Frank A. Florentine: Master of Shadows and Light, Part 1

The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell. It is the first of two posts on lighting designer Frank A. Florentine.

On December 7, 2020, the Music Division of the Library of Congress received ten containers from Frank A. Florentine containing more than 4,000 items pertaining to performances of the Russian dance legends Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev. From looking over the material, it was immediately clear that the donor was no mere spectator, but a participant who was intimately involved with the productions in which these iconic dancers captivated the world. The boxes contained light plots, stage renderings, design templates, and photographs illustrating a storied career that has spanned nearly five decades.

Color photograph of Florentine seated at makeshift table on theatre stage.

Unidentified photographer. Frank Florentine at work on Don Quixote with Rudolf Nureyev, Teatro Juárez, Guanajuato, Mexico, April 25, 1982. Frank A. Florentine Papers relating to Rudolf Nureyev, Music Division.

Lauded by Kris Marek, the Director of Oklahoma State Parks, as “one of the most renowned resources for lighting design,”[1] Frank Anthony Florentine is a veritable master of his craft who has illuminated everything from the Wright Brothers’ airplane at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where he was a lighting designer for twenty-five years, to the 270-million-year-old Alabaster Caverns in western Oklahoma.  Florentine is a local specialist, hailing from Cumberland, Maryland, who gained exposure to the world of theatrical luminescence in his hometown’s now-demolished Strand Theatre, of which his father was a manager.

“I saw from my earliest days how lighting influences what you see and how it influences the telling of a story,” Florentine said of his adolescent introduction to the stagecraft. “Lighting is alive.” He went on to explain that his interest in entertainment technology was not only fostered in the public arena, but in a private one as well. “My dad built a stage in our basement, and my sister and I did shows for the kids in the neighborhood. And I involved lighting from the beginning.”[2]

Even though Florentine would graduate from Frostburg State University with a bachelor’s degree in drama, it wasn’t until he saw the musical 1776 that the realm of lighting went from being an interest to a destination and a calling. At the time he attended the touring Broadway show, Florentine was a photojournalist for the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed in St. Louis, Missouri. So impressed was he with the artistry of legendary lighting designer Thomas Skelton, that he promised himself that very night that he would follow in Skelton’s footsteps, rather than pursue a career in journalism. Consequently, when the Coast Guard transferred him to Florida in late 1971, Florentine worked as a lighting designer for the Players Theatre in Miami during his off-duty time.

After obtaining a master’s degree in fine arts for theatrical production and lighting design from George Washington University in 1975, Florentine worked at several local venues over the next decade, including George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium and the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington, D.C., and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (previously Wolf Trap Farm Park) in Vienna, Virginia. During this period, he was also the production manager and lighting designer for the Washington Ballet. Included in Florentine’s donation to the Library of Congress are ground plans of Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House and the recently-razed Morris A. Mechanic Theatre where the Washington Ballet performed The Nutcracker and where Florentine returned in 1988 for the gala tribute Nureyev and Friends. Ground plans offer designers a bird’s eye view of the stage and aid their ability to plan equipment settings and positions, amongst other things. The documents from the Washington Ballet’s productions were hand-drawn by Florentine in the days before computer-aided design (CAD) systems were available.

Showing lighting specs, mobile set pieces, and storage.

Portion of ground plan drawing by Frank A. Florentine for the Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker, Lyric Opera House, Baltimore, MD, October 1986. Florentine Papers relating to Rudolf Nureyev, Music Division.

Before retiring in 2019, Florentine’s career extended beyond hometown establishments to international venues and even those outside the theatrical world. Whether on a 65,000-mile worldwide tour with Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote, illuminating museum exhibits on the eastern coast of the United States, or lighting caves in the American Southwest, Florentine embraced each opportunity and rose to the occasion every time. His gift to the Music Division contains several mementos from his travels, including programs, plane tickets, journal notebooks, and the briefcase which he used during Nureyev’s tour. Ultimately, no matter what or where his assignment, Florentine’s lighting design philosophy remained the same: “just a drop of light can create magic.”

 

[1]Clark, Keli. “Caverns’ New Upgrade Illuminating.” The Oklahoman, 7 November 2004.

[2] From emailed correspondence between Frank Florentine and Pam Murrell, August 2021.

 

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