Tallgrass Gothic, 2006

David L. Thayer

(1930 – 2020)
It is with a heavy heart that the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa
marks the passing of David L. Thayer on April 2, 2020.

David ThayerDavid L. Thayer

I learned quickly from David that his most important questions were always, what is the play about and what are our expectations for how the audience interprets our choices. Prior to Iowa, I had been trained in a very conceptual approach to design, but very little of that work involved thinking about the audience.  This was my first lesson. – Bryon Winn

A Message from Alan MacVey
Remarks from David Thayer
Memories of David Thayer
Archival Legacy
Production Design
A Legacy of Light
Reflections in Memoriam
David L. Thayer Memorial Scholarship Fund

Biographical Snapshot

After receiving his B.S. in Physics and Mathematics from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, in 1952, David Thayer (DT) came to the University of Iowa for graduate study in 1953 in what was then called the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art, still chaired by its founder, E.C. Mabie (1893-1956). His initial teaching assistantship at Iowa was in television. In 1955, he completed his M.A., and Mabie hired him as an Instructor of Dramatic Art, his first Iowa faculty appointment. He became an Assistant Professor in 1960 after he earned his PhD with a dissertation entitled "A Study of the Influences of Conventional Film Lighting on Audience Response." He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1965 and Full Professor in 1968.

David headed the Design Program from 1973 to 1996 and the Theatre Technology Program from 1973 until its discontinuation in 1993. He served multiple years as Production Manager for the Performing Arts Production Unit, University Theatres, and the Iowa Center for the Arts. As a consultant for the planning of several University buildings, he played a lead role in the design of the 1985 addition to Mabie Theatre to form the Theatre Building, which featured two new experimental theatres, originally called Theatre A and Theatre B. As Interim Department Chair in 1990-91, David presided over the hiring of Alan MacVey, who began his term as Chair in Fall 1991.

A prolific artist, David designed lighting for world premiere productions of 21 plays, 7 operas, more than 100 dances, and over 150 other productions on campus and elsewhere, including many in the auditorium of the old Hancher over that building’s lifetime (1972-2008). David was instrumental in establishing design as a central element in the American College Theatre Festival, and in 1997 was honored with the Kennedy Center/ACTF Gold Medallion for Lifetime Service. After 42 years as a full-time Iowa faculty member, David officially retired in 1997. That year, Theatre A was dedicated to him and renamed in his honor. David continued to teach on an adjunct basis, attend faculty meetings, serve on committees, and design one or two productions each year until 2016.

Scholarship Fund

The David L. Thayer Memorial Scholarship Fund has been created, started by a generous gift from Judy Thayer, David's wife, to support graduate students in the Department of Theatre Arts' design program. The design program of the Department of Theatre Arts is dedicated to the lasting legacy of the lifetime of excellence that David modeled, in addition to helping theatre artists at the start of their careers.  Please make a gift in support of the David Thayer Scholarship Fund today.

A Message from Alan MacVey

DEO of Theatre Arts 1991 - 2019

When I arrived at Iowa in 1991, David Thayer had already been a member of the faculty for some 36 years. He was the DEO who hired me, taking a chance on an unknown, somewhat untried person to lead the department he cared so much about. He didn’t do this lightly. In more than one meeting he probed my experience, trying to be sure if he could trust the department he loved, and which he led, to a new generation. Once that decision was made, he did everything he could to empower me and others in that next generation – Kim and Art were among them – so that the transition could take place so seamlessly no one would even notice.

Once I sat in the chair that David had occupied, he and I met all the time. I asked endless questions and his answers, like David himself, were straight on, recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, saying clearly what we had to do to thrive in what he saw was a new world of higher education. He was right about everything, as we have seen with changes in administration, budget, and what many people consider the goals of learning.

David always saw the future. He knew long before anyone else that the digital world was coming – especially in design, but really in everything. He knew that our graduate programs had to be stable and powerful but that the undergraduates were the key to our success. He saw that we could not strengthen one element of our program unless we strengthened them all.

Luck of the Irish, 2015Luck of the Irish, 2015

When David retired in 1997, he didn’t retreat to his living room. He stayed active as a mentor to me, Bryon and others, as a designer for dozens of shows, and as a participant in faculty meetings and design seminars. He was the one who re-energized our effort to add alumni to the Iowa Theatre Gallery, and for years led that process. He saw the past and the future. He knew we had to honor those who came before while preparing ourselves for what comes next.

David is the last of his generation of theatre faculty to pass away. Cosmo Catalano and David Schaal, extraordinary colleagues, had already left us. The three of them handed the baton to Art, Kim, Eric Forsythe and me, and onward to John, Loyce, Bryon, and then again to the great faculty we have today. A great faculty does not arrive by chance. It is chosen carefully by those who go before, by those who have given their best efforts to their students and their art. David passed this understanding on to us. His integrity, dedication and love of his department guided us for decades.  They will guide us in the turbulent times to come. We owe him more than we know.

DT’s remarks

from the Celebration honoring his career, held on February 13, 2019 in Thayer Theatre in the Theatre Building

Well now!

I want to thank all of you for coming to this event.  I call it an event because I don’t know what its about.  But thank you, just the same.

When I first got here in 1953, the department was “Speech and Dramatic Art” and included film and television as well as speech and theatre.  Dewey Stuit was dean and Virgil Hancher was president.  We had only two theatres on campus; What would later be called E. C. Mabie Theatre and Macbride Auditorium.  Macbride was the home of opera and later of dance.   Mr Edward Mabie was in charge of the theatre division.  I was assigned to the television studio because I had worked at Ames for a quarter in the WOI studio—the only television station in the state.  The department had three faculty in acting and directing, two in history and literature, and three in production.

