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Volume 51, Number 12   November 3, 2003         

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People on Campus

Joan Arhelger -- Showing students the light
Photo of Joan ArhelgerJoan Arhelger certainly knows how the colors, hues and movements of light can dazzle one's eye, change one's mood and touch one's heart. During her 15-year tenure as associate lighting designer for the San Francisco Opera, she designed and supervised lighting for more than 30 productions and was responsible for about 1,000 individual lights.

"Joan is a bright woman who does very good, thorough work," says John Priest, retired technical director for the San Francisco Opera. "She does her homework and comes prepared."

The assistant professor of lighting design in the Theatre Arts Department has designed lighting for more than 50 theatre, dance and opera productions nationwide in an impressive career that spans 30-plus years. Her work is lauded by theatre critics throughout California and beyond.

She most recently was mentioned in a June 26 Back Stage West review of "Fräulein Else," a critically acclaimed Berkeley Repertory Theatre production directed by Stephen Wadsworth and adapted from the Austrian novella by Arthur Schnitzler.

"Afternoon alpenglow (lushly painted by Joan Arhelger's lighting design) fades to night," George Weinberg-Harter writes of the opening scene.

Arhelger teaches classes in lighting design, stage management, lighting sound, and technical lab and advises several graduate students in the technical theatre/design program.

After graduating from Carroll College in 1967, Arhelger spent a couple years as a high school English teacher and debate coach. The Brookfield, Wis., native discovered "the magic of theatre" in graduate school at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she studied under accomplished lighting designer Gilbert V. Hemsley Jr. Extending her graduate studies to six years, Arhelger gained valuable experience when Hemsley connected her with design jobs. At the same time, Hemsley inspired her to pursue a career teaching theatre.

"Joan is an enthusiastic person who gets deeply involved in student designers' work," says Roy Conboy, chair of the Theatre Arts Department. "When we deal with her and her work, we feel privileged."

Bringing Arhelger's vision of light onto the stage takes months of planning and meeting with the director, orchestra, scene and costume designers, electricians and stagehands. The lights, sets and costumes must blend together seamlessly with the talent and music by opening night.

After working with the others on ideas, moods and themes for the production, Arhelger draws architectural-style diagrams of lights and movements that include specific colors, hues, wattage, brightness, angles and more. She not only takes into account what is seen onstage, but in the audience as well. She must make sure that lights don't shine too brightly into the eyes of a single person in the audience.

The final steps before opening night involve tests and adjustments for each light and movement, run by Arhelger and the director.

"We figure out the moments that we want to highlight and how we want light to move and how we want people to be featured," says Arhelger, who has designed lighting for a handful of Jarvis Conservatory productions and San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose operas since joining SFSU in 1999. "We do that for a couple days and refine it during previews."

The entire process requires a great deal of attention to detail and organization -- something that Arhelger attempts to impart to her students.

Florentina Schendel, an aspiring theatre director who received an MFA from SFSU in 2002, learned a great deal about lighting from Arhelger. She admires Arhelger's passion for lighting and teaching.

"After I took her class, I was able to see light in an artistic way like I never had before," said Schendel, who is now studying for a doctorate in directing at Stanford University.

Arhelger gains design inspiration from her love of theatre, music, dance and art. But, as an avid hiker, she is inspired especially by the beauty of the sunrise and sunset.

"The sunset and sunrise are the most exciting and spectacular moments, although moonlight is pretty spectacular in itself," says the Upper Haight resident, whose hobbies also include singing, dancing and playing tennis. "I love to appreciate all those moments and I love to make students see those same moments in the same way. That also tells us how we tell stories."

Arhelger's lighting will take center stage in several upcoming traveling shows. "Fräulein Else" will soon head to Yale, Princeton and Europe. A Wadsworth production of "Don Juan" for which Arhelger is designing lighting will premiere in May at The Old Globe in San Diego. She will also supervise a student lighting designer for the Theatre Arts Department production of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Assassins" in May.

Her next lighting design job for the San Francisco Opera is scheduled for 2005, in a production of Beethoven's "Fidelo."

-- Matt Itelson

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Last modified November 3, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs