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Insights Interview with Beverly Emmons, Lighting Design Preservation Innovator

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The following is a guest post from Barbara Taranto, Digital Program Director at New York Public Library.

In this installment of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Insights interview series, I interview lighting designer Beverly Emmons.  Emmons has designed for Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, dance and opera both in the U.S. and abroad. For more background on Emmons see her bio on American Theater Wing.

Barbara Emmons
Beverly Emmons

From 2005-2007 I worked with Emmons on what eventually became a breakthrough website for the lighting design community. Emmons kindly consented to be interviewed about her experiences in lighting design preservation. What follows is paraphrased from the actual transcript.

BT: Can you give me some background on why lighting design documentation and preservation is so important?

BE: Well, for lots of reasons. But largely because American lighting design is documented – there is paper. I sometimes get angry emails from the U.K. stating that lighting design is three thousand years old. How can I claim it to be American? Why do I think American commercial theater so unique?  The answer is simple: when you are in a Broadway theater you have a floor, grid, curtain and seats. Everything you need for that unique production comes in the door–all the equipment, all the lamps, etc. We only do one production at a time. They are unique events.

In the U.S. we do soup to nuts. It’s not like the opera world where they having “rolling-rep” – use the same equipment and setting and readjust per production. It’s not fluid. It’s not innovative either in equipment or aesthetics.

In fact, Richard Pilbrow of the U.K. wrote a book Theatre Projects where he talks about seeing a scale drawing from the 1952 Wonderful Town production. His conclusion: “What a good idea!” How about planning it.”

What makes American commercial theatre unique is American planning and American producing, all of which is based on documents.

BT: So what brought you to the NYPL?

BE: I was well aware that the paper archives of many important American lighting designers had been acquired by the New York Public, Library Billy Rose Theatre Division. These papers included business records and ephemera, but more importantly they included pre-production documents and drawings.  The resulting documents related to the creation of the shows in the theater:

  • Focus charts (notes on where to aim the light; shape of the light where it lands)
  • Cue sheets (list of events, the moment-by-moment look of the show,  i.e. “curtain goes up and it’s blue; fade to green over the guys head”)
  • Magic sheets (invented by Thomas Skelton; cheat sheet for the designer to quickly access the channel numbers to design the cues – so it may take several actions to get the cue to look right–painting real objects such as people and scenery while in action)
Lucinda Childs Dance- Photo by Sally Cohn
Lucinda Childs Dance- Photo by Sally Cohn

Since no single piece of paper contains all the information necessary to reproduce the show I believed that detailed descriptions were necessary if these items were to be discoverable and usable by students and working professionals, now and in the future. By careful study of these papers the lighting for these shows can actually be reproduced. If they are not preserved, this will vanish.

BT: Yes, that’s true but you can always go to the library and request the materials. Did you want to do something else with them?

BE: Because the papers are critical to archiving and preservation of lighting design, in 2003 I proposed to catalog (item level) the lighting documents and drawings from the Tharon Musser, Jules Fisher and Richard Nelson papers. I knew that digital access was very important and that the only reasonable way to make them broadly accessible was on the web.

I created my own metadata catalog that was eventually used to describe the non-business records for the Richard Nelson finding aid.

In 2005 with the aid of a grant from New York State Council for the Arts, the Library digitized over 1000 items and began work on creating a website to host and showcase the collections. With my colleague, Vivian Leone (associate on many shows including Spiderman) we worked collaboratively with the developers at NYPL to create a prototype we felt would be useful and usable for the professional lighting community and for all the students who desperately need access to these research materials.

BT: Do you consider web access cutting edge preservation? Or am I missing something?

BE: Well, a website alone is not preservation. But we were able to make inroads in a lot of different areas. By creating items level records we will be able to find important documents in the future. By digitizing the items we were able to create digital masters that will be fed and watered. But most importantly, because of this project, I got the buy-in from some important folks in the community. I was able to provide video clips and obtain rights for related items–production posters for example. And the Tony nominated speech and the ground plans for productions that were encumbered. It became a very multi-disciplinary activity.

All these rights issues are critical to preservation. We not only need to document the events but the related intellectual property. This lets us push and request more access. The more success we have the more the community will agree to participate the corpus will get bigger.


BT: How did the general theater community receive this?

BE: They were wild for it. Want more. “Where’s dance?” they asked.

BT: Have you been able to continue your work with NYPL?

BE: In the last few years I have continued to work on the project and I have a new website, I first started working with a Tisch grad that did a basic design for the site.

I have been supported by two grants: $15K for 3 years – ETC, a lighting equipment manufacturer, and $15K for 3 years as well from a private source – a lighting designer who studied with Gilbert Hemsley at Madison UW.

BT: What about future preservation activities?

BE: I am really focused on changing technology. Ken Billington–of Sweeny Todd and Tharon Musser’s A Chorus Line— brought computer control to lighting design. Prior to that you could not have more than 300 lights on a show that requires three full time techs to run show. Once you have a computer you got one guy.

Since that time there are shows with 500 convention lights / 100 moving lights. Each one has 72 decisions to make.  On Spiderman they have 8000 pluggable lighting devices to maintain.

These productions are entirely managed and controlled through the use of computers and the documentation is electronic. A hundred years from now the papers are incomprehensible. We need deep linked data.  I am interested in how to document the new way of doing things, because papers produced by the output of the consoles are voluminous and almost meaningless–they are just a bunch of numbers.

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