Most mentorships end after a few months or years, with mentor and protégé continuing on in their respective careers. But for acclaimed lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, six years of apprenticeship eventually blossomed into a full-fledged professional partnership. Here the pair discusses that transition and its impact on both their work.
PEGGY EISENHAUER: As a teenager, I was seeing shows on Broadway and was familiar with Jules’s work. I wanted to be a lighting designer myself. When I was a sophomore [at Carnegie Mellon University], I heard him give a lecture, and I talked to him afterward. I called my folks in hysteria and told them all about it. My mother knew how to locate him and sent him a little note. He actually wrote back, saying, “If there’s any way I can help in her future plans, just let me know.” So when I moved to New York, I started to pursue him to be an assistant. I finally got the chance to work with him about a year or so after I got out of college—20 years ago.
JULES FISHER: I’d had many assistants over the years who went on to very successful independent careers, but there was something different about Peggy. When I met her at school she made quite an impression on me. It was only after we had worked on a number of shows together that we started to see how well our ideas worked together. She would amplify my ideas; she would embellish and make them better. So, finally, I turned to her and said, “Let’s be partners. You’re really matching me step for step.” We were working so closely together on these projects, each taking on separate responsibilities, I think it was just a natural step. She had certain areas of talent that I don’t even attempt to match—in the area of musicality, being able to convert images into time-steps.
EISENHAUER: I was just so thrilled to be working with Jules—forget the first job, I mean even the 14th and the 15th job. A lot of my friends and colleagues started saying, “When are you going to make a name for yourself?” There was a lot of peer pressure to get out from under Jules’s wing. But I never felt that way about it.
FISHER: I have the perspective of having done this for a longer period of time, and I can see a time when I will retire. And I can see Peggy reaping the benefit of the partnership when she goes and does this on her own. So there is still that aspect of mentorship going on.
EISENHAUER: I’ve always felt that Jules was my mentor. It is the tradition of the theatre that you pass it along to the next generation. I still love the assisting aspect of it. Of course, there have to be rules. One of the cornerstones of our partnership is that whatever is being contributed becomes part of the whole. Pride of ownership, separating oneself from the other partner by saying, “That’s my idea, I thought of that,” can’t be allowed.
FISHER: At the same time, as advice to people looking for that mentorship: You have to know your role. If you’re the assistant, bring some humility to it. Show that you want to learn, soak up everything that’s there. But at the same time, don’t fall behind. And trust your mentor to teach you and watch out for you.
EISENHAUER: Jules has worked with a number of assistants who have gone on to be notable lighting designers, and I think that’s a great testament to the kind of mentor that he is. The essence of being a mentor is that you really do have to care, and you really do have to want your protégé to succeed.
David Kornhaber is a 2005–06 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support by a grant from the Jerome Foundation.
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