A Look Back at the Work of Jean Rosenthal


Jean Rosenthal.jpg

A recent article on the work of women in the field of lighting design piqued my interest and led me to research the work of Jean Rosenthal, arguably one of the most influential American lighting designers of the 20th century.

She was a pioneer in the field in the 1930s, when lighting was considered nothing more than an adjunct of set design and was usually handled by the electricians.  She was one of the first to recognize and apply effectively the use of strong backlight and sidelight to create specific emotional responses in the audience. Her approach to lighting laid the foundation for all of the building blocks we take for granted today:  strong backs and sides in rich color, box boom washes, rim lighting, and strong diagonal back systems. These were all applied methodically to create a unified approach to lighting the stage. In particular, her long association with Martha Graham led to the development of a system for lighting dance which emphasized the movement of the body through time and space and was highly theatrical and distinct from theater lighting. “To do one or two new works for Martha a year was a part of my life and a renewal of my own interior spirit...Light is quite tactile to me. It has shape and dimension.” Some of her original dance designs are still in the Martha Graham repertory.

She began a working relationship with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater in 1935, and was responsible for lighting most of their major productions throughout the 30’s.  A production of Julius Caesar was an early success and led to her being asked to light on Broadway.  She did the original designs for over 200 shows, including West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly, and Cabaret.  


Some of her light plots and paperwork can be found online and I have included two here, the plot for Julius Caesar and a rep plot for Martha Graham from 1948. As can be seen, she also was instrumental in developing the standards used in drafting plots and paperwork.  In Julius Caesar, for example, the ellipsoidals (Altman 6x9s) are drawn simply as circles while other instruments are drawn as squares (something I’ve done myself when I didn’t have templates or a CAD program).  In the Martha Graham plot, one can see the beginnings of the standard symbols we have today as well as gel colors drawn by each light. I’ve been unable to decipher the numbering systems used, but  I believe they are primarily Roscogel with some early cinemoid. They are referred to in her hookups by color (i.e. yellow, blue, red, etc.) Again, in creating her plots and paperwork, she was laying out the building blocks we use today.  All of these plots and paperwork can be viewed online at lightarchive.org and I strongly suggest that anyone interested in the development of stage lighting take a look at them.

Her thoughts about the nature and use of light itself in dance and theater were also highly developed, and her statements would be familiar to anyone working in the field today when asked to describe what they do.  At the time, they helped substantiate the case for lighting design to be recognized as a separate and unique design element, much in the way that sound designers have fought to be recognized in recent years. “Lighting affects everything light falls upon.  How you see what you see, how you feel about it, and how you hear what you are hearing.” One of her most well-known quotes was to refer to the production process as working for “the happy creative whole” which represented her holistic and collaborative approach to the art of theater, something which is often lacking in today’s money driven field.  “The longer you’re in theater, the more you hate the heroics of individuals and the more you respect people who have a love of the whole.” And a quote that sums up feelings that I’ve often had myself: “I like to think of myself as some of the Scotch tape that holds things together - I’m very handy to have around. But all that actors really need is a bare stage.  Lighting is just one of the luxuries of theater.”

Finally, she was also a pioneer in advocating for women’s rights in the field, mostly by default as she was virtually the only woman working in the area of lighting in the 30’s.  She embraced the challenge of continual sexism by the all male staffs and crews she worked with in the same way as everything else she did in life. She was always courteous to everyone while, at the same time, she reversed gender roles by often referring to her male electricians as “honey” and “darling.”

Her work has been a major influence on all of us, perhaps without our ever knowing it.


Note:  Material for this article came from the Manumit School Blog, Wikipedia, the Jewish Women’s Archive, Northern State University, and The Lighting Archive.