"Lighting," says Paul Gallo, is "very primal. To all of us, it's the most natural thing, more than we realize. When we're born, the first thing we respond to is light. And when we get up and look outside and it's a sunny day, we don't feel the same as when it's a dark day."
Gallo has been creating those primal images and lighting up Broadway for 27 years. His many credits include The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The House of Blue Leaves, Anything Goes, City of Angels, Six Degrees of Separation, Assassins, Crazy for You, Titanic, Three Days of Rain, Blackbird, the revivals of Guys and Dolls, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Sound of Music, and this season's Mauritius, A Bronx Tale and David Mamet's November. He has received eight Tony nominations, the most recent for Three Days of Rain in 2006.
A Bronx native whose family moved to Washington Heights, Gallo became interested in theatre at an early age. "I remember going with my mom," he says. "And my parents were ballroom dancers, so I was taken to their studio quite often. I was always around that environment." At first, he wanted to be a performer, and he acted in high school — "there was a drama club, there were no theatre classes" — going off to Ithaca College in upstate New York on an acting scholarship.
"But that lasted six months. I spent the rest of my time in the shop, building and designing. I enjoyed tinkering and working backstage. I found that my abilities were more applicable to design, and specifically to lighting. Then one teacher told me that I had talent, and that he was going to help send me to the Yale School of Drama." It was the mid-1970s, and in his class at Yale were Meryl Streep, the playwright Christopher Durang and the designer William Ivey Long. "It was a good time for theatre. Lots of shows were being done, and there was lots of room for newcomers. Within two or three years after graduating I was on Broadway." He was 27, one of the youngest lighting designers to work on the Main Stem. His first Broadway show was Albert Innaurato's Passione, in 1980.
What is it that Gallo loves about the theatre? "It's the magic," he says. "I've tried film and television, and they're both wonderful. But at the end of the day, the director would say, 'That's a wrap,' and I'd feel cold. Because there was no applause. Maybe that's what I love so much — the applause. The ultimate thing is the curtain call. You hear a response, you hear people say, 'That was good.' When I walk into the theatre, whether it's a new theatre or an old one, there's that smell of the live stage. And the skin on the back of my neck bristles with excitement."
It's the live nature of lighting that he also finds most appealing. "It's an intangible art form," he says. "It's kind of a mystery. It's not the fancy lighting instruments, the computers, the electrical elements. In the end it comes down to the magic in the air — the curtain goes up and there's a certain sense of illusion, a suspension of disbelief. In the first few seconds, I need to take the audience away from their seats and say to them, 'All right, you're here, in this different world, now.' Usually the first and last moments are the most important."
His goal, he says, "is to find a visual metaphor in lighting for the playwright and the director. Yes, it's day, or it's night, that's easy. But I have to convey what the playwright and director are trying to say. It starts with the script, and it takes a lot of planning — renting and bringing in millions of dollars worth of equipment, and drawing up actual architectural plans. But the final part — and for me, it's the best — has to be done live, on the stage, during rehearsals, with the actors and the director all there. It can't be done in advance. And it's the most intense. You walk in that first day, all the equipment is there, and you are designing in front of everyone. I love that pressure. I love that intensity."
November is his 48th Broadway show. "If I reach No. 50," he says, "it will be a landmark. Fifty means something to me. It's like hitting 500 home runs. It's not the most, but it's something."
His ultimate goal, he says, is simple. "It's to keep on working. My life is in the theatre, and I want to stay here."