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Marilyn Rennagel, Illuminating A Career In Lighting

Published: January 13, 2018

Newtown resident Marilyn Rennagel has traveled the world shining light on many popular theater performances, rock concerts, and television personalities.

Her career in lighting has come with many triumphs and challenges, but through it all she has been able to learn from each of her experiences.

Born in Los Angeles, Ms Rennagel graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts in 1968 and a MFA in theater technology in 1971.

She jokes that the reason she chose to pursue lighting in the first place was that she had broken two sewing machines and nailed a door to a floor while testing out her interest in costumes and scenery design for theater.

Upon graduating, Ms Rennagel quickly gained momentum in her career by doing lighting for more than 100 one-night rock concerts at half a dozen venues throughout California and Las Vegas.

That path led her to do lighting design for 20 rock tours throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico for bands like The Beach Boys, The Doobie Brothers, and Sly and the Family Stone.

“I started in rock and roll, because that was where I could get hired,” Ms Rennagel said. “From there I went to Las Vegas and worked there quite a bit. Then I decided I really wanted to do theater, so I got a job at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.”

While at the Mark Taper Forum, a 739-seat thrust stage at the Los Angeles Music Center, from 1974 to 1985, she did lighting for seven shows, winning the Drama-Logue Award for Lighting Design for her work on Metamorphosis and Traveler In The Dark.

During that time, she also dived headfirst into lighting for more than a dozen Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.

“Working on Broadway was so terrific,” Ms Rennagel said. “My first Broadway show was Ice Dancing, it was with [figure skaters] JoJo Starbuck and John Curry.”

She recalls how Ms Starbuck was married to NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw at the time and the famous football player would occasionally visit his wife. On one occasion where he went out on the ice to see her, he suddenly slipped and fell.

“My entire crew — I’ve never seen them move so fast — they all ran to him going ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ He was,” she assured.

Despite being constantly cold and having to worry about the lights’ reflections on the ice, as it would melt, Ms Rennagel enjoyed her experience lighting Ice Dancing at the Minskoff Theater in 1978.

Throughout her career she not only navigated through some tense times in performers’ lives, like doing lighting for Diana Ross right after she broke up with The Supremes, but also was able to witness some hilarious scenarios, like when she went to Italy to light a Frank Zappa show and the entire town had to come out to see it because the concert used all the town’s electricity.

Ms Rennagel understands the work that she does is important, but remains humble, saying “Somebody once told me — and I think it is really, really true — nobody ever bought a ticket to see the lighting.”

Reevaluating

Even with many successes, there have been discouraging moments in the industry where Ms Rennagel had to choose whether to continue with her career in lighting.

“I stopped in 1989 with lighting in general and went back to school at Rutgers. I studied landscape architecture, and I have a BS degree in that,” Ms Rennagel said.

What caused her to leave and pursue other interests, she says, was the late-80s British invasion that brought more designers flooding Broadway. She began doing regional work in New York that left her feeling unsatisfied.

Looking to adapt, she went back to school, and enjoyed the opportunity it gave her to learn and grow. She recommends everyone experience that at some point.

“It is a chance to reexamine what your values are and what you want to be doing,” Ms Rennagel said. “I discovered a real love of history.”

What drew her to return to the world of lighting was a good friend working on soap operas, who convinced her it was a worthwhile position.

“I don’t think I ever worked so hard in my life. It was just horrible,” Ms Rennagel said, recalling her short tenure working on soap operas.

“You went in at 3 in the morning and sometimes didn’t get out until midnight… We had to light six or seven sets,” she explained. “Then the next day you’d have to come in and do up your plots for the next day that you were coming in at 3 in the morning.

“I stopped eating, I didn’t talk to my friends for weeks on end, then I had to quit to like, six people, before I could find anybody that would accept my resignation.”

Even though it proved to be an area of work she did not want to remain doing, she said it was a good learning experience for camera lighting. It also helped her transition into her most recent career path, lighting for mainstream television.

She worked on a number of popular daytime shows throughout the early 2000s, including those of Rosie O’Donnell, Sally Jesse Raphael, Maury Povich, Ricki Lake, Martha Stewart, and Rachel Ray.

Since 2007, Ms Rennagel has been enjoying doing the lighting design for The Wendy Williams Show, which is currently on its ninth season.

Newtown’s Tercentennial

One of Ms Rennagel’s absolute favorite projects, where she was able to use her lighting expertise, was for Newtown’s Tercentennial.

On October 1, 2005, Ms Rennagel served as the lighting and scenic director for the Tableaux Vivants, which featured important scenes and people from Newtown’s history brought to life.

Being part of the town’s monumental 300th birthday celebration, she said, allowed her to meet many wonderful people like Amber Edwards, who did the project’s producing and directing, and Newtown Historian Dan Cruson, who did the narration and historical consulting.

In The Newtown Bee’s article “300 Years of Living History,” published on October 7, 2005, Mr Cruson spoke highly of Ms Rennagel’s work, having said, “She’s an absolute genius… She was able to create a starkness between the characters and the background that made it look like a wax museum on that stage. It was the lighting that did it.”

Reminiscing about her time helping with Newtown’s Tercentennial production, Ms Rennagel said, “It was such an amazing experience, and I truly, truly, loved it… It was so wonderful to see a town come together on a project.”

Looking toward future endeavors, Ms Rennagel says she is always looking to expand her mind and set goals.

“I would like to do The Grammy Awards one year, I really would, but my chances are between nothing and zero,” she says with a laugh.

Outside of lighting, she says that when she retires she looks forward to continuing her studies in history.

For those interested in pursuing a career in lighting, she recommends seizing every opportunity possible and doing all the shows available.

“Practical experience is always the best,” Ms Rennagel said. “I would say to anyone, you need a degree to just continue in life. So many times the general education that I received has proven to be so valuable.”

No matter what Ms Rennagel chooses to take part in next — whether it be school, award shows, or something she has yet to discover a newfound passion for — it is clear that nothing can extinguish the light she radiates each day.

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