Meg Fox attributes her candid demeanor to her New Jersey upbringing, but I’m pretty sure the vivacious, foul-mouthed lighting designer’s big personality is one-of-a-kind, even amongst the colorful residents of the Garden State. It’s her bigger heart, however, that sealed the deal on being awarded the 2019’s Reader’s Choice DanceCrush, chosen from community nominations. And her lighting is pretty great too.
Fox’s lighting has graced countless Seattle stages and her teaching has touched countless Cornish students. She’s been an integral part of the Seattle scene for decades, and a common face come tech day, but Fox’s story is as uncommon and interesting as you might expect. “I’ve wired a lot of smoke detectors in Arizona,” recalls Fox, who initially trained to be an electrician through a program preparing women for unconventional careers. Her entrance into lighting was converting a steamer trunk into a light board for an all-women’s theater company in the 70s, and then she just started “goofing around.”
“I have no training. Absolutely none,” says Fox. But as fate would have it, the first dance piece she lit was Pat Graney’s senior thesis at University of Arizona. “I’m pretty sure it was horrible because looking back I have a vague memory of what I did and I think how could that even fucking work? There must have been a big dark hole in the middle of the space!”
Fox continued to learn lighting through practical experience, until that first dance connection ultimately led Fox to migrate North. A few years later, Graney, already living in Seattle, returned to her alma mater to perform a solo, reconnected with Fox, and the Pat Graney Company ended up with a new lighting designer. Arriving in Seattle in 1989, she worked with Graney’s company for three years, which led to other lighting gigs with Intiman and a tour with Urban Bush Women, along with lots of freelance work.
But what is it that draws Fox specifically to lighting dance?
“How can you not love looking at people’s bodies moving? And how can I not love being a part of that? It’s mystical and evanescent, not to get too woo woo about it…when I like the work it’s really fantastic because I just get into the zone…creating an environment. And then I look at it and I say Well that’s a stunning cue and when that happens there’s nothing better…When it works completely seamlessly, it lifts the movement, you should feel it in your stomach, not in your head.”
Fox clearly has a great deal of passion for dance, but she’s also highly skeptical about it. On a number of occasions her disillusionment has led her away from the art form.
“I have always been super political, so the arts—I was distraught by my own ego and I was distraught by the ego around me and so I thought I should stop. I was very politically active in Tucson. I got arrested a lot. And so doing art was a pretty significant shift for me morally and emotionally. So I wanted to stop doing lighting.”
In the mid-90s, she attended Seattle University to get a Masters in Theology. Fox isn’t a Christian, but found the program fascinating and even spent a year as a prison chaplain. It’s just one of many twists and turns over the course of Fox’s long career. In the 70s she spent time running refugees from Central America to the U.S., what she now calls the “most important work of my life.” And while practical realities of making a living meant an eventual return lighting design, the lessons and values learned outside the theater have a clear influence in how she does her work. No exception to this is the experience of becoming a parent and a primary caregiver for the first five years of her son’s life. “It changes [everything]. What matters more. It changed from making this glorious art to the humanity of the people in it.”
Humanity is a recurrent theme throughout our conversation—an anchor for Fox in everything she does, emphasizing that the what is not as important as the how. Yes, a brilliant light cue may bring her to tears, but Fox is adamant that design is “just a thing that I do.” The real work is being a good human while you’re at it.
“I mean, look at me. I’m really flawed. I’m cranky and cantankerous and I love my work and you know, could we all just—be better at being human with each other? I mean, I feel that about dance. If you’re gonna do it, be better at being human about it. You’re not special, I’m not special. I love what I do, sometimes I’m really good at what I do, sometimes I’m pretty fucking mediocre. How do we lift each other up—I don’t care what your piece is. Are you there to lift other people up or just self expression?”
As a designer, and Cornish professor since 1998, Fox has seen her share of dance, good and bad. She tells me about a conversation with fellow Cornish teacher Laura Ann Smyth, who said “Dance is an invocation. It’s a call to action.” For Fox, it was a clarifying moment. “That’s it. That’s the only thing I want to look at anymore. I don’t care about commentary on commentary. Which is, let’s just get down to it, why White people need to shut the fuck up. What we value in modern dance is just not very interesting, anymore. There’s been a hegemony of the White voice in what constitutes good dance. And I think it’s actually wrong. Not only is it bad and boring. It’s wrong….For me it’s so profoundly disconnected from what it means to be human and frail. Oh my gosh we’re so frail. We’re such frail stupid beings.”
But the potential for dance to evoke connection to humanity is what keeps Fox coming back. “The feeling of love, and loss, and anger, and justice (if you can pull it off without being rhetorical and a pain in everybody’s ass and pedantic) is really profound.”
Fox’s bluntness can be refreshing in the famously passive Pacific Northwest, spouting hard truths that many are thinking and probably not saying. And she doesn’t have a lot of patience for the self-involvement of artists. “You’re no more important than the fucking garbage man,” she says, adamant that art isn’t going to save the world. “I get it, it’s risky to put your stuff out there, but also it’s risky to live. And this is what you’ve chosen to do.”
As for Fox, she just wants to see and light dance where the artist performing cares that the audience is there to watch. “I want to feel like you want me to be there,” she says. Because without that engagement, what’s the point? It’s also a philosophy that Fox brings to her teaching.
“This is my job as a teacher. I don’t need you to understand what I’m saying, or care about it, or remember it. That’s up to you…the thing about teaching is that it’s really about getting people excited about what-the-fuck-ever. I don’t care if you’re engaged about some weird-ass offbeat topic. Are you engaged? Then I’ve done my job. Engagement is everything.”
I got to witness firsthand a small example of these values in action last January. SeattleDances hired a former student of Fox’s to design lights for the DanceCrush celebration (the excellent Tessa Bañales), and Fox showed up early on the morning of tech, just to provide support in case we needed it. And then stuck around for half the day to shoot the shit and lift everyone’s spirits. Fox claims that as a Taurus, she’s “lazy as the day is long” and “wants to retire,” but in action it’s apparent that when it comes to engagement and humanity, Meg fox not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.