Gilbert Hemsley Papers, 1948-1980


Gilbert Vaughan Hemsley, Jr., internationally-known lighting designer, production manager, and Theatre and Drama Department professor at the University of Wisconsin, was born March 19, 1936, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his father, an Episcopal clergyman, had his first ministry. Hemsley made his first stage appearance at the age of 12 in an Alexandria Bay, New York, production of Life with Father and continued to work with local theater groups as a teenager. In 1954 he entered Yale University where he was actively involved in Dramat, the undergraduate dramatic club. Although he began as an actor with this club, it was here that Hemsley became interested in stage lighting. By his sophomore year he had become its lighting designer and later held a series of production manager positions with Dramat. Hemsley received a B.A. in history in 1957 and the same year entered Yale's Drama School where he worked under Stanley McCandliss, who organized the first systematic study of stage lighting. (When Hemsley began in this field much of the lighting was still being done by electricians who were not concerned with the artistic expression that lighting could contribute to a production.) While at Yale, Hemsley worked at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, as a technical director, production manager, and lighting designer for Group 20, an acting company located in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

After receiving his M.F.A. in 1960, Hemsley was hired by the McCarter Theatre Complex, a continuous drama experiment with its own repertory company, located in Princeton, New Jersey. There he served as production stage manager and lighting designer for the series of concerts, ballets, plays, dance concerts, movies, and children's shows which this group sponsored. He eventually became one of two associate producers serving the McCarter and was responsible for its overall scheduling and physical operation. While working at this theater from 1960-1965, Hemsley also held other lighting and production assignments. For example, in 1961 he assisted Tharon Musser at the American Theatre Festival in Boston. A year later he managed a summer theater and restaurant in Rhode Island and in the fall of the same year he stage managed for the Dallas Civic Opera. In 1964/65 he designed the lighting for the Phoenix Theatre-APA off-Broadway productions of Judith, Man and Superman, and War and Peace.

Hemsley resigned from the McCarter Theatre in 1965 and during the next few years worked on a variety of assignments. As an assistant to Jean Rosenthal, he helped light the 1966 Dallas Opera season. He also lit a season of the Pittsburgh Repertory Company and tours of the Boston Opera Company and the American Ballet Theatre. In addition he served as a guest lecturer at several universities including Yale, Adelphi, Temple, Stanford, Syracuse, and others. Hemsley was a visiting faculty member at the University of Wisconsin for brief periods in 1969 and 1970 and in the latter year accepted a faculty position with that University. While teaching, lighting, and occasionally directing university productions at Wisconsin, he also continued to accept outside work assignments. Hemsley was often accompanied on these engagements by his students who received on-the-job training in a variety of professional stage productions. Among his major outside activities were seasons and tours for ballet companies such as the American Ballet Theatre, the Australian Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the National Ballet of Cuba, and the Stuttgart Ballet; for dance troups such as the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance and the Performing Arts Company of the People's Republic of China; and for opera companies in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and New York plus a tour of the Bolshoi Opera. In addition Hemsley designed the lighting for Leonard Bernstein's Mass and for Broadway plays such as Cyrano, Jumpers, a revival of The Most Happy Fella, and Sugar Babies. He also designed the lighting for concert artists ranging from Van Cliburn to Odetta; for Jimmy Carter's 1976 Inaugural Gala; for the new Shell of the Hollywood Bowl; for the Cave of the Mounds in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin; and interior lighting for cafes and art works.

Hemsley often does as much overall managing of a production as lighting design. He was the first lighting designer admitted to associate membership by the United Scenic Artists. Acknowledged as “the Rembrandt of lighting,” Hemsley's designing expertise is sought on a variety of productions.