The department offered five degrees—BA and BS, MA and MS, and PhD.  Incidentally, I do have a PhD and served on several dissertation committees, but only one student ever referred to me as Doctor Thayer.  In Mabie Theatre, we had a General Electric lighting control board which had forty-eight dimmers but no presets.  Also in Mabie there were no coves in the side walls or a grid over the fore-stage. We had lots of plano-convex spotlights but not many Fresnels or ellipsoidal spotlights.  We didn’t have projectors (except for a single Linnebach) .  We did six productions each school year and one or two in the summer, and these were all directed by faculty. The sets were box sets. One original script was performed each year.

So, that’s the situation when I came.  You all know where we are now and know that we have moved a long way from when I came.  I am glad to have been part of this development.  Thank you!

Once upon a time...

David Thayer Tribute Presented by Margaret F. Wenk-Kuchlbauer on February 13, 2019

Once upon a time, and lo these many years ago...David hired me! I will always thank you for that!!  Though the departments divorced soon thereafter, David and I continued to work together as the design team, for years, for many, many operas and dance galas!

Our Cosi fan Tutte, Boris Godunov, Alicia’s Billy the Kid, the Hansel and Gretel; we went for it and did the opera behind a fullstage scrim...ah those Pani projectors! These were a few of the standout memories for sure!

We were so lucky to work in the company of so many talented artists. And, it was our collective delight, especially, to watch the students grow; so many distinguished careers blossomed!
And finally, David... I am, and will be, forever grateful that you tapped me to teach in the design area; an opportunity and reward of a lifetime, thank you!!

Look out Wisconsin, here he comes!!!

Memories of DT

For the February 13, 2019 Celebration, DT’s former students and colleagues sent in these memories, which were read at the event.

Pip Gordon
My education with David was perfect in every way.

David modeled what an excellent teacher and mentor actually is. He was always kind, always honest in his opinion. He was also a realist, clear in his expectations and fierce in his mastery of all things technical. This was his way, the way of the physicist perfectly married to the way of the artist. David taught me to be audacious in my design choices: to take risks, to be bold, to back up those choices with infinite research and technical drawings that made sense! He taught me that even in the narrowest of concepts there is still an expanse of design choices that can be made.

David taught me how to navigate production meetings. The ‘Iowa Way’ was always prodded along by the David Thayer finger in production meetings; this was when he would raise his eyebrow, point his finger right at you and say something like, “I think you had better re-think that idea,” or something like, “You had better recalculate your budget numbers.” What I never heard from David was a “no” – there was always a path to make your vision become reality if your vision was coupled with meticulous preparation and flawless mechanics. 

David taught me the language of design, especially when navigating complex design concepts with budding new playwrights. David taught me the language of light, the mystery of shadow, the dance of texture, the juxtaposition of balance and chaos of a line, of a light beam, of a steel beam, the contrast of pale straw in counterpoint with deep indigo blue, the simple dramatic power of a single bare bulb, the focus of elements within a visual frame.

David taught me how to teach, how to motivate young artists, how to promote excellence in and through the arts. Most importantly, David taught me to stand for principle, whether for an architectural choice for a new theater building or a career choice for the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you David, you have been and always will be, my forever man

Hannah Gale
I remember his lighting design for Conduct of Life in Theater A: green and creepy, like a dense and dangerous jungle. I remember thinking; "so many lights for so much darkness".

Polly Isham Kinney
My name is Polly Isham Kinney and I was a design MFA student at U of Iowa, in the early 1970's. My main area of interest was costumes, but design students did a lot of jobs back then. One of the most memorable for me was technical directing of the play Wozzeck, designed by Herman Sichter. I was not a construction person, so Dr. Thayer was a great help to me, especially when we had to have 2 winches made.  Thanks for your help, Dr. Thayer, in fact,  you did all the work on them!!  Up in the attic, I still have much of the work that I did while at U of Iowa.  Congrats on your retirement and all my best wishes for the future!

Ann Butler
David Thayer was one of the best teachers I've ever had.  He had a unique facility for presenting challenges and puzzles that with work and creative thinking could be solved.  If you were willing to do your part, he would help to see that projects were successful.  He was a great mentor to all the Technical Theatre MFA's in the early 70's and has impacted countless students since then.  I wish David and Judy the best, but is he really going to relax in retirement?

Dr. Jay Edelnant, Professor Emeritus of Theatre at the University of Northern Iowa and former National Chair of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival
I have so many vivid images from productions done by you and your students that it’s hard to catalogue them all. My first Iowa City Show was, appropriately, Marat/Sade circa 1971. And then a long series of KCACTF entries at Iowa City and in various frozen cities around the Midwest and in Washington. Your contributions to the festival and your generosity to the rest of us in Iowa is remembered and appreciated. I particularly remember Nijinsky opening the new theatre [at that time, Theatre A] and the clarity of vision in the (now) Thayer Theatre’s design. I treasure my memories of all of the faculty there when we worked together on the Shakespeare Festival and hosted the regional festivals: Cosmo, Kate Burke, Bob Headley, Tisch Jones, et al. Have a great day and enjoy the ride.

Carol MacVey
David Thayer gave me one of the single most valuable lessons I learned about teaching acting in a theatre department.

During my first year teaching acting here at UI, I had an Acting 1 class that was made up primarily of students who were more interested in the technical side of theatre; many of them were resistant to studying acting. I had never taught acting to anyone who didn’t want to be in the room. Looking for advice, I talked with David Thayer, who was then my supervisor. Why teach acting to people who aren’t interested in it I asked him. His answer went something like this: “When I first started doing theatre I thought I could hide as a designer. These people must know what it’s like to be on that stage since actors are at the heart of what makes theatre. Carol, teach them that no matter what they do in the theatre, they can’t hide. “

Thank you, David, for that lesson and for all you’ve given to our students and to our department.

