Lit From Within

“A great liberal arts education is the best possible training for a life in the theater. A class in theater is a wonderful training for life.” – Jane Cox, Director, Princeton University Program in Theater

Can lighting design make the world a better place? In the post-election season, award-winning lighting designer Jane Cox was struggling with the answer. Her mother ran Amnesty International in Ireland, working with political prisoners—an experience that had a formative impact on Cox. Lighting design, by contrast, seemed a frivolous pursuit.

Studying theater, on the other hand, makes people better human beings, she acknowledges. “If more people were creative and collaborative, the world wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. Theater is not an intellectual art form, but an emotional one—there’s no better training for being a human being.”

I hear myself defending her field, telling her that lighting is a subliminal way of getting the audience to emote, to feel compassion for the characters on a stage, or the opposite toward the antagonist.

Framed by a head of magnificent red curls, Cox smiles. “Lighting design is about how you see something,” she says, her educator side emerging. “It’s subtle and discrete. The moment we come into the world, the first thing we see is light, even though we can’t yet differentiate objects and faces. We have a deep relationship to light and dark, comfort and lack of comfort. We may project our own emotions on an unlit face.”

Lighting design tells you where to look, what to feature in your field of vision and shifts the emotional tone of the room—“it digs in and most people have no idea.” I learn from Cox that even dictators have lighting designers.

The new Director of Princeton University’s Program in Theater succeeds Tim Vasen, who led the Program until he passed away unexpectedly last year. “Jane Cox is a brilliant lighting designer, a gifted teacher and mentor, and a visionary, collaborative administrator,” said Stacy Wolf, acting chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, at the time of Cox’s appointment.

On a recent weekday morning, Cox had just concluded a phone call with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. He had seen a song cycle she’d lit and was requesting that she be the lighting designer for an upcoming Princeton University concert he will perform with composer-pianist Nico Muhly, one of the most celebrated and sought-after classical composers of the decade. Ordinarily, Cox would need about three weeks to prepare for such a project. In this case, Kuusisto is arriving the night before the concert. “We’ll work it out,” she says good naturedly. “He’s a charming and fabulous musician.”

Since beginning her new post on July 1—she has been on the faculty since 2007—Cox has been trying to figure out how to juggle her schedule as a working artist. She designed the lighting for the current Broadway revival of The Color Purple, directed by fellow faculty member John Doyle (with whom she has collaborated on 20 productions) and for which she was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design for a Musical.

Other recent projects include the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch in London—she was awarded the 2016 Onstage Award for it; the new musical Amelie, being presented in Los Angeles this season; Noises Off on Broadway; and Roe, a new play about Roe v. Wade, which will be presented at Arena Stage and Berkeley Rep. She is a long-term member of the Monica Bill Barnes Dance Company—Cox and Barnes share a love for exploring human fallibility and putting dance and art in unusual places such as offices, fountains, art museums.

Cox designs regularly at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has working relationships with theater companies in London and Dublin. Despite the juggling required to make this happen, working artists make ideal faculty members who offer students hands-on experiences.

The collaboration with Kuusisto is ideal because Cox won’t have to leave campus. “It was fun doing Broadway musicals, but that was never my goal,” Cox says. “Pekka is more up my alley. I prefer out-of-the-box projects that challenge the idea of performance and audience.” She also enjoys the creativity of teaching, and the opportunity to collaborate with other art forms and STEM programs.

Growing up in Dublin in the 1970s and ’80s, with Scottish/Welsh/English parents from the North of England, was complicated, Cox says. “Ireland was run by a repressive Catholic Church. Everyone was Irish, and they all thought the same thing. I had been meeting courageous intelligent people from other countries” through her mother’s work with Amnesty International and through her father, a professor of French and European studies at Trinity College. In high school, Cox recounts, she excelled at extracurricular activities.

She simultaneously tried to fit in and vowed to get out as quickly as possible. That opportunity came in 1989, when she attended a Bob Dylan concert. Nearly swallowed by the crowds, she was rescued by a bouncer who invited her to an after party. Soon she was touring with Dylan, selling T shirts.

