Alum Lights Up B'way & Talk of the Arts

By Barbara Melendez



TAMPA, Fla. (April 19, 2010) – The University of South Florida production of Serenade/The Proposition is has closed but the memory of Talk of the Arts lectures by the show’s creator, acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones and his long-standing lighting designer, Robert Wierzel, a USF alumnus lingers on. They provided insights into their backgrounds and creative processes – leaving audiences all the more anxious to see the results of the collaboration between USF’s talented students and these two stars of the dance world.


Transfixed one day during high school by a production of the Nutcracker on PBS, University of South Florida alumnus Robert Wierzel discovered dance and the stage. “It took my breath away” and “shifted a gear in my head,” he said and he knew instantly he wanted to be part of that world. The teenager had never heard of Tchaikovsky, had never seen a play or been to the theater but he found his calling in that moment. He went from wanting to be a dancer with no idea that lighting design was a profession to now working as an award-winning lighting designer, one of the best in the business. He also teaches lighting design at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.


Wierzel was one of those students professors mention to each other as someone to watch – in a good way. “As a student, his talent was obvious,” said Patrick Finelli, a member of the USF School of Theatre and Dance faculty who introduced and interviewed Wierzel. “He was here all the time, in a white lab coat looking like a character out of West Side Story.  He remodeled our whole lighting system. You could tell even then he was destined for great things.”


For Wierzel’s part, USF was a “big playground” where the faculty and all the people he met “allowed me to grow,” he said and he discovered many new ideas and ways of doing things. He saw his first opera in Tampa while a student and did everything he could to catch up on the arts he knew so little about. From USF he went to the Yale University School of Drama. There’s no question Wierzel was an artist at heart – then and now. 


Though he says words often fail him, he is quite lyrical in describing his work with light. “I think of light as architecture, it shapes spaces and helps define space and becomes part of the fabric (of a production).  Lights can’t fix a bad script, or bad actors. Lights can connect in a non-verbal way.  Lights are a palette of ideas,” to be used “conceptually.” He sees into the “depth, tonality, brightness and dimness – as textual qualities” of light.


After years in the theater, he is still awestruck by the power of art. “There’s something about lighting, music and dance, something they share that affect you on a deep level.  Art should make you different and change you (from the point at which you encounter it). Art affects you in ways you can’t foresee or tell.” 


In making the lighting design choices that can help make or break what happens on stage, Wierzel explained his reliance on his instinctive side. “I learned from Bill (T. Jones) to trust my intuition,” he said. “I used to push it to the back and keep it in check, but I learned to let it go.”


When asked about an effect produced by the lighting in Serenade/The Proposition, Wierzel found an example of what he meant. The questioner noticed how a shadow at one point worked to define the character of Abraham Lincoln. “Thank you for seeing it, it makes perfect sense but it was not a conscious decision, it was intuitive,” he said. “That’s what I mean about being conceptual.”


And that moment serves to illustrate how Wierzel works with Jones. “He starts with a text. Bill gives me something t read. I’ll read what he’s reading. We’ll have conversations.  I go to rehearsals,” he said. In time the dancing and the music influence what he adds to the creative mix. “The music keys me.  Lighting has that energy to change the space.  All the elements have to be there.”


During rehearsals, he’ll turn lights on and shut them off and then gauge Jones’ reactions until they are understanding the “language of the piece,” and “I start to see what he sees,” he said, always conscious of the light, the darkness and the shadows.


Wierzel’s credits span the dance, opera, concert and theater worlds, and even include museum installations, but dance is his first love. He started out as a dancer until lighting captured his interest.  “Opera is not as satisfying, not as process oriented as dance.”


He enjoys working with Jones because his work is a “non-linear narrative – it becomes the fabric of an idea.  You (the viewer) have to finish the conversation,” he said.


Part of Jones’ latest Broadway production, Fela!, Wierzel is helping to make history of sorts.  He once looked down on commercial theater but his experience with Jones’ new play Fela! has changed his outlook. 


“Bill is redefining what a commercial Broadway show can be,” he said, describing Jones’ technique as “always alive, always reacting, and very organic,” using what the performers bring to the production as much as actual dance steps.


New to pre-visualization software, Wierzel will use it for the first time to prepare for the London production of Fela!  And he’s not happy about it, but with only six days to do what typically takes weeks, he’s being “forced to.” He frowns on those who say, “We’ll throw some lights up and figure it out later,” preferring instead an “organic” approach that works with all the others involved in the production.


“The best balance is when you don’t know whose idea it was. It all becomes one piece. That’s the greatest joy for me.”



The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.