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A Storyteller Who Lit the Way: Theatre community mourns the loss of educator, designer, and mentor Dr. David Alec Nancarrow.

On October 29, 2018, the world lost an exceptional designer and collaborator, both in lighting and scenery. But with the passing of Dr. David Alec Nancarrow, hundreds of theatre professionals also lost a truly inspirational mentor. Those who were part of the Drama Department at the University of Texas during Nancarrow's 41-year tenure, whether as designers, technicians, educators, directors, or acting students, were touched by his passion for the art of storytelling and the importance of doing it well. While he was also an accomplished scenic designer and a decent actor, Nancarrow's major theatrical language was that of lighting design, and he considered himself "a lighter."

Nancarrow did not simply walk into a room. His enthusiasm for life led him into the room, followed by his big booming English-accented voice, bellowing out some exhilarating idea. It might have been the solution to his current design challenge or the idea that we should sell pies during the intermission of Sweeney Todd (which we did). Whatever it was, he had you just as excited about the idea as he was. Nancarrow's zest for life and the theatre was unparalleled and infected all that he did. While going to his classes was never a chore, since they were never anything but enthralling, his teaching was not limited to the classroom. Teaching and learning happened everywhere a student may have encountered him: in his office, on stage focusing lights, on the headset in tech rehearsals, over the midnight chocolate-chip pancakes he made for his lighting assistants following the final season strike, or in the hallway during a chance encounter. Nancarrow always held our undivided attention as we were captivated by the wisdom or story pouring out of his mind.

Students encountered Nancarrow's approach to lighting design in his Stage Lighting class syllabus, which he began with a mashed-up quote by Robert Edmond Jones from The Dramatic Imagination: "But at rare moments, in the long quiet hours of light-rehearsals, a strange thing happens. We are overcome by a realization of the livingness of light. Lucidity, penetration, awareness, discovery, inwardness wonder.... These are the qualities we should try to achieve in our lighting. Does this mean that we are to carry images of poetry and vision and high passion in our minds while we are shouting our orders to electricians on ladders in light-rehearsals? Yes. This is what it means."

As student electricians, we witnessed him bring to life the meaning of these quotes in every focus and tech rehearsal. There was always such a joy in focusing for Nancarrow when one of his uniquely placed lighting fixtures (like far-cycs on the lighting bridge) was turned on and created exactly what he had envisioned, leading him to exclaim his design victory in his low tone full-bellied, "A-ha!" As electricians, we willingly rigged lights for him in unusual or uncustomary locations because we knew he had thought through every paintbrush stroke of light he had plotted, and although we might not understand at the time why it was there, we waited with great enthusiasm to see what magic would unfold as a result.

Nancarrow's zest for life was undoubtedly influenced by his childhood growing up in England during WWII, where life was uncertain. As he once said to me, "You didn't know when the bombs were going to come again." Because of the bombing in London, Nancarrow was often shipped from his parents' home south of London to a safer village in southwest England to be with his grandparents. He met many young American soldiers stationed at the Hinton-in-the-Hedges air base down the road from the village, and helped his granddad run his small pub. I don't doubt these experiences helped him to learn at an early age how to tell a story. His granddad taught him to read using the Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare, which started a lifelong love of the Bard's work. Following the war, Nancarrow's schooling would return to normal, and it was during his grammar school years that he started to play around in the theatre. He began as an actor, but he found backstage work more to his liking. Following his primary education in England, he went to work as a lab assistant at Guys Hospital in London where his creativity and intelligence caught the attention of an American doctor working there. Dr. Camp sponsored Nancarrow to come to America and his family established a scholarship for Nancarrow to study pre-med at the University of Virginia.

While Nancarrow did come to America and pursue pre-med studies, he also continued to explore the theatre and was as a very active member of the drama department at UVA. He acted, did tech, and designed, but only in between his classes and his night shifts as a scrub nurse at the University Hospital. Nancarrow was indeed accepted into the UVA Medical School for his post-graduate work, but he instead chose to study theatre design at Yale. Although his benefactors were disappointed that he was leaving the medical field, they continued their support of Nancarrow through graduate school studies. This was the type of generosity he would pay forward with many of his own students years later as he helped us pursue our dreams.

