Leaving More Than A Rack Behind

by August Schulenburg

in Interviews

Post image for Leaving More Than A Rack Behind

(All photos by Lee Butz. Pictured: Christopher Coucill, Rachael Joffred)

At first glance, photography and theatre appear to be arts in opposition. Audience cameras aren’t allowed in the theatre, after all, and no photograph can capture the exchange of energy between actor and audience that is a play’s ephemeral essence.

To what end, then, does the stage photographer stand in the audience, snapping away?

At my alma mater DeSales University, images of past productions were a central part of our culture, thanks to stage photographer Lee Butz. Every hallway was lined with beautiful images from past productions.  These images took on a mythic quality, giving the stories of plays past a local habitation, vividly incarnating the school’s tradition.

That continued when the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1992, and now the Festival has brought out a compilation of the Butz’s work, called Majestic Vision. I emailed some questions to Lee and Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy to learn more.

Questions for Lee:

1. How did this all begin? It started while my construction management firm was building the Labuda Center.  Fr. Jerry Schubert noticed the progress photos I was taking of the building, and asked me if I’d ever done stage photography.  Of course I hadn’t, and when he said the professional doing his photography was doing everything in black and white because “you can’t do color of stage performances”, I said I couldn’t understand why that would be.  Father asked me if I’d like to try it.  I told him I would, but he should have the other photographer do it as well, because if he was right, I wanted to be sure that Father would have some pictures.  The play was Arsenic and Old Lace, the pictures came out fine, and we’re still doing it, 150,000 shots later.

2. How has your process developed over time? The process has evolved over the thirty years I’ve been doing it; mostly in the technology, but to a certain extent, in my technique.   I started, of course, with film and graduated to digital; and today’s digital cameras produce far superior results.  The development of auto-focus and image-stabilization has greatly improved the number of acceptably sharp images.  As for my technique, practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes it better.

3. What are some of your favorite images from your work, and why? It‘s really hard to pick one or two.  It’s like asking me which is my favorite building I’ve built.

4. Are there any particular moments that “got away”? Lots of moments got away.  Sometimes I’ll be focused on an individual while something dramatic is happening elsewhere on the stage. I like shooting musicals, because, at a dress rehearsal, the cast is often out-of-sync with the orchestra at first, and they have to repeat the number.  That gives me a second chance.

5. Finish this sentence: The perfect stage photograph is ________. ….something that I’ve never achieved.  I can look at every photo and think of a way I could have made it even better.

6. What is your favorite play of Shakespeare’s? I like to shoot Othello and Romeo and Juliet, probably because I’ve come to know them pretty well, and I know where the best photographic opportunities are.

Finally, I’d like to say that I consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to photograph the magnificent productions and performers at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.  Capturing their art is incredibly rewarding.

Questions for Patrick:

1. How have these pictures affected PSF’s memories of past productions? I’ve been around the Festival for 15 years now.  As we worked on the book, I was struck many times by the way an exquisite photo reflected a beautiful moment or scene.  The memory had gone wherever it had gone in my brain, but was refreshed and became present again after spending time with the photo.  Institutionally, it will also serve as a wonderful record of both Lee’s artistry, and PSF’s.  For our patrons, in many cases, the memories will have meaning deeply personal to them.  We are always aiming to create life memories for our patrons.  This book will support that process.

2.     What are some of your favorite images, and why? I love the stunning and arresting images, particularly on the covers and in the first few pages.  But I think my favorites are actually not the blockbuster marquis photos.  I connect most with those that capture the quiet complexity of a moment and reveal the breadth and depth of what the actor is capable.  The photo of Ian Peakes on p. 151, the photo of Greg Wood as the deeply reflective Cyrano at the end of the play on p. 139, Greg again as Leontes on p. 121, and Deanne Lorette as Hermione on p. 123.

3. Have Lee’s photographs affected your work as a director? I’d like to say that I hope not, that I hope I am not staging for the photo call.  But composition and the images we create as directors are powerful tools in the storytelling and I can readily admit there are times when I stage something and think quietly to myself, “Lee will turn that into a great photo.”

4. Theatre is ephemeral: is anything lost by having such a definitive visual memory? I think in the battle between the ephemeral and the photographic, the ephemeral ultimately wins.  No volume of photos could fully capture the patron’s experience of 100 productions over 20 years.  But they can remind us of the production. And, of course, the photography itself, which is the real star of the book, is a distinct art object, which overlaps with the artistry of the productions, but neither encapsulates it nor supplants it.  They each have their own integrity.  So no losses here.  Only gains.  Only enrichment.

Antony and Cleopatra. Pictured: Lauren Lovett, Ian Merrill Peakes.Antony and Cleopatra. Pictured: Ian Merrill Peakes

Antony and Cleopatra. Pictured: Ian Merrill Peakes

Cyrano de Bergerac. Pictured: Greg Wood

The Winter's Tale. Pictured: Deanne Lorette

The Winter's Tale. Pictured: Greg Wood

A Midsummer Night's Dream. Pictured: Claro Austria, Ian Bedford

Patrick Mulcahy (PSF Producing Artistic Director) Since assuming leadership of PSF in 2003, accomplishments include five awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, including PSF’s first, and attracting a company of artists including winners and nominees of the Tony, Obie, Emmy, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Jefferson, and Barrymore awards, growth in all income areas, and a 50% increase in annual attendance. Credits include Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, television, and radio. He directed Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga in The Real Thing, and, for PSF, directed Antony and Cleopatra (2009), The Winter’s Tale (2007), Henry IV, Part I (2005), The Tempest (1999), and Hamlet (2011). M.F.A. from Syracuse University.

Lee Butz began his career as a civil engineer, served in the U.S. Army, and holds honorary doctoral degrees in engineering, humane letters, humanities, and divinity from Lehigh University, DeSales University, Muhlenberg College, and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. A community leader with extensive contributions to business, the arts, education, health, social services, and civic affairs, Lee, for more than 35 years, headed Alvin H. Butz, Inc., one of the largest construction management firms in the United States. His career as a photographer began as he surveyed and shot construction sites and his children’s sporting events. His theatre photography is now legendary among the artists and patrons of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.


  • http://www.keenannagle.com Mike Keenan

    Insightful discussion on the role of the stage photographer. Most provoking for those of us who have never made it past the cheap seats…much less strode the stage. Thank you, Gus and Patrick for the professional perspectives…thank you Lee for the captivating images. The book “Majestic Vision” lives up to its title in all respects.