In Memoriam: William B. Warfel

As we close 2017, we note the passing earlier this year of Bill Warfel, a significant figure in our profession, a friend, and a mentor. This is an extended version of a memorial published in Yale School of Drama’s 2017 Alumni Magazine.

 Bill and Phyllis Warfel at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in 2012. Photo courtesy of The Defining Image LLC.

Bill and Phyllis Warfel at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in 2012. Photo courtesy of The Defining Image LLC.

William B. Warfel, teacher, author, lighting designer, theater consultant, and Professor Emeritus of Theater Design at Yale School of Drama, died on May 28, 2017. He was 84. Bill is survived by his wife Phyllis Warfel, daughters Arden Lowe and Katherine Trudeau, four grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.

Bill was born February 12, 1933 in Holyoke, Massachusetts and spent his early years in New England. His family moved to the Philippines after WWII, where Bill graduated from the American School. A classmate described him as “trustworthy, kind, and friendly”—qualities he displayed throughout his life. While attending Yale College, Bill took classes at Yale School of Drama and met his future wife Phyllis Johnson. They married the day after Bill received his BA and Phyllis her MFA. That fall, Bill attended Yale School of Drama and, because of the courses he had already taken, earned his MFA in 1957.

After graduation, Bill spent five years as Technical Director and Instructor of Humanities at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He and Phyllis were soon the parents of two girls, and they observed that Hanover (a decade before Dartmouth became coed) was not where they wished to raise their daughters. In 1962, Bill went to work for Century Lighting in New York, designing stage and architectural lighting fixtures and installations, and beginning a 50-year career that bridged stage and architectural lighting design. In 1966, Bill formed a lighting design partnership with Don Gersztoff and Jim Nuckolls, and in 1968 he joined the New York office of Bolt, Beranek and Newman, which was then expanding from acoustics into lighting design and theater consulting. Bill set up his own architectural lighting design practice in New Haven in 1971, and continued to practice there under various business names until shortly before his death. Bill’s work as an architectural lighting designer comprised hundreds of projects, including urban streetscapes, public structures, and buildings of all types. His early work included special effects lighting for the Unisphere at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and one of his last projects was exhibit lighting for the museum in Peru housing the repatriated Machu Picchu artifacts.

Bill returned to Yale School of Drama in 1967 as a faculty member in Design and Lighting Director at Yale Repertory Theatre, positions he held for 27 years. For most of that time, 1972 to 1993, he was co-chair of Design. He lit many productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, revived on multiple occasions at Yale and later at American Repertory Theatre, and the 25th Anniversary production of Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot, which also played on Broadway. He designed many productions for Yale Baroque Opera Project, Yale Opera, and other companies. Toni Dorfman, Yale Theater Studies faculty, recalls Bill as “the consummate theatrical collaborator: ingenious, resourceful, kind, encouraging, prepared, alert, generous, honest, unhurried but efficient, and ever optimistic.”

Following a successful collaboration on the 1975 renovation of the Yale Repertory Theatre, Bill merged his lighting design practice into a partnership with fellow faculty member John Robert Hood. The new firm, Systems Design Associates, offered both architectural lighting design and theater consulting services. Over the course of two decades, Bill consulted on over sixty theater construction and renovation projects, traveling to Ecuador, Nigeria, and throughout the United States. Both Bill Conner FASTC and I began our consulting careers at this firm.

Bill Warfel was the author of The Handbook of Stage Lighting Graphics (1974) and The New Handbook of Stage Lighting Graphics (1990). Both volumes were widely used as college textbooks. He wrote articles for Architectural Lighting, LD+A, and other magazines, and he addressed academic and professional groups in China, Egypt, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and many places in the United States. He received awards from several professional organizations for his work.

In the mid-1970s Bill and his student Walt Klappert began the “color project," measuring the spectral profile and transmittance of over 500 stage lighting color filters (“gels”) from six different manufacturers. Walt notes they were eventually joined by a dozen additional students and Bill’s daughters. Based on the color project, Bill and Walt wrote Color Science for Lighting the Stage, published by Yale University Press in 1981. This pioneering text provided lighting designers with an accurate explanation of color science and independent and comparable technical data on the color filters available at market. Bill and Walt followed up in 1996 with the GelFile computer program, which gave users the ability to see how multiple colors would interact when lights overlapped. Their efforts forced manufacturers to improve their technical data and, more importantly, changed how designers think about and work with color.

The significance of Bill’s achievements as a designer of stage and architectural lighting, theater consultant, and author are complemented by the accomplishments of so many field leaders who studied with him. Bill was profoundly dedicated to teaching and to the well-being of his students, and he is remembered as much for his humanity and his kindness as for his excellent work. Like many others, I knew Bill as a teacher, mentor, generous friend, and gentle soul. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for his role in my life. I will miss him.

Gene Leitermann is co-founder of Nextstage Design, an educator, and a theater consultant with more than 30 years of experience.