Arriving at the Yale School of Drama to study theatrical design in 1960, Nancarrow thought his major focus would be scenic design, and he was given the rigging assistantship with that in mind. However, while he was strongly influenced by scenery designer W. Oren Parker, it would be Stanley McCandless (his beloved "Mac") who was his strongest influence. By the end of his first year at Yale, Nancarrow found his greatest joy in shining lights at actors and scenery. In addition to being influenced as a designer by Mac and Oren Parker, Nancarrow also assisted Jean Rosenthal during his semesters at Yale and "learned a few tricks" from her. In the summer of 1963, at the suggestion of McCandless, Nancarrow applied for the position of lighting designer at the University of Texas. UT drama department chairman Loren Winship was interested in starting a Lighting Design program there, and Nancarrow would round out the design triumvirate of scene designer Dr. John Rothgeb and costume designer Dr. Paul Reinhardt. Over the next 20 years, these three created a formidable design program, which was considered one of the best in the country. At UT, Nancarrow met and worked with theatre luminary Dr. B. Iden Payne. It was Payne who suggested that Nancarrow pursue his Ph.D. studies at the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham, and in 1975 he graduated with his doctorate in a program created specifically for his interest in the technical aspects of historical Shakespeare productions.

During his time at the University of Texas, Nancarrow served as head of the design area, graduate advisor, acting department chair, and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts. He created many lighting and scenic designs for the department of theatre and dance and the opera department productions, as well as acting in a few. He worked closely with the UT Alumni Association for more than 35 years, serving as the designer and production manager for the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards program. In lieu of a design fee for this service, the Texas Exes provided a scholarship in Nancarrow's name, which was awarded to one student annually. Nancarrow considered winning the UT Outstanding Teaching Award twice as one of his greatest honors at the university, because it was voted on by the students.

Nancarrow had a very active professional design career in the Austin area that continued after his retirement from UT. He designed for Ballet Austin, The State Theatre, Mary Moody Northen Theatre, and Austin Opera. Asked by Walter DeCloux to serve as the resident lighting designer, Nancarrow was a founding artistic member of Austin Opera (Austin Lyric Opera), for whom he designed lighting for more than 60 productions. Many opera audience members knew Nancarrow as the handsome designer taking his bow dressed in his frock coat or kilt. Nancarrow's first production with Austin Opera at the Bass Concert Hall was one of his favorite operas, The Magic Flute, with scenery designed by Maurice Sendak. In 2008, Nancarrow helped usher the opera company into Austin's new performing arts center, The Long Center.

It was during several dress rehearsals of my own for Austin Opera when I had the privilege of Nancarrow sitting behind me as a colleague. Nancarrow had retired from designing for the company, but still came to tech rehearsals to see what the company was creating. Even though it had been many years since we had been in a similar arrangement while I was a student, he still leaned forward and whispered his appreciation of my design choices and very sage design advice into my ears. After all those years, he remained the passionate teacher with the same chortle when he knew you had truly understood a concept and that Nancarrow gleam in his eye that he would get just before he launched into another fantastic story you knew you were inevitably going to thoroughly enjoy. I learned so much from him, as so many of us did. We learned to dream, to take risks, to never stop playing, to never stop learning, that blue, blue, and blue was a great color palette, and to never let the design get in the way of the storytelling. However, the most important lesson I learned from Nancarrow: Always put your family first, because at the end of the day, no matter how much we enjoy our work in the theatre, it was just that--our work--and it should not be our lives. Just as we watched Nancarrow live out the principles of Robert Edmond Jones' quote in his design work, we also saw him live out the advice to put your family first in one's life. His greatest passions were saved, not for his design work, but for his beloved wife, Mary, and his three daughters, Megan, Shelagh, and Ariel.

For those of us who had the honor of experiencing David Nancarrow as an instructor, working alongside him as a colleague, or both, our lives will be forever be blessed with the knowledge we gained from him and the memories we share. While there is a void in all of our hearts with Nancarrow's passing, we also know that from now on the great Leko in the sky will be perfectly focused!


Kathryn Eader has worked as a lighting designer in theatre for more than 30 years. She worked extensively during that time in opera designing for such companies as Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Portland Opera, Syracuse Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Butler Opera Center (UT) and Austin Opera. She earned her bachelor's degree in film production from the University of Texas and her MFA in theatrical design from New York University. She currently is the chair of the Department of Performing Arts at St. Edward's University where she also serves at the head of the design/technology area.
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Author:Eader, Kathryn
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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