Kate Keheler, now Kate Murphy
I’ve been known as Kate Murphy for over forty years, but I was Kate Keleher back in the 1970’s.   I received my MFA in Theatrical Design at the University of Iowa in 1974----during which time, David Thayer, Hermann Sichter and Margaret Hall were my mentors.  Their quiet brilliance guided my three years there in the Theatre Department---and my life ever since.

I met David Thayer as I was asking to be allowed into the Theatre Department.  (It’s a long story, but I joined the Theatre program at the last minute that year---and sort of by the back door!)  Anyway, I entered the lobby of Mabie Theater and saw a man in a drab olive jumpsuit.  Thinking he was the custodian, I asked where David Thayer’s office was.  As I recall, he pointed to a small room off the lobby, and I proceeded there to wait.  The “custodian” soon joined me for my “interview”----the first of many happy surprises of the next three years…

Those years were among the happiest of my life---as far as the joys of learning and creating were concerned.   They were also probably among the most exhausting years!  I had an art background, but knew nothing of stage design.  (Tom Bliese even had to teach me how to use the architect scale that first year!)   I had never been happier though.   For the first time, things connected.  I felt like I’d “Come Home” – without having known where “Home” was before.  I finally knew where I fit in.   The next three years weren’t without struggle though:  my brain was definitely a “right” brain, and trying to take Dr. Thayer’s “Physics in Theatre” course was tough!!!

By the way, no one referred to David Thayer to his face as anything other than Dr. Thayer!   When we referred to him among ourselves, it was usually “DT.”

But it was never “David!”   You just can’t do that when you revere someone that much!   It was only later, when I joined the faculty for a year, covering the sabbatical for Margaret Hall, that I could even consider calling him “David” – and that was still hard to do!!!

Tallgrass Gothic, 2006Tallgrass Gothic, 2006

We students were there when the original Hancher Auditorium opened---with all its technical wonders and spanking clean SPACES for the scene shop, the costume shop and the classrooms.  It was GORGEOUS!  (I took the painting section of my United Scenic Artist union exam in that scene shop and the design section in one of the classrooms.  I worked two of my years as a “TA” in the Costume Show with Margaret Hall.  Oh, the happy memories flood back….   Throughout all those years, David Thayer was the quiet, guiding presence for all of us.   He was our North Star.

One very special memory of David Thayer was when he and I were running light cues for La Boheme at Hancher late one night during Summer Rep – after the other show that night had wrapped.   La Boheme was my MFA thesis, the culmination of my three years there in the Theatre Department. I designed ALL the elements for it:  sets, costumes, lights, props, makeup, etc.   I knew every note of that opera---and every vision of mine that went with those notes….

So, there we were, Dr. Thayer and I, in the lighting booth at the back of Hancher, talking through each cue of Act IV – talking through the singers’ movements, adjusting levels for each look, as well as the timings of each light cue.  We got to the point where Mimi dies and her muffed hand drops….  I was in tears (…to this day, I always cry when Mimi dies). I glanced over at Thayer, and his eyes were glistening too....

This quiet man has always felt deeply about every design he has done---and every student he has guided.

What a LEGACY---HIS PROFESSIONAL LIFE that David Thayer leaves in Iowa City as he goes off to new vistas. HE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A GREAT MAN. And I love him very much.

Leonard Curtis
Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Theatre, University of Northern Iowa
UI MFA Class of 1990

A couple of weeks before turning 17 years old, my high school art teacher introduced me to the University of Iowa Fine Arts campus.  One of the highlights of that trip was experiencing my first E. C. Mabie Theatre production:  A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum.  It was featured as part of University Theatre’s 48th season.  The date was early May, 1969.  If you turn to the last page of the program for that event, you’ll find David Thayer’s name listed twice, David Thayer, “Professor-in-Charge of Theatre”, David Thayer, “Design faculty”.  Now, although David was not credited as a member of the design team, I know from personal experience that the person-in-charge frequently has a hand in just about everything. If I remember correctly, David took a bow with the company during the curtain call.  I spotted him as the guy with the long hair, one of the first people to convince me that long hair on guys is cool!  That warm spring evening on the west bank of the Iowa River was my first encounter with the high standards of artistry and teaching characteristic of David’s very long career.

My University of Iowa transcript documents the fact that I took only one class with David Thayer. This record is misleading, for one of David’s strongest gifts is to teach by example, occasionally accompanied by a striking gesture using the index finger of his right hand!  Whether as an advisor and mentor, teacher, or artistic colleague, we as students were guided by a man whose principles and purpose seemed unshakable.  Like a rock.

No one who has participated in a production meeting where David Thayer presides can emerge unchanged.  I used to loathe the 8:30am production meetings in the Conference Room.  One winter morning I managed to depart for University Theatres quite a bit earlier than usual.  It must have been about 7:30am.  Driving through downtown Iowa City, I spotted DT’s MG parked on the street.  In front of a gym!  Later, in the conference room, complemented by a mug of coffee, David directed communications, choices, and declarations by students and faculty alike.  You could always count on David to be the most awake person in the room, prepared to interject with tough, sometimes humiliating, but always necessary, questions.  One morning he scolded a group of assembled graduate students admonishing them that if they found their work excessive or not to their liking, they had better switch career paths immediately.  It was very quiet in the room after David’s authoritative suggestion!

Slaughter City, 2014Slaughter City, 2014

Amidst all the comradery, brilliance, misery, and drama that flourished in those meetings, I found the path to effective communication with artistic and production colleagues.  More importantly, I learned from David the skill of listening attentively and selecting the information or issue most critical to the artistic and production goals of the group, and pursuing its clarification and verification for the benefit of the group.

