Len Auerbach


The role of consultant is a relatively recent development in the long life of the theatre, but S. Leonard Auerbach--Len to almost everyone in the business--has been there almost since its inception. As founder and principal in charge of Auerbach + Associates and Auerbach + Glasow, Auerbach has worked on over 500 theatre and lighting projects in his 30-plus years as a consultant. He began his career as a theatre lighting designer in the 60s, but formed his own practice in San Francisco in the early 70s, Piacentini/Auerbach, which became Auerbach + Associates Inc. in 1973.

Like many in the industry, he has seen his range of work grow over the years from theatres to museums, houses of worship, and retail spaces. Today, between the two companies, over 28 people work in the Auerbach offices in San Francisco and New York. Recent projects include the restoration of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, the Houston Space Center, and the Santa Fe Opera renovation. Current projects include the 21,000-seat Assembly Hall and 900-seat theatre for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, a corporate event theatre for Nike headquarters in Oregon, and the audio and special effects for a project featuring a huge globe in the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

Editor David Johnson spoke to Auerbach about his career during a recent visit to New York.

David Johnson: So tell me, what was the consultancy business like 30 years ago?

Len Auerbach: It was a new thing. I had a mixed background as a designer--in theatre and lighting--and also a background in architecture. I have a graduate degree in theatre architecture from Carnegie Institute of Technology, as well as a bachelor of fine arts in drama. But prior to sorting out where I was really going, I worked in the theatre, in Off Broadway and summer stock, and I also worked for a number of architectural firms.

And then I was hired by Peter Zeisler at the Guthrie Theatre [in Minneapolis], when they had no position of lighting designer. Lighting design was at that time done by Dr. Tyrone Guthrie and his technical director, who would provide Dr. Guthrie and also Tanya Moiseiwitsch, the set and costume designer, with the looks that he wanted. And it was an all-white-light philosophy. He got Tanya to put all the color in the costumes, and the actors in the costumes were pretty much the color in the productions. They had anticipated a need to overcome some of the original building design, and they needed to have someone who could be their representative to the architect and an in-house consultant. So essentially, I was their first resident lighting designer; it was a way to get someone on staff that could do both things.

Around the same time, I had published "Design for Shakespearean Theatre" in Theatre Design & Technology [TD&T]. It was seen by Tom De Gaetani and Russell Johnson, and they started to chase after me and find out who this guy was. They interviewed me, but I said, "There's no way I'm going to come to work for a consultant when I have this wonderful opportunity in the theatre!" [Laughs] Two seasons later, after a lot of persistence on their part, I went to work for them here in New York [at Bolt, Beranek & Newman]. That was 1968.

DJ: What prompted you to finally make that jump?

Auerbach: Well, it was an opportunity to merge how I felt about the theatre as a designer with my architectural background. I felt, and I still feel, that you can't be one-dimensional in your craft. I think we've shown that over the years by the diversity of what we've done. Theatre consulting has become a very broad, disciplined profession. You have to know structures, you have to know electrical engineering, you have to know architecture. You have to talk to all of these people. You need to know theatre management. You need to know designer concerns. You need to know how actors feel in a space. All of that really has to come together.

I felt that the people who were consulting in the 60s were technologists, if you will. George Izenour was a fantastic contributor to theatre technology and a fantastic scholar. Ben Schlinger was an architect whose specialty was seating and sightlines. Jo Mielziner, who was a scenic designer, had architects on staff. Mielziner brought the scenic designer's approach to the theatre, so it really didn't go beyond the proscenium. Jean Rosenthal consulted on lighting systems. There were people from the scenic studios who were dealing with rigging systems. Everyone was involved with their own discipline, and merging that in a language that could bridge the gap between the user and the architect is a very important part of what we're doing now. That didn't really exist back then.

DJ: When did you decide to go out on your own, then?

Auerbach: I guess in 1971. BB&N was at that time a very large corporation. There were some things that I wanted to do, particularly architectural lighting design, that they were not interested in pursuing. I just felt very energetic at the time, and was able to take some risks. [Laughs] I was very young!

