Alan Edwards, Yale School of Drama faculty.

American Entertainment in the Mid-20th Century Act Three: Interview with Yale School of Drama's Alan Edwards

By Margie Fuchs

Welcome to the third and final act of our American Art Fair Online 2020 presentation! Inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s masterwork Makeup (Dressing Room)1952, we’re exploring the diversity of amusements and entertainment in 20th century America. First, we followed the artist into the painting with an original video. Then, we launched a digital exhibition traversing the wide-range of American leisure time activities. Now, we’re pleased to present an interview with the one and only Alan Edwards, Yale School of Drama faculty and lecturer on design for live performance.

An expert in worldbuilding, Edwards has designed for theater companies across the country, including The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH), the National Black Theatre and the Apollo Theater here in New York City. To date, he has designed lighting and sets for more than 100 productions across the nation. In 2015, Edwards designed lighting for the world premiere musical Stagger Lee, which follows five mythical characters through the African-American experience of the 20th century. To get a better sense of the entertainment industry in the mid-20th century, which Lawrence drew upon in his Performance series, we spoke to Edwards about the evolution of American theaters and how Lawrence captured this world through Makeup. Our conversation comes on the heels of the Ford Foundation’s announcement of a million+ dollar grant to the Apollo Theater, a national historic landmark that fundamentally influenced both Lawrence and Edwards’ crafts. Follow us behind-the-scenes:

What brought you to study theater and performance? Tell us about an early show or theatrical performance that had a significant impact on you.

In April 1996, my sixth grade class went to Toronto and saw Beauty and the Beast at the Princess of Wales Theater. That was the beginning [of my love of theater]. The show was Disney’s first time producing something in the live theater realm that was at the level of a Broadway production. It was extravagant and grabbed my attention completely. The next year, my class saw The Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theatre also in Toronto, and that blew my mind. How could you have a better first experience than with these two fantastical extravaganzas?

Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, where Edwards’ experience seeing Beauty and the Beast influenced his love of theater.
Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, where Edwards’ experience seeing Beauty and the Beast influenced his love of theater. Photo courtesy of Mirvish Productions. © 2020 Mirvish Productions.

While I didn’t yet think of this as a career, I ended up on the lighting crew in high school. My drama and music teachers gave us so many opportunities in putting together our school’s plays and musicals. Specifically, it was my drama teacher’s first years as a director, so in a way we were learning together. By my junior year, I was given the key (a literal key) to the stage lighting system and was in charge of doing lighting for all of the productions, concerts and ceremonies. I was bringing what I could to the community, and I’m lucky that my drama teacher, choir teacher and music theory teacher indulged this. Doing the lighting for our productions was a formative experience and, knowing what I know now, my work then still holds up.

Briefly, how would you explain what design is to audiences outside of the theater world?

Looking around, there are countless choices that have been made behind everything you see. In our day to day lives, someone designed the objects and materials we interact with and that we’re living our lives within. Design for the stage is thinking backwards: instead of designing products to fit our lives, we have a story and must design the world that this appears within. So much brainwork goes into making every little detail, creating a world that is believable and immersive through costumes, lighting, set design and makeup. But you can’t give the audience everything – you have to leave room for them to come to their own conclusions somehow.

You’ve designed for theater companies across the country and lecture about design at the Yale School of Drama. What can you tell us about the designs that audiences, including artist Jacob Lawrence, would have experienced in theaters in the early 1950s?

For both lighting and scenery, theatrical design as we know and experience it is fairly young. What we consider modern set design is only about 80 years old, and how we control light in the theater is only 40-45 years old. Humans were literally pulling all of the levers for stage lighting until about 1975, when A Chorus Line used computer-controlled lighting on Broadway for the first time. And only since the latter half of the century have we been able to really shape light, direct it, and manage the heat it produces, and that’s all thanks to advances in technology. Now that we can manage heat, we can use a wider variance of color-changing devices and other media, which further allow us designers to sculpt the show and the experience an audience receives. For reference, it’s 2020, and only recently has LED technology become good enough for our eyes onstage. Prior to recent innovations in the last five to seven years, LED technology wasn’t quite up to the standard needed to make it a widely viable source.

In the 1950s, it was still mostly white light with limited color options – if the stage was lit and the audience could see, it was all good. I’m sure designers have been trying to change the color of light forever. I mean, how could they not. At this time, the electric light was the only tool they had, so there was a huge focus on bright costumes, makeup and scenery. Kiss Me Kate and other shows from this era were all created with this environment in mind. Jo Mielziner was one of the great scenographers of the 20th century. He happened to be painterly and created renderings with watercolor, depicting the qualities of light he hoped would envelope the environment. While this visual language met the needs of the time and in some ways may still be appropriate, the technology we use today has of course changed. I must point out, that the technological innovation of computer-controlled dimming and programmability drastically changed the way lighting could be realized onstage. Prior to these innovations, there were live humans pulling levers and patching cables live during every performance. The designer had to work within the limitation of live manpower.

