ARTICLE BY MARCUS DILLIARD
A case can easily be made that Marcus Dilliard has been the most influential lighting designer in our community for almost 30 years. From his work as Lighting Director and designer at the Guthrie in the 1980s and 90s, to his artistic relationship with Theatre Jeune Lune (which continues today with The Moving Company) he has been an inspiration to all of us and we have all learned from his dedication to professionalism, integrity, and precision. He continues today as a professor of lighting design at the University, training the next generation of designers. - Mike Wangen
About that 25 year collaboration with Dominique Serrand…
Sometime in the Guthrie’s 1992 season, I realized that it was time for me to make a change. I had been at the Guthrie for 8 years, had designed far more Guthrie productions than I had ever hoped for and was beginning to build a freelance career. It was modest but it was enough to let me know that I enjoyed the freelance lifestyle more than I enjoyed ordering lamps and gel. It was the phone call from a stage manager (whose name I fortunately no longer remember) telling me that work lights had burned out at the Lab that finally pushed me out the Guthrie’s stage door. (The fact that my daughters were very young was also a major factor in the decision to leave. They will tell you that, even after leaving the Guthrie, I was “never home” but I have the tax returns to prove that I was making peanuts for most of the ‘90’s and was, in fact, home far more often than I wasn’t.)
So after a difficult conversation with Garland about my frustrations as a Guthrie staff member (believe it or not, I was once much younger and far more convinced of my own wisdom and overall theatrical insights than I am now), it was determined that I would leave after the 1993 summer rep season opened. I still marvel at what a gift that third production of the 1993 summer season turned out to be. Garland had decided that it was time for Dominique Serrand, one of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s four artistic directors, to make his Guthrie debut. The play was The Triumph of Love, by Pierre de Marivaux. It was to run in rep with Too Clever by Half and Naga Mandala, both directed by Garland.
The Guthrie never shied away from challenging rep schedules and this was no exception. The scenic designers for Triumph were David and Wendy Coggins; their design was huge and stunning. David, a wonderfully talented studio artist, essentially created a painting the size of the Guthrie thrust’s “proscenium” opening. That painting was then sliced into vertical strips, which tracked back and forth. There was a copper stream and a deep pool of water from which a countertenor emerged. In case all of this wasn’t enough of a statement, the thrust itself was covered with sod. Yes, real, live grass, that spent its days off in palettes on the loading dock, soaking up some sun.
I share all of this to make clear just how new and different this experience was to be, for me as well as for the rest of the production staff. We had realized some some pretty amazing designs under the leadership of Liviu and then Garland, but this one felt different. It turned out that the difference was in the way Dominique approached the work.
It’s a tricky thing to write about a director who, fortunately, is still with us and who, even more fortunately, is still a friend and colleague. There are some things I know for sure and some that I can only guess at: Dominique was trained as an actor, director, and designer. He grew up and studied in France, which is where Theatre de la Jeune Lune was born. In order to understand Dominique and his work, you need to know a little bit about Jeune Lune, a theater company unlike any other. This is from Wikipedia: Theatre de la Jeune Lune (French for Theater of the New Moon) was founded in France in 1978 by Dominique Serrand, Vincent Gracieux and Barbra Berlovitz, who were later joined by Robert Rosen, all graduates of the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Actors Steven Epp and Felicity Jones joined Jeune Lune in 1983… Serrand recalls starting the company as being ‘complete chaos, and that's what was great... We wanted to change theater but we didn't have a clue how to do it.’ ”
Contained in that quote is the essence of Jeune Lune… and perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned in my time with that company – you must reserve, in fact you must claim, the right to fail. They were fearless. I wish that I could say the same about my first day of tech for Triumph. I was in a theater that I knew very well but nothing was feeling the least bit familiar. Dominique and I had had good conversations about the kind of lightning that we thought might be appropriate for the show. But talking about lighting is, in my opinion, like talking about sex. It’s interesting for a few minutes but soon pales in comparison to actually doing it.
So it shouldn’t have surprised me that I was dissatisfied with every lighting idea I tried for the first two hours of tech. When lighting for Garland, the desire was to get it right the first time. That was not the case with Dominique. My most vivid memory of that process is that first day, when I took off my headset and just sat in aisle 7 with Dominique and confessed my frustration with my choices. Dominique was incredibly patient as we worked through the ideas. He saw no reason for it to be right the first time – where was the process of discovery in that? He did not fear the chaos that is every first tech rehearsal in the history of live performance.
Twenty-five years later, that is still true. The process of discovery continues and the right to fail remains intact. And I love the chaos of tech rehearsals. That first collaboration led to many, many others with Dominique, some of which are defining moments in my career. Jeune Lune’s productions of operas were insightful in ways that rivaled any regional opera company. I remember standing next to Dominique during the first preview of Cosi fan Tutte. The lighting for that one was a bit of an improvisation (there was never, ever, enough gear at Jenue Lune) and quite honestly took me by surprise; I did not expect it to turn out to be one of my better designs. I turned to Dominique and said something like “This is so beautiful. How do we top this one? What do we do next?” In other words, do we quit while we’re ahead? He gave me a baffled look and said simply “We just keep going.”
The transition from the Guthrie, a text-based, incredibly well-resourced company with an emphasis on the classics, to Jeune Lune, a relatively modest company with an emphasis on devised work, was fascinating, to say the least. The tech process was different – no ten-out-of twelves, no formal tech process, no stage manager to call cues, no electricians on call… it was all different. Jeune Lune is where I discovered my career-saving question: if I only had one light to light this scene, where should that light be? …because I often had only one light to light a scene. What had been a system of 31 back lights or side lights at the Guthrie became a single 5kw Fresnel.
Tech at the Guthrie was precise, intentional, and often tense. Tech at Jeune Lune was relaxed, to say the least. I was once asked to describe the process and the best I could do was this: it was like watching a flock of birds. They would be milling around on the ground, pecking away at this or that. Then, when they were ready, they would all take flight. Often, the flight was beautiful and graceful. Occasionally, the flock would fly into one of the theater’s walls and fall, stunned, back to earth. But there was always another flight and each flight might have a different leader.
I knew I wanted to be a part of that company when, in 1992, during the intermission of Children of Paradise in the company’s new home, Dominique appeared behind the concession counter to serve drinks. Jeune Lune was, as one former board member lovingly described them, a “bunch of Commies.” Collaboration was everything because without everyone pitching in, the work would simply not get done. I wanted to be part of that. Collaboration demands trust and for a lighting designer, whose entire career is spent in tech rehearsals, trust is everything.
I learned a great deal about my own process while working with Jeune Lune because there was time to learn. Life at the Guthrie, under Garland, was all about Garland’s process. As processes go, I could have done a lot worse, so I’m not complaining. But with Dominique and Jeune Lune, there was time. The work took the time that it needed. Once, during a tech rehearsal, Dominique was asked (by an actor) if he was bothered by the fact that I wasn’t lighting a particular scene. I had stopped working and was watching, but not writing cues. Dominique responded with “No, it just means that the scene isn’t ready. He’ll light it when we’ve finished it.”
With Garland I learned how light lives within a strong theatrical vision. With Dominique I learned how I live within a strong theatrical vision. Only in the Twin Cities have such things been possible. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Pangloss, this really has been the best of all possible worlds. May that continue to be true for all of us.