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Getting Into Character: A Theater Photographer's Private Portraits

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2004; Page C05

Joan Marcus knows her way around a theater.

She has spent a quarter-century shooting professional productions in Washington and New York, where she has emerged over the past decade as Broadway's preeminent production photographer. Lately, she has helped define the public image of some of the Great White Way's latest hits ("Wicked" and "A Raisin in the Sun," for example) -- and misses ("Taboo" and "Never Gonna Dance").

Her job is to take the photographs at the beginning of a show's life that accompany reviews and other media coverage.

Joan Marcus, above and below, jokes with Sally Field, who was appearing in "The Glass Menagerie," while photographing the actress for her collection of character portraits backstage at the Kennedy Center. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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But she was backstage at the Kennedy Center last week for a much different, more private photo shoot. During a performance of "The Glass Menagerie" in the Eisenhower Theater, just days before the production closed, Marcus was taking portraits of the actors -- in costume and in character.

The portraits aren't for public consumption. They're for Marcus's personal collection of black-and-white portraits. She has taken the pictures with casts of nearly a dozen other Eisenhower Theater productions dating to the '80s.

Marcus does the portraits only at the Kennedy Center, where she started as a photographer's assistant in the '70s after graduating from George Washington University. She honed her skills there as a production photographer -- first as a freelancer, later as a staffer -- in the '80s and early '90s, before moving to New York.

At first, Marcus recalls, she pursued the idea of character portraits as a way to enhance her studio lighting abilities. Since production photography depends on choices the lighting designer makes to illuminate the stage, setting up her own lights in the Eisenhower's greenroom -- its backstage lounge area -- gave Marcus the freedom to experiment with ways to light and photograph subjects she was familiar with.

The effort, however, quickly became more than a mere technical exercise.

"I normally shoot in the dark," Marcus says. "This is different than what I do on a daily basis. There's more interaction -- you get to know people. As time goes by, it becomes a record of your life."

Actors are asked to participate on a voluntary basis, and Marcus gives them free rein in presenting their characters to the camera.

"Everyone approaches performing differently," she says. "I don't try to control them too tightly."

"The Glass Menagerie" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," another Kennedy Center production mounted this summer, mark Marcus's return to backstage portraits for the first time since 1997, the end of the center's heyday for original productions and out-of-town tryouts for Broadway-bound shows -- the kinds of productions that Marcus found ideal for her portrait work.

Though she was often hired for production photography at the center even after relocating to New York in 1992, it wasn't until she was brought in to work on the center's recent original production efforts, 2002's Sondheim Celebration and this summer's Tennessee Williams Explored festival, that she was inspired to revisit her backstage portraits.

"I would like to do this in New York," she says, "but I can't."

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