In Conversation With Beverly Emmons

Lighting Designer Beverly Emmons

Lighting Designer Beverly Emmons

I recently sat down with Beverly Emmons as part of the research process for the Brooklyn Commune Project. Over a cup of tea at her home in Fort Greene, Beverly humored me in the beginning as I asked the pre-approved questions from the “Cultural Representation and Democracy” committee’s list, but it was soon very clear that she wanted to engage in a much larger discussion.

1. How do you identify yourself? How does your identity/age influence or inform your work? 

Obviously, I’m a woman. I’m a lighting designer. I’m a solo practitioner.

What I am about to say makes many designers angry, but I call us secondary artists—scenic designers, costume designers and lighting designers. We are there to communicate the work of the primary artist—the choreographer, the playwright, the director. We bring a lot to the party but if somebody doesn’t write a play I can’t light it. If some choreographer doesn’t make a dance I can’t light it.

2. Do you face challenges in the field based on the way you identify yourself? Or because of your age?

I am well established with a long career behind me and work in front of me. As for my age, I am slowing down some because the work takes a great deal of mental and physical stamina. I am careful now in how much I take on.

3. Where do you (or can you locate) representations of your culture [community] and age group within contemporary performance?

I have talented peers and women lighting designers are all around me. Our artistic history is difficult to study so I conceived the Lighting Archive ( as a library that collects and preserves the documents used to create historic shows.

4. Are there moments in which your cultural identity [community] and age group are misrepresented or underrepresented, and how do you address this?

 I want to talk about something else.

Underneath all this it’s about finances, it’s about the economics. And what I am aware of when young people are saying we haven’t got any support, is the influence of the critic.

History is important here. Historically the only thing we’d ever had in this country was commercial theater. It was either highbrow opera, classical plays or it fell lower and lower to the Vaudeville genre. The movies wiped that out. The stagehands in Boston told me that in 1915 when they created the union there were 25 theaters operating 52 weeks of the year and that didn’t count 12 more Vaudeville houses. That’s a lot of theaters in what was a much smaller population town. Everybody went to the theater a lot because they didn’t sit home and watch TV. The movies killed it off first and then the second wave was television.

The commercial theaters all traveled. In fact, we use the phrase “did you make your nut?” – which means did you make your weekly expenses. It comes from traveling theater companies who would pull into a small town to set up shop and do some performances. The sheriff would take the nut off the axle wheel and you couldn’t get the nut back to travel out of town until all the actors had paid the restaurants and hotels. It was in the Vaudeville environment that Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis created short dance pieces. Their student, Martha Graham changed the scene.

To this day critics will write half a New York Times page on the subject of the latest version of a Bournonville ballet. Bournonville dates back to the 1820s. Then the critic will go to see a Martha Graham Company production and say “Well, nothing new here.”

This is a hindrance. Martha Graham was the first dance artist to make art out of her own body and her own context that was not based on folk forms. Ballet is the ethnic form of Europe, even though it’s been modernized. Martha Graham, and then other people like Merce Cunningham, explored movement and gave implicit permission to Balanchine to explore. I am not saying Balanchine wasn’t an important artist but he still based everything on toe shoes, alignment of the neck and other conventions. You are seeing gestures from Louis XIV’s court.

The point being, Martha Graham took dance somewhere else. It was very personal born out of an American experience. Alastair Macaulay has written brilliantly about Merce Cunningham. He loves Merce’s work. But Merce couldn’t have done it without Martha.

Why has he not written about Graham and her role? Why is this important? Because you can’t go to a foundation and ask for money as the Martha Graham Company and say support this uniquely historic American art form and have it mean anything. It doesn’t resonate. I also think it’s because she’s female.

Economically what’s happened with dancers is instructive. 

The fact is, and it is brutal, in New York there is only room for five or six viable companies. It is a hard shear line. Only the very best of the best will survive. How many dancers can that support?

Even at the height of government arts funding, a dance company considered itself to be a success if their annual earnings could spread over 26 weeks, with the understanding that dancers go on unemployment for the remaining 26 weeks of the year. This is what you are signing up for? I feel very strongly that colleges who bring students into dance programs need to show some responsibility in what happens to them after graduation.

Merce told the story of a father who came up to him at a lecture demonstration and asked, “Should my daughter dance?” Merce’s answer was, “You mean she has another choice? Tell her to run.” You can only do it if you have no other choice.

In the context of giving and philanthropy this what we do to our artists. 

I worked for a man named Robert Wilson. He’s a huge star in Europe, less so here. He did a work Einstein on the Beach. I did the first, second and third versions with him. He had done several important works before that. Einstein was in 1976 and supporters of his in Europe had got it funded by the French and Italian governments as a gift to the American people in honor of the bicentennial. The French government paid for the production. The Italian government paid for the set.