Those students who listened attentively to David will recall David’s mantra on art and theatre.  As a student on several occasions, I heard David adamantly declare that theatre should be art.  Thus, he encouraged young theatre practitioners towards a challenging, high ideal.

Another strong memory of learning from David concerns his advocacy of respect for the views and choices of individual artistic collaborators.  I witnessed him jumping in to defend an undergraduate student stage manager during a production meeting for Cosmo Catalano’s Fen.  He defended the design choices of a costume designer for Trish Hawkins Summer Rep production of Talley’s Folly.  His defense of students could be fierce.

The following anecdote describes a lesson that makes me smile even to this day.  To celebrate my decision to complete a design MFA at the University of Iowa, David invited Linda Roethke and I to lunch at the Iowa Memorial Union.  As we approached the north entrance to the IMU, Linda and I both stepped into a shortcut worn into the turf.  We both enjoyed a lesson that day, as David, always a model of professional decorum, intoned, “One USES the SIDEWALK!”

Modelling behavior for young theatre artists, David is a compassionate human rights advocate.  I remember him once in a large student group, probably one of the Friday afternoon labs, demanding out loud an end to violence against women.

David Thayer is a teacher of faith.  He steadfastly believes in higher benevolent spirits that we can freely choose as guides for the path that takes us through this life.  This faith was evidenced to me when I witnessed David solemnly taking holy communion during the 2011 life celebration for Cosmo Catalano.  Can blood and body be a metaphor for the physical presence and spiritual impact of art?

Dear David, thank you for the art.  Thank you for the learning.  Thank you for being a guiding spirit.


A list of the courses David taught at the University of Iowa captures the historical scope and depth of his knowledge and influence over more than sixty years as an artist and educator of the performing arts:

Advanced Scenery Construction
Basic TV Techniques
CAD Workshop
Collaborative Process
Design Seminar
Drafting for Designers I, II 
Electrical Control in the Theatre 
Elements of Design 
History of Fashion and Decor I, II 
Lighting II 
Physical Theatre I, II 
Production Management 
Props and Special Effects 
Seminar:  Theatre Architecture
Seminar:  Experimental Research in Theatre
Senior Seminar
Shop Design
Stagecraft and Management
Stage Lighting Design I, II, III, IV, V 
Studio for Theatrical Design
Survey of Visual Arts I, II
Technical Direction Studio
Technical Production
Theatre Crafts
Theatre Practicum

David leaves a long legacy in the generations of students he trained, including former advisees Bryon Winn, UI Professor of Theatre Arts and Director of Theatre; Rick Loula, Production Director for the Performing Arts Production Unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Jim Albert, Lecturer in Theatre Arts and Dance. The Thayer curriculum comprised sequences in stage lighting design, equipment and technique; history of theatre architecture and design; scenic construction from elementary through mechanics and strength of materials; history of fashion and decor; drafting; collaboration (directors and designers), and production management.

Archival Legacy

David Thayer Theater Lighting Collection
Collection of catalogs and brochures document theater lighting systems and equipment, 1953-1984.
21 linear feet
University of Iowa Special Collections

Marcia Thayer Papers
Biographical information, Dance companies, Dance productions, Paul Engle poetry, Teaching responsibilities, University of Iowa Department of Dance, Newspaper Clippings, Photographs, Audiovisual, Artifacts, and Education, 1927-2000
2.5 linear feet
Iowa Women’s Archives.

Production Design List

David Thayer career of designing lighting and scenery spanned 68 years.  He designed lighting for world premiere productions of 21 plays, 7 operas, more than 100 dances, and over 150 other productions on campus and elsewhere from 1948 to 2016.

David prepared an inclusive list, the pdf is linked here.

A Legacy of Light

David Thayer Tribute Presented by Bryon Winn on February 13, 2019

Good afternoon, it is my distinct honor and privilege to be part of this celebration of David Thayer’s six-decade career at the University of Iowa.  For the past 63 years, David has made an enormous impact on the Department of Theatre Arts, the Division of Performing Arts, and The University. It would take hours to list in detail all those significant contributions. Since our time together is brief, I’ll share only a few highlights of David’s career, which from my perspective, have had an indelible impact.


As indicated in the program, David began his teaching career at Iowa after completing his M. A. degree in Dramatic Art in 1955. The chair of his thesis was Walter “Biff” Dewey, who taught lighting at Iowa from 1946 until 1957 before taking a position at The Ohio State University. In 1960, David completed his PhD dissertation and was appointed as an assistant professor. Working alongside designers Arnie Gillette and Margaret Hall, David began to define a lighting design philosophy that would continue until today.  Five years after his appointment as an assistant professor, he was promoted to associate professor.  Three years later, in 1968, he was promoted to the rank of professor.  And in 1973, he became Head of the Design program, a role in which he continued to serve until the year before his retirement, “passing the baton” to Alison Ford in 1996.  It is unlikely that we will ever see another faculty member invest such a vast amount of time, energy, and financial resources in support of the mission of the department as David.

Book of Liz, 2009Book of Liz, 2009

I think it’s also important to place the magnitude of David’s achievements within a historical context. In 1955, we were only about 30 years into what is now referred to as the field of lighting design.  The first book on contemporary stage lighting was written by Stanley McCandless in 1932, after he started teaching lighting in 1925.   So, in effect, David’s career has spanned most of the major innovations in the field of lighting design.