If you think about films or stage productions from the Golden Era [between the end of silent films to the 1960s], many of them are escapist. They’re big and flashy and in a lot of ways that’s what the audience needed. The colors, costumes and stage designs of these productions all helped create an escape from day-to-day reality. Going to the theater, Lawrence would most likely have watched performances along these lines.

Performers putting on stage makeup in theater dressing rooms.
Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917-2000. Makeup, 1952.

Design is essential to creating an atmosphere and transporting the audience into a whole new world. In examining Jacob Lawrence’s "Makeup" (1952), what visual details stood out to you? How do they connect to the history of theater and theatrical design?

I’m immediately struck by the fact that Makeup is both bright and that I get a strong sense of darkness. The colors are so bright and bold, and yet something seems foreboding about the four people in silhouette in the back. Even as a semi-abstract work, I get a sense of mystery from the closeness of the figures.

This painting is a great example of asking how do you know what you want with lighting? There’s no blending going on – almost the entire piece seems color blocked – but it still presents a united scene. There is an intangible quality here where even amid the bright colors Lawrence creates an atmosphere. This could be a great reference for my design students.

Part of the illusion of theater is stage makeup, a subject which Lawrence’s work explores in its intimate look at a packed dressing room. How do costumes and makeup play into the design of a performance?

There is no singular person behind a character. That character is the result of the decisions, designs and actions of an entire community, from the actor to the director to the makeup artist and the costume designer. All of these choices add to that character’s story. It’s said that 90% of directing is casting and between the actress and the director they arrive at a vision for that character. But at the same time, the director is trying to get to a similar place with the costume designer, who brings a whole other bag of tricks and expertise to the table to bring the character to life. The makeup artist is also using their bag of tricks to help create the character, as is the props designer, and on and on. There is no one person, and yet these characters are so believable.

Exterior of the Apollo Theater, circa 1940. Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives.
Exterior of the Apollo Theater, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Municipal Archives, City of New York.

Harlem significantly influenced American creative thought throughout the 20th century, inspiring countless writers and artists including Lawrence. Having worked with a variety of institutions in Harlem, what does this legacy – and the sense of community that Lawrence continually spoke about – mean to you?

The Apollo Theater, originally opened as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, was a “white” theater, meaning that it was strictly for whites only. In 1934, after a few years out of use, and having fallen into disrepair, the decision was made to open the theater to Black patrons and primarily display Black talent for the people of Harlem. It has been doing the same thing ever since. The fact that they’ve not just continued to do this but be at the forefront [of amplification and presentation of Black performance and Black bodies in the US] for decades is astounding. The Apollo is a cultural crossroads for Black folks, and it’s started so many careers. Everyone, from James Brown to the Jackson 5 to Common, and many, many others, has been through that room. Although the Apollo is physically like so many of the other theater’s I’ve designed in, just to work in that space and feel its history is inspiring.

In your opinion, what role have uniquely African American institutions, such as the Apollo Theater and the National Black Theatre played in shaping American stories and theatrical experiences?

The Apollo, the National Black Theatre and the Classical Theater of Harlem (CTH) are the three cornerstone Black performance institutions in Harlem. While the Apollo has been around since the early 1900s, the National Black Theatre was founded by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer in 1968 to tell authentic stories about Black people and the African-American experience. This came out of the Civil Rights era. Their mandate was to reframe the Black narrative and change the way we view Black people in the US; this shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. I’m thinking about one show, Carnival [from the 2014 season], which was about three Black men from Brooklyn who go on vacation and get in trouble, and working on Kill Move Paradise [from the 2017 season], which was about Black men who were killed by police brutality meeting in the afterlife. Dr. Teer had the forethought to purchase the building in 1968, giving the Theatre a permanent location to become what the community needed.

The Classical Theater of Harlem presents the classical theater canon – think Shakespeare and so one – using all ,. There are three key elements to their work: (1) the production value is high, (2) performances are free and (3) it’s located in Harlem. CTH has been extremely successful in recent years. Their work changes your perspective on what you think about people of color and what you assume they’re interested in in terms of entertainment. Through representation, the Classical Theatre of Harlem is continually changing the narrative about Black audiences and interests, and the Theater’s location – in Harlem, not downtown – is essential to this.

The international performing arts community has been severely impacted by the financial fallout from COVID-19. What do you tell your students when asked about the future of theater?

I tell my students that they have skills and you can package those skills. Just because you can’t do theater in this immediate moment doesn’t mean you don’t have a place. That being said, we, as humans have a strong desire to see theater, and performance in general live. Theater in some form will come back. It’s just a question of how.

Cover image: Alan Edwards, Yale School of Drama faculty. Courtesy of Alan Edwards.