The Avignon Festival was in late July and it was a huge success. There were 40 plus people in the cast and crew plus three semi-trailer trucks full of scenery and no work in August. Everyone went home or did whatever they wanted to do. In September, they all had to reconvene at the Venice Biennial that was the beginning of a two-month tour of work.

Bob had the plane reservations to get everyone back to Venice and in those days you could make reservations without actually paying the money. But he didn’t have the money. He worked the Hamptons, he worked everywhere trying to get the money. It was now the day before the flight and still no money. So he had his manager make a list of the travel agencies on 5th Avenue and rent a stretch limousine with a driver that wore a livery. He went down the Avenue and had the limo pull up in front of an agency. He had the driver get out and slowly help him on with his coat. He went in and very politely said, “I’d like to take two friends to Europe”, and plunked down his little green American Express card. And in those days they would have had to call to check his limit and charges. None of them called. He got back into the car with the tickets and crossed two names off the list and the driver pulled up to the next agency. By the end of the day he had charged something like $24,000 on his $1500 credit line. This is how he got his troupe back to Europe.

The bill came in and of course he couldn’t pay it and the interest was 19 percent a month. In the meantime, Einstein on the Beach had garnered so much interest it was booked into two performances on a Sunday at the Met. This normally being a day off meant the stagehands would be working overtime. Bob had gotten Jane Herman at the Met excited about doing this. It was in the middle of the Met season. It was a huge deal and had never been done before. The Met agreed to cover front of house, advertising, the heat and water, and ticket sales. Bob had to commit to paying the stagehands. The crew would cost a quarter of a million dollars for the Sunday performances. He said, “Sure.”

Bob’s Byrd Hoffman Foundation bought a half page ad in the program thanking American Express for supporting Einstein on the Beach. Bob sent a copy of the program to the president of American Express with a note saying we’ve already thanked you publicly, now would you like to make this a reality? “No” was the answer. With the success and excitement of the production Bob was being fêted around the city. At a party, a woman he met let it drop that her husband was a VP at American Express. Bob became fast friends until he could explain his little problem. American Express cancelled the interest and eventually Byrd Hoffman paid off the balance. Bob told me this story himself and it demonstrates that here in America, a successful artist needs to have nerves of steel even at the very height of critical and creative acclaim.

Traditionally, before the NEA and NYSCA, most directors of dance and theater companies spent time wooing wealthy patrons, who in return for support wanted personal access to the creatives and not unreasonably wanted to be appreciated. NEA and NYSCA came in and put an emphasis on more business-like arrangements, which is a good idea for the cultural life of society, but clearly this effort and their support is not enough.

In Europe you are a not a person of substance until you have personally supported an artist. This comes from an aristocratic tradition and sets the tone for supporting high cultural life. Consequently European national and city governments play a bigger role. Artists there are not expected to be self-sustaining.

In America we have studies that show the best dollar a local government can spend is in support of performing arts centers. Businesses follow and the downtown life as a whole flourishes, this is documented. Corporations for years have supported the regional theater movement as an executive recruitment tool, in part, because educated, cultured people do not move to cities without cultural arts.

I think what we really need to be doing is “workshops” for wealthy people. Encourage the wealthy to search out and support artists. We need to mentor potential patrons in how to engage an artist about their work. It’s my opinion that philanthropy needs to be personal and involves mutual respect.

We have value as artists. We need to stand up for that. As artists we need to understand that part of the job is to market and present ourselves. We have a responsibility to advocate, attend and show up. This includes making the Patrons feel loved and applauded. Our manners need to communicate a considerate awareness of those investing in us. We could go a long ways with social graces to clean up our act.

Additionally, we need to start early in school teaching children cultural literacy. Connect children to their cultural heritage in meaningful and profound ways, coincidentally building future audiences for ourselves.


Monica Snellings is a designer, producer, and art director. She is currently working on a MFA degree in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She lives in Brooklyn and Washington, DC. She developed The Undereducated American with economists at Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce. She has produced videos and other watershed materials for the National Assessment of Educational Progress at the U.S. Department of Education. She directed marketing and identity work for the National Center on Education and the Economy, and led the design of their landmark publication Tough Choices or Tough Times, a treatise on the state of education and the American workforce. Working closely with the NIH National Institute on Aging, Monica charted and directed program concepts and strategy for Go4Life, a nationwide exercise and physical activity campaign, as well as the development of multiple publications on topics from retirement to health literacy. She is now working to remake K-12 social studies education with the National Council for the Social Studies and Citizen: Me.

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