My first independent project was the Minneapolis Children's Theatre in St. Paul, which was a marvelous project, because we not only did the theatre, we did the lighting design for the Art Institute. Kenzo Tange was the architect, so immediately I'm working with a world-famous architect, and had a wonderful experience. We pushed the envelope a bit in terms of some of the design at the time. That was the first of what we'll call high-density dimmer-per-circuit systems in the US. It was conceived because I just wanted to get rid of the patch panel. I would never do another patch panel job! I convinced Kliegl to go along with it and to develop a dimmer rack.

It was sort of a pivotal moment for me. I had my office out on a pier in San Francisco on Embarcadero, right out on the water. It was this great studio in a wonderful place, but it didn't have any facilities whatsoever.

At the same time, BB&N, my former employer, had an acoustical project, and we started collaborating as a West Coast theatre consultant with them. It was an amicable situation. I was still collaborating with a lot of my old colleagues.

DJ: Has the role of the consultant changed over the last 30 years?

Auerbach: It's changed quite a bit. We're hired earlier. We're hired to do feasibility studies, needs analyses, programming. We do a lot of architectural programming and pre-design activities. The fact that we've become so multi-disciplinary in what we do--audio systems, mechanical stuff, stage machinery. Theatre consultants have to know so much more now than they ever did. Previously, a lot of my colleagues used to just depend on the vendors and the manufacturers to figure it out; some of them still do. That, I think, is very dangerous. We work closely with manufacturers, but we have to protect the client, and you can't do that if you're letting the manufacturers tell you what they're going to do for you.

DJ: Is there any one project you've worked on in the last 30 years that stands out?

Auerbach: I think the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul of about 15 years ago. And I really have to put the San Francisco Opera House [See TCI January 1998] as a major accomplishment. Because we pushed the industry, in terms of technology, in every aspect of that project--audio systems, lighting, and rigging systems. I think it's really a major accomplishment because of the ability to mix automated rigging with the manual counterweight system.

DJ: Plus it's in your backyard. You can go see it whenever you want.

Auerbach: That's right. We have a very, very good rapport there. We really serviced that project very, very well.

I guess what I'm most proud of is our firm and the people that I have working for me. They are wonderful, wonderful people. The core group has been there for a long period of time. They're very talented.

DJ: How else would you characterize them, aside from their talent?

Auerbach: Everyone has a deep concern for the project and the clients. We provide a lot of service, and we pride ourselves on that. There's a certain sense of leadership that we feel. I say "we," because the entire staff feels that we're able to guide a project, place reasonable demands on projects that will make them work. We're not gadgeteers. We're not doing it for our own sense of design, some whiz-bang thing. I really feel, as far as the technology is concerned, that our understanding of it is important, that we have a palette of so much stuff to take advantage of, and we should only apply it where it's needed to solve our problems rather than for its own sake.

DJ: But it sounds like there have been times where you really have pushed that envelope, when the project calls for it.

Auerbach: Only for the project. From the lighting design point of view, in terms of dimmer-per-circuit, we got Kliegl to develop their system, we got Strand to develop their system. We did the first multiplex analog system for Harrah's in Reno. And we did the largest network lighting system in the world at the Opera House. The system that's going into this project in Salt Lake City has 4,000 dimmers, plus about another 1,000 of switch power control, and a distributed data network that can take 14 universes of DMX, plus any protocol you want to distribute, whether it's something proprietary like Vari-Lite, or just an RS-242 data signal. So you can use color scrollers, moving lights, and all sorts of things throughout the theatre, all off of the network.

DJ: What are the biggest challenges facing your industry?

Auerbach: The challenge is always the financial challenge in terms of the producing organizations. Communities that have limited funding resources still need to have the performing arts, and so the producing organizations are han ging on.

We're finding that we're relying on Broadway theatres and commercial ventures to provide a part of the entertainment stream. They tend to take over the facility; that is not necessarily conducive to a lot of the local organizations, so we're finding theatres being built primarily for commercial ventures. And I think that's good, because it does juice up an audience. At a time when they have videotapes, CDs, DVD, and a real sense of electronic realism in our home and in production, the more traditional art forms are having to step up to the plate. So you find that the opera companies, ballet companies, and regional theatre companies have got to mount productions that have a lot more production value. And that takes a lot of funding. The private resources are having to respond accordingly. But it's not an easy thing to do. It certainly does not come out of the government.

DJ: But after 30 years, is it still fun?

Auerbach: I'm having a ball. I'm literally having a ball: we're working on that big ball at the American Museum of Natural History!