It should also be noted that David’s long and distinguished career is intrinsically linked to the establishment of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, more commonly known as  USITT. USITT was founded in 1960 as an organization to promote dialogue, research, and learning among practitioners of theatre design and technology. National conferences began in 1961, and they have been held annually throughout the United States and Canada since its auspicious beginning. David joined the organization in 1963, and served on the Board of Directors from 1963 until 1971. His service also included positions on the editorial board, and serving as Second Vice President. His role in shaping this organization is immeasurable.

USITT has blossomed to include commissions in every design and technical area plus engineering, education, and architecture.  In recent years, USITT has expanded their role from establishing standards in the entertainment industry to implementing certifications in technical theatre. These workshops promote safety in the areas of rigging, scenery construction, painting, and electrics.  It is also notable that, of the approximately 120 individuals inducted as Fellows of USITT, two of them were David’s mentors and at least three were his students. So, it was not surprising that, at the conference in Ft. Lauderdale last March, David was honored on one of the large banners flown above the trade show floor.


In 1965, USITT published the inaugural issue of Theatre Design and Technology — what has now become a quarterly publication featuring the writing of theatre designers, artisans, architects, and technical staff sharing the latest in innovative approaches to making theatre.  In issue Number 1, David’s article on Planning for Lighting Control Systems foretold of how we would approach lighting design in the future.  His article challenges the industry to create lighting control systems which are responsive in live performance, support conceptual approaches to lighting design, understand the capabilities and limitations of operators, and encourages the use of machines (which we now call computers) to create an interactive tool for design. Keep in mind that the idea of a human-computer interface was only in its infancy at the time of this publication.  It is actually in the early 1960s, with the invention of the mouse and video games, when foundations for the field we now call HCI or Human-Computer Interaction began to emerge.

In the article, David also talked about the idea of a lighting fixture with more than one controllable property.  Intensity was the only viable option at the time, but David saw the possibility of a fixture with capabilities for color changing and movement. In 1954, Century Lighting, had developed a remote spotlight in a carriage for the film industry. And in 1965, Jules Fisher invented the first variable positioning light source for a production of Peter Pan in Texas.  At the same moment, David was writing about how one might control it in a theatrical production.  Ten years after David’s article, in July of 1975, Tharon Musser designed the lighting for A Chorus Line, using the first computerized lighting control console on Broadway.  Then, in 1980, Showco brought the first fully automated light into production. And, in 1986, the USITT engineering commission developed DMX-512, which has been the standard communications protocol for lighting control for the past 32 years. David had presented the template for how to approach the creation of these new technologies, and his original thesis has rippled through the industry. In fact, the impact has been deemed so important that the article was re-printed in the 1994 winter issue of Theatre Design and Technology.

I am going to fast forward past the 1970s, as Rick, and Tom, are with us today and are better positioned to provide some recollections of David during that decade.

She Stoops to Conquer, 2013She Stoops to Conquer, 2013

1980 – 1990

Margaret, is also going to say a few words, but it might helpful to put that in context. In 1981, David began his long series of collaborations with Margaret Wenk. If you count each individual dance work, the series of Madrigal Dinners, and every opera production they tackled together, it amounts to a staggering 75 collaborations — most of which were presented at the original Hancher Auditorium. I have had the pleasure of working with both Margaret and David in a variety of capacities over the past 20 years and viewing many of their collaborations. I can attest that there is something special about the way they work together.  They both are driven, detailed, committed to a strong foundation of research, and often dissatisfied with accepting their first choices. They are both brilliant artists and I am sure that they have had enormous influence on each other’s work and growth through the years. They question everything and see revision and clarification to any design choice as an imperative part of the design process.  They both have a great passion for opera and their work with the director Beaumont Glass was some of the best to be seen each year in Iowa City.

David’s tenacity and commitment to the department continued for decades. One of the most important highlights of his career was the completion of the Theatre Building expansion in the fall of 1985. This addition took years of persistent advocacy, and the story of how it all happened is a rollercoaster ride through an administrative gauntlet. I believe that David is the only faculty member to have witnessed the entire 30+ year process and he was the guiding force toward the fruition of E.C. Mabie’s plan for Phase-Two.  After a series of false starts, construction of the two new theatres and classrooms began in earnest in 1983. When completed, it was the first time the entire Theatre faculty, shops, performance venues, and classrooms were housed in the same building, and this set the stage for our current production capabilities. Both Theatre A and Theatre B were, at the time, state-of the art facilities, and the three-theatre complex has defined the work that we create at Iowa even today.


If you wanted to design the perfect space to teach lighting, it would be these three venues. Theatre B provides the student with opportunities to work and grow as a designer without the need for a large crew of electricians and where changes can be implemented almost immediately. It also presents common challenges faced by designers in small venues throughout the country, as well as abroad.  I cannot imagine a better space for training entry level designers.  E. C. Mabie Theatre is another excellent space for training undergraduate and graduate lighting students.

It is full of traditional challenges. There is something about the 32’ proscenium that allows for a large audience to have an intimate experience. The majority of modern plays have been developed for exactly this type of venue and any contemporary lighting student must be facile in working with lighting positions, resource restrictions, and the traditional approaches demanded by Mabie Theatre.

David Thayer Theatre, where we are today, is a space which simply inspires the imagination. As a designer, specifically a lighting designer, this space is an amazing gift.  You have the ability to place a light almost anywhere, quickly and safely. This facility encourages the type of visual experimentation that the contemporary theater demands.  For many of us, if David’s single legacy was the creation of this space, it would be sufficient.  Every significant artist who has passed through the building has commented on this spectacular venue, and it is a testament to David’s vision.  Now, if you talk to David, he will tell you about all the things that were left out of the original plans.  For example, you can still see the empty conduit that chases into Room 401 that should have housed motors and discrete power distribution. We eventually figured that out, and now we have computer-controlled motors that can be connect to lighting consoles which allow moving lights to track flying scenery. David is the embodiment of patience and reminds us that the wheels of progress are often measured in decades.

