Theater News

Ray of Light

After a few rings, a man answers the phone. His soft-spoken voice is nearly drowned out by the sounds of reggae blaring in the background. Lowering the volume, he apologizes and explains, “I’m trying to find an encore for my show. On opening night, I discovered that the audience wanted more.” The show is Theater of Light, a vibrant evening of projected light set to music. The voice belongs to its creator, lighting designer Rudi Stern, and the tune being considered is “Many Rivers to Cross,” an anthem-like composition by reggae artist Jimmy Cliff. “I like to select well-structured, human-scale music that is romantic, emotional and cerebral,” says Stern. “To complement the images, the music must be focused and stimulate both the heart and mind.”

For Theater of Light — his first theatrical production in 30 years — Stern has found 13 works that possess the necessary criteria. Blending with Stern’s dynamic displays of color are songs from Enya, Peter Gabriel, Tangerine Dream, Donovan and other performers. As conducted by Stern, light and shadows also move to Japanese melodies, Celtic orchestrations, classical fugues and even the tribal beat of a Balinese composition entitled “The Calling: Return to Jogja.” Featuring countless hues, each selection is a call to return to one’s soul. Stern reflects, “Theater of Light aims to take you on a voyage, first out of yourself than back inside.”

Stern’s professional journey began after receiving art degrees from Columbia University, Bard College and University of Iowa. In 1964, the painter began working with projected images. Using light as an “electric brush,” Stern and his partner Jackie Cassen produced a ground-breaking series of “Psychedelic Celebrations” for celebrated ’60s icon Timothy Leary. The twosome then continued to create innovative lightshows for artists as diverse as The Doors, choreographer Glen Tetley, opera director Sarah Caldwell and classical composer Igor Stravinsky.

Traveling throughout the United States and Europe, Stern pioneered advances in video production and the use of neon as an artistic resource. From 1972 to 1992, the trailblazing craftsman ran Let There Be Neon — the first gallery, workshop and experimental studio entirely dedicated to the gas. “The first ten years were fun!” he jokes. “It was a new chapter in a new medium. We laid out a buffet of creative possibilities and everyone had a good meal!”

Throughout the ’90s, Stern used his talents to create a series of documentaries, including Haiti: Killing the Dream, Coup de Grace and UNPEOPLE in Haiti, all of which have been shown internationally, drawing powerful attention to Haitian poverty and corruption. “Haiti is a land full of people who have been destroyed culturally, physically and economically,” Stern professes. He says many of his documentaries were inspired by the work of a priest who initiated successful reforms in education and health organizations. Unfortunately, Stern’s experiences in Haiti ended when he discovered that even the clergyman’s altruism had been replaced by corruption and greed. “He was a brilliant guy — my hero,” recalls Stern. “When I saw the corruption, it was like a cancer growing inside me. I had to get out — all I could think about was getting back to the light!”

Returning to New York, Stern concentrated on bringing Theater of Light to the stage. A confirmed workaholic, Stern spent 16-18 hours a day creating the numerous, hand-painted slides needed to complete the production. Using more than 30 projectors and 1,500 lighting cues per seven-minute piece, these non-computer images are gloriously brought to life. “I use only fresh ingredients: no chemicals and no additives!” he laughs. Throughout the 72-minute show, light dances naturally upon suspended oval screens and the walls of Tribeca’s Flea Theater.

During the past season, that progressive downtown space has been taken over by maundering Kabuki players and filled with the daring aerobatics of lesbian trapeze artists. Now, with Stern as its current resident, the Flea has now been transformed into a space ideally suited for theatrical meditation. “No one takes time to really look at life introspectively,” sighs Stern. “Theater of Light allows people to enjoy a visual experience that is simple and logical. It clears the mind so that it can journey from one place to another.” Not wanting to sound too metaphysical, Stern pauses and humorously adds, “Theater of Light is like a mirage of cold Heinekens in a dessert.”

With the world premiere of Theater of Light, the 63-year-old Stern believes he is entering “his last good chapter.” He also hopes to move the piece into a larger venue after its downtown run, and dreams of creating a lightshow with one of New York’s many dance companies. Joyfully, he remarks, “Life offers so few moments of real creativity and happiness. I’m working, feeling well and in love — there is a light at the end of the tunnel!”

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Theater of Light

Closed: April 14, 2001