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Neil Peter Jampolis lit up the stages and lives of his coworkers, students

Neil Peter Jampolis, a professor in the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television for 26 years, died Dec. 15. Jampolis was a lighting, scene and costume designer who was nominated for four Tonys over the course of his career and won one. (Courtesy of UCLA Newsroom)

By Alexis Duke

Jan. 27, 2020 12:06 a.m.

Neil Peter Jampolis would sneak into the back of Broadway productions when he was a child to watch sets come together or actors rehearse.

Jampolis’ career celebrated his love of the theater – he was a renowned lighting, scene and costume designer as well as a professor emeritus in the theater department at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. He died Dec. 15 from complications related to leukemia at the age of 76.

He received four Tony nominations throughout his career and eventually won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for lighting design in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Sherlock Holmes.” His scenery and lighting work was featured in over three dozen Broadway shows, and he helped design and direct operas shown all over the world.

Friends and colleagues described Jampolis as a visionary designer with a passion for the stage.

“Even though he had done hundreds and hundreds of plays, he still approached attending a play the way I thought a child might and get the delight of being taken to the theater,” said Michael Hackett, a professor and the head of directing at TFT.

Alongside his successful career in stage design, Jampolis spent 26 years teaching in the theater department at UCLA.

Jampolis was a brilliant and critical teacher, known for his incisive and honest feedback on others’ work, said former student Ella Pravetz.

“He had a little twinkle in his eye as he would tear something apart,” she said. “It was really a gift when you think about it. … I think it was because he loved the theater so much, he didn’t want to see a bad version of it.”

John Garofalo, a former student and now a theater lighting and sound designer, said he remembers the anxiety he felt at the end of one of his final shows in graduate school waiting for Jampolis’ feedback.

“At the end of the show, he just comes up to me and says, ‘That was good,’” Garofalo said. “I was in such shock.”

Stuart Ross, the writer of the off-Broadway musical “Forever Plaid,” often came to Jampolis for advice because of his experience and straightforwardness.

“He would always sort of look at the show, resting his head between his thumb and his index finger, and go, ‘Hmm, maybe,’ about everything,” Ross said. “I would always go to Neil. We liked working with each other so much.”

Garofalo said Jampolis’ insight helped him develop his own personal style to become an artist with integrity.

“I can tell you without question that I see differently. I can quite literally see differently than before I met Neil,” he said.

Jampolis’ expertise extended past stage design, Garofalo said, and he was regarded as somewhat of a Renaissance man, able to keep up with any conversation. He was well informed of the news and the music scene, and he often talked about classic literature with colleagues.

“He thought that was important: To be in the theater, you had to know the world around you,” Hackett said.

Jampolis wasn’t just a skilled conversationalist, but also a great friend, according to those he worked with.

“It’s like we never stopped laughing,” Ross said. “I can think of a hundred funny, wonderful moments.”

Jampolis had known for months that he was dying, Garofalo said. But it was during Jampolis’ last production, “The Magic Flute,” where he last looked truly alive, Garofalo added.

Garofalo said Jampolis had turned to him and said, “I know this is my last show. I know I’m not going to make it through another one. I can’t tell you how happy I am. We’re doing my favorite opera, my favorite design, at one of my favorite venues in the world, with my favorite people. I can’t think of a better way to go out.”

People who knew Jampolis said he will be remembered for his dedication to the stage.

“I want the world to know what they already knew (about Jampolis),” Hackett said. “I want them to know how truly beautiful his lights were.”

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