By Allison Choat and Sharmy Altshuler, with contributions from Robert Salzberg, Mike Hermann, John Devlin, Keelia Liptak, and Sam Biondolillo. All fabrications copyright Jeffrey E. Salzberg.
“The 2012 Tony Award. The 2013 Obie. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. These are among the many awards that Lighting Designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg has never won.”
So begins one of Jeff’s famous autobiographies, pulled straight from a Moonbox playbill. Its companion pieces, scattered through numerous other shows’ programs, include his time as an expert on rare fungi – “nobody knows the truffles he’s seen” – as well as a meticulously detailed personal history that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the life story of Casablanca hero Rick Blaine.
Jeff passed away on April 8 of a heart attack, two years after surviving a debilitating stroke. Despite his recent health challenges, he never tired of seeing his friends (and especially their dogs), talking politics over a decent cup of coffee, and making us laugh and feel grateful to be his friend.
Jeff was a compassionate curmudgeon. As a person, he was generous, insightful, and caring, with an incisive wit. As an artist, he was talented, ingenious, and exacting, with a deft hand and a deeply collaborative spirit. In addition to lighting most of Moonbox’s shows, Jeff created our “Shadowbox Mentorship Program”, where emerging theater artists partner with professionals to observe productions from start to finish. Jeff’s passion for theater was second only to his passion for giving young people opportunities to learn, excel, and belong.
Jeff was born in Houston, Texas, on February 19, 1951. His mother Ethel’s family was from Texas, and his father, Jerome, was from the Bronx. He attended Westbury High School, where he explored a budding interest in technical theater and also appeared in his school’s productions of The Sound of Music and South Pacific. When a new Jewish community center opened in town, Jeff, along with his friends Mike and Freddy, installed most of the theater’s lighting. The theater’s young director was named Marvin Weitzel, and together, Jeff and his friends became known as “Marvin’s Marauders”. Jeff went on to run lights for most of the theater’s events.
Jeff was involved in anti-war protests from high school onwards, and received a rare conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. In 1970, he began attending Sam Houston State University, where he performed what was probably his last acting role – Victor, the wacky neighbor in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, a show he would later light for Moonbox.
It was in college that Jeff began to turn his attention fully to technical theater – particularly lighting and lighting design, with a special interest in dance. As his career evolved, Jeff took on a variety of engagements and earned his share of kudos, including a New York Times review that called his work “ingeniously atmospheric”. He was especially known for his work on the Nutcracker, a show he lit with patience and skill up and down the Eastern Seaboard. By the time he joined Moonbox, though, Jeff was focusing on smaller companies where he could build a sense of community. In addition to his work with Moonbox, Jeff worked with St. Michael’s Playhouse and Lost Nation Theater in Vermont, as well as Massachusetts’ own Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse.
As a designer, Jeff was a visionary, with an impressive capacity to spend down any budget. As a technician, he was equal parts innovator and resurrectionist. While he could – and did – make almost any old equipment pull its weight, he was most excited when working with prototypes and other cutting-edge technologies. Jeff’s technical skill and artistic eye also extended beyond the stage to film – photographic film, that is. A gifted photographer whose favorite subject was the ephemeral nature of the stage, Jeff would often set up his digital camera in the back seats during dress rehearsals so he could, as he liked to say, “engage in his favorite pastime – shooting actors”.
As an educator and mentor, in addition to founding Moonbox’s “Shadowbox Mentorship Program”, Jeff taught several college courses on lighting design, and fostered innumerable mentorships and friendships with young and emerging designers. Together with co-author Judy Kupferman, he even produced a complete digital lighting textbook – Stage Lighting for Students.
Jeff’s last full show was as part of the Moonbox family, when he served as Lighting Designer and Mentorship Coordinator for 2019’s Caroline, or Change. Jeff considered that design – which was by turns lush, searing, and intimate – to be one of the most beautiful of his career, and we can’t help but agree. Caroline also gave Jeff the chance to help create Moonbox Productions’ first actual moonbox – a theatrical tool that, when lit from behind and flown from the rafters, resembles a glowing moon.
When he worked with us on Caroline, Jeff shared not just his artistry, but also his personal history: like one of the show’s main characters, and like its author Tony Kushner, he grew up Jewish in the mid-century American South. His perspective on faith, prayer and culture – which he offered with uncomplicated, generous honesty – proved invaluable to the cast and creative team.
Jeff’s friend John recalls that “while Jeff was not a particularly spiritual person, I know he respected spirituality and the rituals that came with it. I feel the theatre was his temple, and he worshiped there often.” Like the Moonbox he helped create for Caroline, Jeff was an inspiration, a technical marvel, and occasionally squeaked when not properly maintained. Of his many illustrious years as a designer, Jeff once wrote “Jeffrey E. Salzberg has been lighting theatre, ballet, and modern dance troupes for over 30 years, and is thinking of making a career out of it. Mr. Salzberg’s friends are still hoping that someday he’ll get a real job.”
Thank you for everything, Jeff – your friendship, your partnership and your wisdom. May you be resting in peace, with coffee in abundance. We will rest assured knowing that, wherever you are, you are lighting the heck out of it.