TCG National Conference 2001

JENNIFER TIPTON
Keynote Speech
June 20, 2001



Photo by Mark Garvin


It is my honor and pleasure to be here. Thank you, Ben. Thank you, TCG. Thank you everyone for indulging. It's terrific that the conference is in Philadelphia, because in the sixties Philadelphia was one of the first places that I worked as a stage manager at the Pennsylvania Ballet, at the Academy, at the Walnut Street Theatre, and many theatres in Philadelphia. So it feels like home.
I found it interesting that I was asked to come to you and to begin this wonderful five days of talking about what theatre can mean in the 21st century, what theatre can mean right now, today. In forty years of being in the profession, in this wonderful world of theatre, I've seen some pretty great changes, and I wanted to talk about them a bit. I hope it's not too slanted toward lighting for you, because that's what I do, of course. I am a lighting designer, so I will talk about lights, but hopefully other things as well.


My parents were scientists. My father was a zoologist and my mother was a physicist. So in my early life, there was definitely an outreach toward scientific things. I would sort of go back and forth. One year I would want to be a zoologist of some kind, and the next year I would want to be a physicist of some kind. I started dancing at the age of twelve and I did theatre the whole time I was in high school, so there was also the balance of art and science. As a senior in high school, I got an award from the National Science Foundation for measuring alpha particles in a medium. My interests were divided from the beginning and I had to find a way to bring them together.


I went off to Cornell University to major in physics. I wanted to be the first person on the moon. My mother, however, said that my application made it seem like Cornell was a dance school. I discovered once I got there, that I was much more interested in the arts than I’d realized. Cornell moved me into the 20th century aesthetically. Both my parents had fairly Victorian tastes in art, Wagner and Thackeray, Dickens and such. It was at Cornell that I discovered Bartok and Franz Klein which moved me into the 20th century in the middle of the 20th century.


After college, I decided that I wanted to be a dancer, so I came to New York, and sort of fell into it. I was rehearsal director for the Merry Go Rounders and had to watch performances so that I could critique the dancers. Something happened there that has stood me in good stead throughout my life, and that is, I began to look at the larger picture. The larger picture included the space that the dancers were dancing in, which was determined and controlled by the light. So I fell madly in love with light and proceeded to become a stage manager.


But that was the way I could get into this world. I worked with Thomas Skelton, who was a wonderful lighting designer and a wonderful, wonderful teacher, and I did things for him like count cues. Cues happen over 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 5 seconds, 1 second. He suggested that I count them backwards so that I would remember where I was going, or, rather, I didn't have to remember where I was going. I'd always come to zero.


I'll never forget the time when he first said to me, "So why don't you now phrase it." I learned I had the power, through my voice, to control the light. I had the power to speed up and slow down the handles that controlled the light, and that, to me, was quite extraordinary–to be able to have the light flow with the dancers.


Another thing that I began to really appreciate was language. To this day I cannot speak another language; however, I went off on tour with the Paul Taylor Dance Company throughout the world, using these ancient control boards and calling cues for crews in all of these countries who did not speak my language. So I would learn how to at least count backwards and now I can count backwards in practically every language in the world. Creativity really somehow begins with language. Through having a foreign language in my mouth, I began to learn the connection between the brain and what we do.


So I then went off for about seven years touring around the world with Paul Taylor, and it was a fabulous learning experience. In fact, one of the first things that ever happened with Paul was that he was doing a piece in a fashion show in New York I went off to the performance site and there was an older man there setting the lights. I went up to him and said, "We're going to need this and this and this," and he showed me what he had. For back light, there were three instruments that gave a pool of light about three feet wide so I began to lecture him at great length about how dance needs to be lit from the front and the side and the back, and the back needs to cover the whole space, etc., etc. As it turned out, I had been talking to one of the foremost innovators of light in the 20th century in the American theatre, Abe Fader. So that's how I cut my teeth on technology. I certainly learned from that, that the equipment doesn't always do for us what we want it to do.


Another incident that happened with the Paul Taylor Company–I was in Madras, India, and we went and worked in this antique-type theatre. The production manager came and asked me how many dimmers I wanted. I said, "Thirty-six." And he went off. Two hours later he came up to me again and said, "How many dimmers do you want?" And I said, "Twenty-four?" And he sighed and ran off. Some hours later he came back with twelve saltwater dimmers.


A saltwater dimmer, for those of you who don't know, is a big canister of saltwater with a cathode that is lowered into it. The lower it gets the more electricity runs through it, so the brighter the light is. The trouble is, it takes one arm to operate this. So with these twelve saltwater dimmers, we needed six people to run them. It turned out that the six people he managed to pull together all spoke different dialects. I was like a conductor, beating the counts and they were turning.


Also that day–it was really quite an antique theatre–we had to hang the lights on the pipe with coat hangers, and it turned out that the front curtain was on a traveler track, but it was silk, so it billowed. We would open the curtain and the lights would swing, and the electricians would turn the dimmers. It was quite a remarkable experience. I look back on that now, here in the 21st century, and think of what a span my life has covered.


