Peter Armstrong West, a lighting designer whose work was seen throughout the U.S. and abroad, died from cancer at his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn on Aug. 18th. He was 55.
All of us at Red Bull Theater mourn the loss of our dear friend and talented colleague. Peter and I first began working together in the creative chaos of Red Bull’s first production, Shakespeare’s Pericles, in the basement of Culture Project at 45 Bleecker (45 Below as it was then known). I was a first-time producing artistic director trying to do it all—raise the money, hire the team, direct the play, change the world—everything except sew the curtains, which our stage manager pitched in to finish before invited dress (Peter loved to laughingly remind me of that detail).
Largely due to Peter’s unwavering level-headedness and incredible artistic resourcefulness—creating breathtaking beauty with about four lights—the results were a little miracle. Pericles marked the beginning of our personal collaboration and friendship of 15 years until Peter’s untimely passing this summer.
Peter lit nearly all of Red Bull Theater’s productions since we began in 2003. His work was exquisite. He had a unique ability to create stage magic with limited equipment and in challenging spaces; he helped both to define the aesthetic and distinguish the work of our company.
After our first four or five Red Bull shows together, we began a rare creative partnership I think most directors dream of having with a lighting designer, and a shorthand that almost required no discussion once we were in a theater together. I never worried about what Peter was doing during tech. I knew he was sculpting light and color in rhythm and space, and I could count on his artistry to work in tandem with our other collaborators to make the most of what we were all creating together.
Once in a while, I would hear a distinct voice from the back of the theatre: “Jesse, can you come here for minute?” And there would be Peter, standing hand on chin, squinting at the stage. He would invariably suggest a change that would prove to be a new and exciting solution to a moment we’d all been wrestling with.
Peter and I also collaborated on productions at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Barrington Stage, Juilliard, and beyond. He made every show we worked on together look more brilliant and unique than I could have imagined. From our first journey together with Pericles to the fabulous and raw Grand Guignol of The Revenger’s Tragedy; to the precision, elegance, and power of The Maids, Edward the Second, and The Changeling; and the pure unadulterated joy and vaudeville look of our most recent work, The Government Inspector, I can’t imagine any of the productions we made together being half of what they were without Peter’s illumination and always generous collaboration.
I was so pleased he could be a part of The Government Inspector at Red Bull this spring. It was a great testament to the love and respect Peter had engendered amongst his colleagues that, as his health deteriorated and he could not be at the focus and technical rehearsals for the remount as the show’s run extended, a veritable army of Peter’s colleagues—fellow lighting designers, friends, and peers—stepped in to make the show happen as he wanted it. Peter kept working on it remotely as long as he could to make sure he didn’t leave any of his collaborators in the lurch, least of all the actors onstage whom he loved and respected so greatly.
I think fondly back now on our many conversations, usually over sake and sushi, solving the problems of the American theatre—and when that failed, at least solving the practical challenge before us on a stage we were working on. Peter and his wonderful wife Kathy Hood’s love and strength are an inspiration. I will treasure always both his friendship and his example, as an artist and a human, in his living and the way he moved toward his exit. Truly, when things were darkest, he pointed the way toward the light. Thank you, Peter.
Jesse Berger, founder & artistic director, Red Bull Theater
Peter West designed lights for six productions that I directed. The first was Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1995 and the last was Sam Shepard’s Buried Child in 2013. Each time I worked with Peter, I was struck by the humanity, kindness, and unwavering dedication that he brought to the design process, as well as the ways he came alive in tech rehearsals. He was not the most outspoken of designers; his process was quiet and intuitive— a mix of hard-earned theatrical craft and rock ’n’ roll. He combined thoughtful preparation with an effortless spontaneity. When others became anxious, Peter, who managed to be positive without ever being insincere, just kept on working. And working. If it is possible for lights to have heart, his did.
Peter found inspiration beyond the theatre in his wildly diverse taste in music, and in his knowledge of dance and film. He was curious about it all. As I reflect on Peter’s work and his character, what is most apparent is the sheer pleasure he took in what he made—his joy in the bold choice, in saturated color, in the extreme angle. And, most of all, his great and generous love for making theatre that moved him and others.
The Peter West Theater Artist Fund has been created at Peter’s request to support the artistic and professional development of a theatre artist by providing an opportunity for them to collaborate with the director Daniel Fish, whose rigor and artistry was deeply influential to Peter’s work. If you are interested in contributing to this fund, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.