Luck of the Irish, 2015The Luck of the Irish, 2015

1990 – Present

I first met David in July of 1992. I had been recruited in California, but did not have an opportunity to meet with David until I visited Iowa in the summer, before I started in the MFA program. My first design assignment was to assist David on an adaptation of the Scarlet Letter, written by Naomi Wallace and directed by Carol MacVey. This will come as no surprise to many of you that we did not use that script.

Scarlet Letter

I have many strong recollections of that first production. I had never really assisted another designer before, certainly not a as co-collaborator, and David seemed open to my input from the very beginning. Most of the communication between David and, scenic designer, Anita Stewart, was conducted through me, as Anita was a guest artist working from New York. I learned quickly from David that his most important questions were always, what is the play about and what are our expectations for how the audience interprets our choices. Prior to Iowa, I had been trained in a very conceptual approach to design, but very little of that work involved thinking about the audience.  This was my first lesson.  My second lesson was more technical and something that today I teach rigorously, but it was not part of my early education.  Photometrics is a term describing how to calculate light from the fixture to the stage.  Basically, a way to predict what light will look like from any angle or distance. I had never even thought about this as a problem. But my situation was unique.  I had, by conservative estimate, focused over 50,000 lights before I arrived in Iowa. I had worked in multiple theatres, arenas, and outdoor venues as an electrician. I felt completely confident drawing a light plot without using geometry or trigonometry.

David was not convinced. I went to his office every day for a week, drawing the light plot, and showing my work. Which I will say was exactly what I would have drawn without the math.  However, from that moment forward, I have never created a design without using that process and I have found it to be an invaluable teaching exercise throughout my career.

1990 – Present

During that first year, I was also introduced to David’s design philosophy. Other than the aforementioned what is the play about and what does the audience get out of it baseline, David was subtle about his overall approach to design.  So, I really had to pay attention. Eventually, I started to catch on to his predictable trajectory of inquiry when discussing work. He fundamentally wants to know why you are making choices…no that’s not quite right. He wants to ensure that you know why you are making choices.

David has designed an astonishing volume of work. This includes the lighting design for more than 350 productions, including over 40 operas, 20 new plays, and 140 dances. I have seen at least 40 of these productions, and we actually worked together as designers on O Pioneers! in 2001. As a designer, David is meticulous.  His plan for focus is hyper-detailed and he detests having to turn in a light plot before knowing exactly where the action will take place.  The process of lighting design has shifted dramatically over the past two decades, moving from developing a specific plan out of rehearsals and knowing exactly the purpose of each light on the plot. Today, it has become a process of hanging every possible lighting fixture in advance, and then designing the show during technical rehearsals.  It is a challenge to be precise in your pre-production work in this contemporary scenario.  David is unashamed to demand blocking information and clarify the conceptual approach to the work as early as possible.

Tatoo Girl, 2010Tatoo Girl, 2010

What is particularly distinctive about David’s compositional work, is where there is no light. With David, light levels are often purposefully “down on dimmer” or simply dark.  David knows your eye will adjust and that over-lit shows simply reveal the parts of the room we are trying to conceal. It is imperative that an audience focus on what is important and the work be composed with light. For example, David’s work with choreographer David Berkey was always memorable. The light and dancers fused in a way not truly definable, but always moving. Dance Gala was always a highlight in the year when David was lighting all or parts of the evening. When I think back to David’s work, La Boheme, with Beaumont and Margaret was a particularly evocative event.  A Dream Play, with our great friend Dan Nemteanu was simply visually stunning and included performances from Eric Forsythe and Trish Hawkins.  Both Cabaret and Tall Grass Gothic, where David designed both scenery and lighting in this very venue, were full of breathtaking images. Here are just a few examples…

And one final thought…This may not be readily apparent but, since David’s “retirement” in 1997, he has designed over 60 productions ranging from Dance Gala, Riverside Theatre, The School of Music Opera program, Holiday Pops, the Madrigal Dinners, Iowa Summer Rep, as well as the mainstage season for The Department of Theatre Arts.  He has been a regular contributor to the Graduate Design Seminar course since 2009, including a series of lectures on the history of opera.  He is a welcome voice during mainstage production presentations and critiques. He is also an important part of end of semester portfolio reviews in the grad design program.  He taught the course Lighting Design II in 2005 and 2012 and I have witnessed how he has influenced the work of a series of graduate and undergraduate lighting design assistants over the past 12 years. He has mentored hundreds of students and his impact on the profession is felt throughout the country every day.

As a colleague, mentor, and friend, David will surely be missed.

Reflections in Memoriam

Since word of DT's passing, more former students and colleagues sent in these memories.

Nicholas Meyer, 1968
What David brought and gave to the University of Iowa is beyond my power to calculate, but what he gave to me personally - generously and cheerfully - will always remain part of my life, my work, living in my memory and in my heart.

