Eisenhauer says, is that "I was formed, in a way, by Jules. Working with him, I learned not just the craft but the art and imperceptible meaning of lighting. I had always been inspired by his work — I’m still inspired by his work. Our sensibilities became fused. Lighting can be lonely. It’s high pressure. And it’s more of a joy to work with someone who really understands it, and can really communicate it."

For Fisher, the prime appeal of his craft, and his art, "is that you can manipulate a medium we live with — light — and reveal a story. You can take a picture or a stage setting or two actors and dialogue, and you add light, which can come from all different directions, and somehow you make the story come alive."

One of their toughest challenges was lighting the 1998 musical Ragtime. "It was a true epic," Fisher says. "The years, the decades, flowed by. The locations change, from a shtetl in Eastern Europe to Harlem to the suburbs of New Rochelle, N.Y. We had to shift between those three very different cultures, and rely on lighting to make the transformation. So we tried to identify those three cultures with three different colors."

When it comes to challenges, they say, there is one they would particularly like to try — the Olympic Games.

"We love scale," Eisenhauer says. "We’re revved up for 2012," when New York City is hoping to host the games. "When things get bigger and bigger and bigger in terms of the scope of the lighting, we start to sense that we become smaller and smaller and smaller. And the idea of harnessing something so large, and of our being so small, is a fascinating challenge."

No one knows whether New York will get the games. But whatever happens, one thing is sure — big or small, Fisher and Eisenhauer can handle it. Together.

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