After a few months on the road, the young flute player enrolled at London University to study music and French and Italian. “But it was a bad fit. I quickly realized the interesting people on campus were the theater students. They were looking outward, exploring identity, trying things on—I was drawn to that.”

Running the light board for a production of Oh! What a Lovely War she had an epiphany: lighting is like a visual form of music, with structure, melody, harmony. “The experience is sensory and experiential,” she says.

“We market theater as a work of individual genius, but that is completely dishonest,” Cox continues. “When you make a piece of theater, it’s absolutely about the chemistry of the people in the room. Every time you work in theater, you step into someone’s world, put yourself in other people’s shoes: what does it feel like, look like, smell like.”

During a semester at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she met a role model who was “charismatic, bossy, provocative… I learned that in the U.S. it’s OK to be loud, opinionated, express yourself.” After finishing her degree she got a job at the North Shore Music Theater. Without a visa, she phoned her boyfriend of six weeks and asked him to marry her. He said no, but a few months later relented. Cox got a green card, citizenship and, 10 years later, a divorce (being constantly on the road did little for the relationship).

To support her calling, Cox made pizza and was “a serving wench” at the Colonial Tavern in Philadelphia. She was a pioneer in a male dominated profession—when she was hired to work on the tech crew at the Annenberg Center, the men had to take down their porn.

In the mid ’90s, Cox left Philadelphia to get a master’s degree at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts graduate program in theater design. “It broadened my horizons—I forged relationships with working artists that I’ve maintained to this day.” Cox went on to teach at Tisch, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and workshops at the Kennedy Center.

After two decades working downtown, she met John Doyle through New York’s Public Theater. “Our aesthetics closely aligned. He’s interested in what’s at the heart of the story, what’s the point, why are we doing this… harnessing the imagination is a magical, though challenging, experience.”

For example, “Doyle may make a scene and then throw it all away and start again, moving things around. I’d have to keep up—it kept me on my toes.”

In her late 30s Cox began dating Evan Alexander, a set designer whom she ultimately wed. Soon, he switched careers—“he grew tired of eating ramen noodles”—to commercial design for clients such as the Super Bowl and Beyonce, which he can do from home. “My favorite thing is being in the room with other artists,” Cox adds.

Cox and Alexander had lived in Brooklyn’s Park Slope with their 5-year-old daughter, Becket (“that’s one ‘t’—not to be confused with the depressive Irish playwright, though Beckett was most brilliant and is one of my favorites”) before the family moved to Princeton at the end of the summer for her new position. She wanted to give her daughter an Irish name, but one that is pronounceable, unlike Saoirse or Siobhan. Becket has accompanied her mother on world-wide projects, including to the Sydney Opera House, “but travel around the country is not compatible with child-rearing, especially since Becket started preschool.”

On a late fall day in the rehearsal room at the Berlind Theatre, Senior Sydney Becker dumped a bucket of mulch on the floor. Students in the Advanced Theatrical Design Studio were exploring how light affected objects. Becker is designing Mad Forest, in which two families witness the radical collapse of their way of life following the Romanian Revolution. “Look at it from different angles. Think about where side lights should go,” suggests Cox. Others were playing with light on a shadow of palm trees, a mullioned window, a board of wood. As everyone conferred on their projects, the level of discordant sound rose. “Keep it down you guys,” says Cox with a laugh, and the silence that follows is proof of how smitten her students are. As some work with colored gels, Cox encourages those listening to think of a beam of light as a projector.

The productions she is working on are relevant to making the world a better place. In Roe, which opened at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., during the 2017 Presidential Inauguration, theater-goers develop a deeper understanding as to how characters gravitate to their positions on the issue.

“We’ve made rocket ships and symphonies, but what we can’t seem to do is look at the world as a whole and figure out how to live together and take care of the earth we’ve been given,” she says. “I want our future citizens to be able think about the whole. To realize that different people have different needs and goals and no one has the right answer. To learn how to establish goals together without having identical viewpoints—theater teaches this incredibly effectively.”