John S. Uthoff
BA. 1968, MFA 1974
Past President of USITT
USITT Fellow

What to say about David, our lives were intertwined so long it is hard to come up with just a few lines.
I first knew of Dr. Thayer in the summer of 1962. I was taking the high school workshop in the Old Armory Theatre, and that is where I first started doing lighting design. I eventually became the head of the stage crew at Iowa City High, and also worked the Iowa Summer Repertory theatre in 1963 and 1964.  There was a non-functional saturated core master dimming system for the autotransformer board in the high school at that time, and I asked Dr. Thayer to come out and have a look at it to figure out why it didn’t work. He and Louie Bradfield showed up, traced out how it was wired and found that the thyratron tubes were bad. They were still available, so indeed the system worked after his visit.
I guess that story points out many of David’s qualities. The curiosity, the questioning, the willingness to do unexpected things, and the inquisitiveness about many aspects of theatre. That started his mentorship of me which lasted through my  B.A., Vietnam, my M.F.A, much of my teaching career, and USITT. David introduced me to the idea that there were many ways to do theatre… That theatre didn’t need to be realistic. That points of view should be questioned. One should know what message your production of the play is communicating to the audience. That you should always strive to make your production better.  When he stared at you and pointed his finger, you knew he was going to ask something important, and you needed to have a well thought out answer.
David advised me on so many things, not just theatre, but also about life, and I was always glad to see him.  Even in later years at USITT conferences, he still would look, point the finger and say “What if USITT…” did  this or that?.... and his ideas were always well developed and worth doing.
I missed our visits after he retired, and have great appreciation for the time he spent with me for so many years.

Barry Kemp, BA 1971, Dramatic Art
I was never a student of David’s but he had a significant impact on my eventual career. My last year at Iowa was 1971 and an MFA student director and I went to see David to ask if we could present two plays on the main stage at The Mabie Theater.  One of the plays was to be A View From the Bridge.  The other was an original play I’d written and wanted to direct.  

David looked thoughtful as he told us this had never been done, at least until then.  We asked if there was any reason it couldn’t be?  Giving it more measured thought he said, “I suppose not.”  

The play I’d written and which we produced on the main stage solidified in many people’s minds that writing was the career path for which I was obviously best suited.  I‘ll always be grateful to David for being open to what was then a new idea.  But that was David.

Peter Lach, MFA 1973
David Thayer influenced me more than any other professor in the design program.  In his technical classes, he was soft spoken and patient with the students.  We hung on every word and I was overwhelmed by the vastness of his knowledge.  He shared it with us.  He shared it with me even after graduation.  

Design is not an easy topic to talk about.  David made himself available to the students by working on MFA productions right by our sides.  While lighting is the most intangible part of a production, I learned how it could provide the punctuation marks to the visual presentation.  He didn’t have to talk about it.  It was right there in front of us to see and experience.

John Bergman
Geese Theatre Company & Visiting Associate Professor, MFA playwright program Hollins University.

In 1981 I was directing And They Put Handcuffs On the Flowers in the Armory building- is that what it was called- a beautiful complex place. David Thayer was the designer and the lighting designer. It wasn't his cup of tea yet he instantly suggested an old broken down prison as a possible venue-- he understood the play. There came a moment when he was to set up the lights. Like I said, a complex place to light. I had kept him waiting. He sent an emissary. I stopped everything and he came in with a crew . Then I watched magic, he made light come to the tips of his fingers, he made it bounce, illuminate the entire space in odd ways. When it was time to perform he came three or four times to be sure they got the lighting right and maybe, I hope, to watch the play. A brilliant magic man. Never forgot him. 

Linda Roethke, MFA 1982, Colleague 1986-1992
Professor, Northwestern, USA 829
It is impossible for me to express how deeply David affected and influenced  me as a student and as a colleague.

I meet him in the winter of 1979, when I drove down to Iowa City with my three month old son to interview for graduate school. He didn't even blink an eye about an artist needing to go to graduate school with an infant, though his colleagues in the interview did. He recognized a kindred spirit.

DT, the lighting designer in shorts, the prince and poet of darkness, with the beautiful soul, and the generous smile.

David, you taught me how to collaborate.

I never regret any of those 8 am meetings.  And yes we butted heads, and yes I remember the finger pointed in my direction, but it was always about the relentless desire to find the best answer- the most compelling design.

I carry all you taught me forward David.

Paul M. Zotos, Ed.D., MFA 1983
Adjunct Professor of Humanities, Manchester Community College

Perhaps "cheerleader" is not a term often applied to David Thayer, but David was our biggest cheerleader when, in 1982, grad students pushed for a stronger student voice in USITT.  In our first tutorial back in his office after some contentious meetings at the National Conference led to recognition of student concerns, DT said to me, "I'm proud of you."  I think all who worked for him understand how that felt!

David taught me more than any other teacher I ever had - not just about lighting design and production management, but about how to be a reliable team member and a responsible leader. And boy did he walk the walk as well as talk the talk!

Alicia Brown
Associate Professor Emerita
Department of Dance


My association with David Thayer extended over many years from early E.C. Mabie dance concerts to Dance Gala that I established in 1979. David was a pivotal part of lighting for dance partly due to carrying on the legacy of Marcia Thayer. Had it not been for her talent, creativity, and perseverance, dance would not have flourished at the University of Iowa. 

In the beginning of my tenure at UI, I observed his lighting onstage in productions I was in such as the 1977 Iowa Center for the Arts Opera Theater production of Suor Angelica that I choreographed and performed in. His lighting was magic and added to the dramatic impact of the shimmering, jewel like set. I approached him in the early 80’s and asked if he would be the lighting designer for Dance Gala. Graciously, he said yes. Our 14-years together were spent discussing choreographic concepts and then watching those unfold at the lighting board for my work and that of other faculty, guest artists and guest choreographers.

David listened and welcomed suggestions. He gave the time to give invaluable feedback. It was always a learning process for me. Our relationship was one of mutual respect. He valued the professionalism achieved under my artistic direction of Dance Gala and enjoyed the collaboration with faculty choreographers, guest artists and guest choreographers who took the stage each year. He was a perfectionist and a task master which I appreciated. He quietly went about his work; he was always “there”, and he went beyond the dress rehearsal period to make sure that his work was as he envisioned it. The M&M’s he brought helped us both through the long hours of working out changes for the next evening! I was reassured when David arrived dressed in style with Judy on opening night. His engaging smile said to me that all would go well.

