Tipton Lights the Night

One of the premier lighting designers, she is known for her sensitivity to the director's and choreographer's vision, and the play's sense of rhythm.

MOST people think of ``diplomacy'' as something that happens between nations. For Jennifer Tipton, it's a crucial element in her approach to producing theater, she says. As one of the world's premier lighting designers in theater and dance, Ms. Tipton places great importance on ``talking things out'' with directors, choreographers, set designers, and stage managers. Tipton's strength as an effective collaborator, not to mention her Tony Award-winning lighting designs, have made her one of the most sought-after designers in theater today.

Does she find it hard to adjust to different directors with their wildly diverging visions and idiosyncrasies?

``No, it's exciting!,'' she exclaims. ``That's what [theater] is about.'' You must ``get inside the head of the people you're working with and see [a production] from their point of view,'' she says.

Tipton was in town recently giving a master class at Northeastern University as part of a United States Institute for Technical Theatre conference. Her solid frame, square face, and heavy black boots created an imposing presence, but the warm smile revealed underlying charm. In an interview she spoke about the improved status of lighting designers.

``It used to be that lighting was done by electricians. It was more or less just turning lights on and off,'' Tipton said. ``I consider Jean Rosenthal, Peggy Clark, and Abe Feder the three who took lighting design out of the hands of the electricians and made it into an art.''

Theater professionals classify Tipton herself as a dynamic force in today's lighting field. Her credits include Tony Awards for lighting designs in ``Jerome Robbins' Broadway'' (1989) and ``The Cherry Orchard'' (1977), a Drama Desk Award and American Theatre Wing Design Award (both 1989), and collaborations with artists such as Philip Glass, Peter Sellars, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Robert Joffrey.

``Whenever I see something lit by Jennifer, I notice a clarity, a sense of rhythm, and an immediacy,'' says modern dancer and choreographer Richard Colton of the Spencer/Colton Performance Ensemble, in Boston. ``It's that sense of the piece being totally available to the audience. It's like it's under a microscope.''

Tipton herself declines to categorize or describe her style.

``I don't think to myself, `Well now, in what style should I do this play?' Instead, I say, `How does this play need to be lit?'''

Whatever she does with the lighting, whether innovative or traditional, ``there needs to be a reason,'' says Tipton, who has been a professor at the Yale University Drama School since 1981. ``It needs to provoke, to stimulate, to make us think. Each time, [you ask yourself] how do you look at the world through the eyes of this production?''

Showcases for her lighting this month are the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of ``Henry IV'' (Parts I and II) (see review to the right), Robert Wilson's ``Parsifal'' in Hamburg, and ``Brace Up,'' presented by the Wooster Group in New York.

``I think she loves directors and actors,'' says JoAnne Akalaitis, director of the ``Henry IV'' plays. ``She's totally willing to be in the flow of where the director's terms are. It doesn't mean she doesn't challenge the director. She does challenge me, and I think that's great,'' Ms. Akalaitis says.

At Northeastern, conference members watched Tipton at work with dancers on stage. She sketched out a lighting plot for their piece called ``Each One and All,'' choreographed by Mr. Colton and Amy Spencer. Colton first got to know Tipton at the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, where he and Amy were dancers and Tipton was lighting designer. He admits Tipton's light is hard to dance in at first.

``Often you can't `feel the floor.' She works with side light so intensely, which becomes very blinding,'' Colton says. ``But then one of us would go out front and watch, and then come backstage and tell everyone: `Listen. Figure out how to dance with this, because it looks amazing.''' Rather than ``flattening out'' the bodies, Titpon's lighting brings out the ``three-dimensional element'' of dance, he says.

In the master class, Tipton often used the word ``sensitivity'' in describing approaches to lighting technique - sensitivity to a choreographer's vision or a play's sense of rhythm.

In the interview, she mentioned seeing a recent performance of Joshua Sobol's play ``Underground'' at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. ``The set is basically white and gray and black. In one corner, there is this amazing color of red. It's like it seeps in somehow. It was extraordinary. I thought to myself, `What if the lighting designer had turned on a red light and made the whole corner red?' I never would have been able to see that.''

Director Akalaitis says one can never underestimate what lighting does. ``The way it enriches the experience of the play is deep and mysterious.''

Adds Tipton: ``Lighting is something we all take for granted. It's something we see by. We don't stop to analyze it or feel how it affects us emotionally or physically.''

A particularly exciting project for Tipton, she says, was doing the lighting for Jean Genet's ``The Screens,'' produced in 1989 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The set featured a large net hung over the stage, forming ``The Land of the Dead.'' In the play, the characters who had been killed appeared in this net, dressed in white. The trick was that ``all the light somehow had to be under the net,'' says Tipton. One element of her design was to have the actors themselves carrying lights and illumi nating one another.

``As I've been known to say,'' asserts Tipton, ``there are no problems, there are only solutions and challenges.''

Tipton will make her directorial debut this fall in the Guthrie Theater's production of Shakespeare's ``The Tempest.''

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