At about that same time, this is in the sixties when I was traveling with the Limon Company to Asia, I saw the Kabuki Theatre. I invested a day, as you did if you were Japanese. You went at ten o'clock in the morning and stayed till ten o'clock at night, which was a short performance because it used to be that they went on for days and days. At this performance the early morning started with the old traditional Kabuki, and it went on into the afternoon and into the evening with more and more modern work. I was fascinated to find that I understood everything that was going on in the morning, with the great stylization and abstraction of the old traditional way. As the day went on, I understood less and less and less, until at one point in the afternoon, suddenly, I realized that everybody around me was sobbing, and I hadn't a clue. I learned from this that a great deal can come from form. A great deal can come from stylization. A great deal of information and communication can come from abstraction.


When I was first faced with the computer, I still counted cues and I had a very sort of symbiotic relationship with the light hitting the dancer, I was really very nervous about giving up that control. What I discovered, of course, with the computers, is that having it happen exactly the same way every time, was very reassuring.


The computer that controlled this board has developed over my lifetime, too. When I went to teach at Yale, there was a board called the Wizard. Great name, but it had a baby brain. It could not cope with huge ideas, it was practically useless for putting light on stage. If you pushed it too far, it would give up and go backwards. Sometimes you do have to wait until the technology has arrived at the moment when it is useful.


Now computers allow me to make light in real time, and that is a godsend. I remember sitting up all night with the director and the set designer and the stage manager on the stage, with the costumes draped over, and wandering around till two and three in the morning, taking an hour to set a cue that we were only looking at for ten minutes, and not really knowing at that point that the eye, after ten minutes, doesn't see the same thing anymore. If you sit for an hour in a cue, you're not seeing it the right way anyway. So technology enables me to put the light where it has to be when it has to be there. It is a great feeling. And you can only do that with computers.


There's also, of course, been a lot of change with lights and with color. When I first began, I remember one of the first performances I did was at the Studebaker Theatre in Chicago. The Paul Taylor Company performed in a blizzard. I think it was in 1963 or maybe even '62. We did a piece called "Oreo". The Taylor Company has subsequently revived that piece, "Oreo," and I put in the lights the colors that we used then, because it wasn’t my design. It's just unimaginable what it must have looked like, because the colors that I put in took away so much light, and the lights now are so much brighter than they were then. Colors have gotten less and less saturated and our eye has gotten used to a lot more light.


As a matter of fact, Sir Laurence Olivier has said that if you can't see, you can't hear. Just like music has gotten louder and louder and the lights have gotten brighter and brighter so that we can perceive. It is impossible to go back now to doing performances with candlelight. I've tried it a couple of times, and it's unimaginable that whole evenings happened in just a little bit of candlelight.


Technology is a tool, so the technology itself has to be crystal clear so that you see through it into what you're doing, into the design, into the art. I began lighting and here was all this dirty stuff, all these cables that had to be wound up or unwound and plugged in here and plugged in there, and all these lights that had to be hung up and taken down, and all of these things that burned my hands, cut my hands. There was all of this stuff that got in the way of what I was doing. Now all that stuff to me is crystal clear. It's no longer a problem. I see through it to what I'm doing, and it seems to me that that has to be the way that we treat technology, that we become so adept at it that it's second nature and we see through it to what we're doing, that it becomes the tool that it needs to be.


As I've told you, my mother was a physicist, and on her deathbed we were having a discussion about Einstein, and I said, "But certainly there are things that are true, right? There are things that are true." And she said, "No, no, no. Truth is the best description of the universe that we have right now."


And what I have learned is that written history is the accumulated memory of the number of people who were consulted by the person who wrote the history. The great thing about theatre, is that it is a group of people who come together in a single room and image each other, observe or act, but something happens, and that it expands, because each person in the room goes away with a memory of what has happened, and it's as rich as there are people in the room. I call theatre "the dirty art," because it's a collaboration and the audience is part of that collaboration and part of that memory.


So it really is about how we use the technology to tell our stories. And I always think that in theatre, there are really three stories: there's the story of the playwright, there's the story of the production, and then there's my story. When I think of it as my story, it tells me that it needs to be complex, it needs to be all-encompassing. It needs to be this side and the other side at the same time. It needs to be contradictory. It needs to be ornery. It needs to reflect us as human beings. It seems to me that technology, the use of video, the use of whatever techniques we can find to tell our story, is all to the good. I mean, you're making a life, not just art. You're making a life in art. You do have to have the time to think. It does allow us to do a lot more than we used to do. Every day, it seems to me, we go faster and faster. We're inching our way toward the speed of light. As you get closer to the speed of light, you get heavier and heavier. You get more and more massive. What is that weight? Is that content? I certainly hope so.


We human beings dreamed up black holes, and, lo and behold, they exist. We devised virtual reality just to discover that all reality is virtual. And what that leads me to imagine is that there are ways to put universes on stage that will ever expand our vision and ever inform us about ourselves.


Thank you very much.



© - 2001 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.


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