I will remember and treasure his artistry, candor, professionalism, wry humor, and above all, love for the dance.

The lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s
“Do I Hear A Waltz” say:
“Take the moment
Let it happen
Hug the moment
Make it last”

David Thayer did just that.


Patrick Coleman, BA 1984
In 1983, my Junior year as a theatre major at Iowa, David did something I have long thought may well have saved my life. Early in that year the University notified me I was completely out of financial aid, my U-bills were past due and I could not stay enrolled. So I left school, moved to New York, and my life went completely off the rails.

That was the year David established the Marcia Thayer Scholarship fund and I was awarded a share of the inaugural scholarship. This inspired me to pull my life together and was key to my ability to return to Iowa and finish my degree.

I know I offered my thanks to David when I returned to Iowa. But I don’t think he ever knew how monumental this gift was to me and what a turning point it was in my life. I don’t imagine I grasped its magnitude at the time . And I’m sorry that I never wrote to him about how much this gift meant in my life.

David taught me a lot about lighting, foot candles, and of course his favorite “Surprise Pink” gel. But David also gave me a life changing gift, and I’m sure he similarly touched the lives of so many others in over 40 years at Iowa. I hope his family sees some of our many responses, and know that we all celebrate David’s life along with them.

Thank you David Thayer!

Todd J. McNerney, MFA 1988, Acting
Associate Dean - School of the Arts, Professor - Department of Theatre and Dance
, College of Charleston
Even though I was in the Acting MFA, I served as his TA for one year. It was the  second year of our being in the new building. Well, I spent that entire year sorting through David's "collection" of lighting fixtures and control devices etc. - which were given space on the third level above the light booth in what we then called Theatre A. It was like  working in a museum and  I discovered so many cool things (and to be honest some that I wondered "why in the world save this?"). Since I never had class with David, my exchanges with him were usually about what tasks he wanted me to accomplish or occasionally my asking him about some unique device or other. He was always open to talking and was equally patient in his responses, but always in a sort of measured way. I remember feeling that he held things so close to his vest that I could never quite get a read on what he thought about me or my questions. After all I was in the Acting program, did he think me just a fool? In my last Playwrights Festival, in addition to acting in a production, I also designed the lights for a different one. In the talkback after that production someone made a positive comment about the lighting design and as I looked out into the house .... I saw DT sitting near the back of the house, simply and quietly nodding in agreement. To this day, it is one of the top compliments I have ever received. I feel blessed that my time at U of I included those afternoons working for him - his teaching, guidance and gentle spirit extended far beyond his work in the classroom.

Judy Gebauer, MFA 1990, Iowa Playwrights Workshop
I did not have the opportunity to study directly with David. But I remember him well as a steady force in the department, with a passion for theatre and all its promise. He commanded enormous loyalty from his students. He was a strong voice for good theatre, honest theatre, and innovative ideas.

I was saddened to hear we had lost him and so grateful to have even had the chance to pass him in the hall now and then, as well as to feel his guiding hand during the Playwrights Festival every spring.

Chuck Hayes, MFA 1993, Technical Director (the last)
DT was an incredible person.  Demanding excellence with attention to detail.  Work harder and smarter.  Spent 4 years with him because when I first arrived (thanks to Gary Reed another Hawkeye mentored me at Augustana) had my eyes on an M.A. because it was easy to be accepted.  Shortly after arriving and applying to the MFA program DT invited me to his office for my interview.  His first words “Are you sure this is what you want to do with the rest of your life?”  Classic.  No doubt an artist but his understanding of people was the best part. He really cared.  Four summers at the Ft. Worth Shakespeare Festival building a giant steel lighting truss in the middle of a city park along with a 40’ wide x 20’ deep x 30’ tall festival stage that was erected, used, struck, and stored each year led me to do crazy things like it. Push the boundaries. Don’t say “why” say “why not?” So many stories so many memories.

Molly Jane Neylan, BA 1999
David got me started as a lighting designer, his Lighting I class really captured my imagination. I went on to work as a lighting designer in the Chicago theater scene for almost 10 years after graduation. His class was the start of of it all. He was so talented, I was very inspired by him. He was also my academic advisor. I will never forget trying to weasel out of a math class, and him staring me down, looking over his glasses at me: "You WILL take Principles of Reasoning!" And so I did. And so I graduated. RIP David Thayer. Thank-you for all you taught me. You will never be forgotten.

Jess Fialko, MFA 2013
I am so grateful that I met and worked with David during my time as an MFA design student at UIowa. The value of his wealth of experience and knowledge is something that simply cannot be measured. I remember him as a thoughtful, passionate, and insightful advisor, with a great sense of humor, too. He was unwavering in his commitment to theatre, design, and education. His presence in the UIowa Theatre Department was a gift.

Tallgrass Gothic, 2006Tallgrass Gothic, 2006

Peggy Mead-Finizio, MFA 2014
David offered all of us so much in experience with life lessons, inspirations, and little things to laugh at for a while. One of my favorite DT looks was the black knee socks with sandals.

Alex Casillas, MFA 2017
Assisting David Thayer was an exercise in honoring tradition while mastering new innovations. His mind was sharp, his eye keen and his desire to stoke potential in young designers was limitless. Though we had vastly different approaches, he taught me that focus was key and that sometimes one light could accomplish what fifty could not. This is now where I begin in my design process: If I had nothing, what would I do? I owe this and more to working with David.

Courtney Gaston, MFA 2020
I really enjoyed having David at our Design Seminar classes and am very happy that I had the opportunity to know him. He was such an interesting person with so much passion for design.