The Department of Theatre Arts office is an interesting place. It’s not like most academic offices that I have visited on-campus that feel very cold and not personable. Students and faculty mill in and out comfortably and the administrative assistant knows them all on a first name basis. Upon entering, you get the sense that the Theatre Department is more than just a place for students to hone their craft, but it also has become a surrogate family for them.
I was there that day to interview Lighting Designer and Professor (of whom I’m a former student) Jay Herzog for our Campus Celebrity column. Jay greeted me with a warm smile and a big hug.
You may be wondering what a lighting designer does. A Lighting Designer does not merely hang a light and hit an on and off switch. Lighting Designers create the atmosphere, mood, and time of day of a theatrical production. They use light to portray whether it is night or day, the mood-like whether it is happy or sad, and so on. Additionally, they must configure the practical elements of lighting a production such as cost, visibility, and scene changes.
The history of the lighting design profession does not even date back a century, with the first professional lighting designer, as we think of today, being a woman named Jean Rosenthal. Jean was a pioneer in the field. Introducing the concepts of adding mood and atmosphere to a production and not just merely lighting the stage with a bright fluorescent bulb. Jean started her career in theatre as an actor and dabbled in lighting on the side. She was the first of many woman in the field, which is surprisingly dominated by woman.
Jay started his career in theatre as an actor too. He started performing at his summer camp at a young age and then throughout high school. He considering acting as a career during his early years at Brooklyn College, but quickly decided that he was potentially not good enough to make it professionally.
A friend suggested that help with the lights and he started dabbling in lighting. At the time, Brooklyn College did not have a very developed lighting design program, so he was thrown into the field.
“My first project looked like Christmas and it wasn’t suppose to,” he said.
Despite his lack of technique, one of his professors who also happened to be a Broadway stage manager, Michael Turque, saw potential in the budding designer.
“He was very surprised in the amount of vision [I had] and really encouraged my career as a lighting designer,” Jay said.
Turque mentored Jay and even gave him work. He worked as a technician hanging lights and running light boards on various shows in New York in the evenings and on the weekends. He worked on the first production of Little Shop of Horrors and with then unknown directors such as Julie Taymor (Director of The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark).
“I had a huge advantage [living in New York],”Jay said. “I had a lot of on the job training.”
After some time away from the profession, he eventually he decided to go to graduate school for lighting design. Following his graduation from the University of Massachettes-Amherst, he received a call from his old mentor, Michael Turque, who offered him his first job in academia as the production coordinator for the Brooklyn College Department of Theatre.
“I owe full-credit to Michael for really talking to me about what he saw in me,” Jay said. “He gave me work as a student and then [again] later on. He is a really important part [of my career].”
Eventually he moved on to East Carolina University for a position as an assistant professor. A few years later he got a job at Towson. This year marks his 18th year at Towson. During his time at Towson he has taught numerous classes in the design track and even served as the department chair of the theatre department from 2005 till 2011.
“I never knew I would be a teacher and I think thats a good thing,” he said. “I’m happy. I really like what I’m doing.”
He says that the most rewarding part of his job is that this spring there are four faculty directed shows, and students are doing the lighting design for all of them (in the past faculty has designed the lighting).
“Students have the opportunity to work in the same way that I did and I get to get my artistic fulfillment off-campus,” he said. “There is nothing more rewarding than having students who want to do the work.”
The Adding Machine at Towson University where Jay served as Lighting Designer
Outside of Towson, Jay is the resident lighting designer of the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. Additionally, he has worked freelance at many different theatres in the area. His even received a prestigious Helen Hayes Award (the Washington D.C. equivalent of the Tony Awards) for his work in 2000.
“It was memorable for me because I didn’t really expect it,” he said. “It was a total surprise when I won the award.”
And while he reflects on his career, Jay says that he doesn’t believe he made mistakes, but that there have been times that have been less successful than others.
“I think there are times when you can’t always work it, “ he said. “You can’t always be at the top. There are times when relationships could have been better, but I don’t consider it to be a mistake. It is the nature of the business.”
But above all else he says that he is very fortunate for everything that he has achieved professionally. He is proud that he is able to teach students who want to be professional designers and those who do not.
“I think of what I do as a jumping off point for so many careers,” he said. “In theatre, I think we teach people to think quickly, to act on their feet, to have a good personality, and to be a good decision maker.”
Regardless of your field, Jay says he wants students to know that it is very important to have a positive attitude and to maintain contacts.
As for the future, Jay is unsure of what it holds, but that he knows it will involve theatre and lighting.
“Not doing theatre is like asking a painter to put down his brush,” he said. “I would be like to be thought of as someone to filter [undergraduate] students into grad school. I want to be able to always have a name for myself so that my students can get their name out there.”
Above of else, he says that it would be nice to be thought of as someone who made an impact on his students.
“I hope that a few of them feel eventually the same way about me as I feel about Michael [Turque],” he said.