In Memoriam: David L. Thayer

May 18, 2020

David L. Thayer
(1930 – 2020)

A remembrance by Eric Stone, associate professor in the theatre arts department and head of the design program at the University of Iowa

It is with great sadness that the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa marks the passing of David L. Thayer. David was a true visionary. He dedicated his career to the creation of innovative work, exploring the possibilities of lighting design and mentoring countless artists – always with incredible fidelity, always with tremendous heart.

Lighting Design & the University of Iowa

David arrived in Iowa City for graduate school in 1953. In the 63 years following, he taught courses spanning 33 different topics, advised hundreds of productions through his 42-year teaching career, and designed constantly for the University productions in theatre, opera and dance even in “retirement.” In the 21 years after retiring, David maintained his nearly weekly presence in the Department, working with students and designing, as well as doing productions for the School of Music and Department of Dance. 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 – a portfolio spanning more than 350 designs.

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 to 1993.

David was instrumental in establishing design as a central element in the American College Theatre Festival, and in 1997, he was honored with the Kennedy Center/ACTF Gold Medallion for Lifetime Service.


David’s long and distinguished career is intrinsically linked to the establishment of USITT. USITT was founded in 1960. 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, as well as serving as Second Vice President. His role in shaping USITT organization is immeasurable.
Of the 120+ individuals inducted as Fellows of USITT, two of them were David’s mentors and at least three were his students. At the 2018 conference in Ft. Lauderdale, 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. In the seminal issue, 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.

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.  

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.

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.

-John S. Uthoff; Past President of USITT, USITT Fellow, University of Iowa, BA 1968, MFA 1974

Legacy Website & Scholarship Fund

The Department of Theatre Arts at University of Iowa has created a page to memorialize David’s legacy. Along with biographical information, there is a section with reflections from students whom David mentored. It is an exceptional tribute to David’s lasting legacy. Additional reflections can be emailed to R. Eric Stone, Head of the Design Program for the Department of Theatre Arts.

The Department of Theatre Arts is dedicated to the lasting legacy of the lifetime of excellence that David modeled, including helping theatre artists at the start of their careers. To that end, the David L. Thayer Memorial Scholarship Fund has been created and is seeking additional donations to honor David’s life-long contribution to inspiring new artists. The fund was started by a generous gift from Judy Thayer, David’s wife, to support graduate students in the Department of Theatre Arts' design program.