The Right Light

In Nick Moran’s new book The Right Light: Interviews with Contemporary Lighting Designers he talks to lighting designers who work in very different contexts, from West End shows to site-specific performance. The chapters draw out different aspects of the process, and Moran provides a helpful commentary to illuminate the context for readers unfamiliar with the structures or technology of lighting. Most usefully, the book explores how theatre is made through collaboration – and shows what this means in practice.

In some cases, collaboration and joint improvisation is central to a company’s process. Paule Constable refers back to her early work with Complicite as a group of artists working in different media to create a performance together: ‘the fact that I responded in light ultimately was neither here nor there … so I’m not used to being pigeon-holed’ (39). She says, ‘I love to be involved inside a piece; to understand what is making it tick’.

Natasha Chivers describes her work with Jon Clark on site-specific performance as a kind of improvisation in the space: ‘We would just hire a lot of equipment that we knew would be suitable – little manual desks and dimmer packs, birdies and sun-floods’ (37). Working like installation artists, they would decide how to light interesting walls or rooms, knowing that the performers would not finalise their use of the space before the show opened. Here, ‘the space becomes part of the narrative of the piece’ (37).

But even in a more conventional theatre space, it is not until the actors and set are on the stage that decisions can be made: ‘You also see an actor take shape on stage’ as Johanna Town puts it. ‘Not only are they constumed but you’ve got the scenery in 3D in front of you as opposed to nothing in a rehearsal room.’ (62)

In a short essay on the lighting operator, Nick Hunt and Susan Melrose (2005) describe how an individual sitting at a lighting desk might deploy several kinds of knowledge at once: technical knowledge (for example, which channel controls which lantern), emotional-affective knowledge of the production (what the designer and director are trying to achieve with the lighting) and knowledge of the interpersonal relationships (how an idea can be suggested tactfully). It’s a useful categorisation but it left me hungry for more concrete examples of how the three domains intersect. Moran’s book provides a wealth of discussion on themes such as the relationship between lighting designer and programmer, or the balance between advance preparation and response to the immediate circumstances on stage, in the context of specific productions.

I  particularly noticed comments that relate to my interest in how creative teams use model boxes. Natasha Chivers comments that she likes to discuss the design at an early stage, before the final model showing: ‘being at the white card [meeting] is brilliant […] looking at the designer’s research material, learning why the choices have been made, and finding out what has been discarded’ (35). Chivers suggests that this discussion of rejected design choices allows her to participate more actively as a lighting designer than being presented with a finished set design.

Regardless of preferences, lighting designers don’t always have control over when they become involved in the process. Ben Omerod comments: ‘sometimes I’ll see the model box for the first time with the actors, which is quite scary, and sometimes I’ll see the model box at a very early stage, when it’s being designed’ (43).

Bruno Poet describes the interplay between the set model and the rehearsals: ‘I don’t do particularly complicated drawings or notes and things. I suppose I think of the possibilities from looking at the set model, and then I juggle those possibilities when I’m watching rehearsals. And then through that, I come to some kind of conclusion about what I feel is the right shape for each scene’ (44).

It’s also intriguing to learn about the other processes that lighting designers use to think through a play’s demands. Ben Ormerod notes that for an opera he has to know the music inside out:’ When I lit Mask of Orpheus I worked on the score for months before we went into rehearsals’ (42). In some texts, light plays a structural role: perhaps implying a setting, or patterning relationships and ideas. Ormerod says that he combs plays for any references to light, adapting a technique learnt from designer Alison Chitty. As he recalls, Chitty suggests listing all the props in a playtext and reading the list ‘as if it was a poem about the play’. Ormerod does the same with light: ‘I make a list of all the light references in the play and then I treat that list as a poem. The “light poem” about Macbeth runs to about eight pages on A4. Sometimes there are entire speeches dealing with light’ (42-3).

Natasha Chivers, like several other lighting designers in the book, makes an analogy between the members of a creative team working on a production and a group of musicians playing together. Moran draws out the comparison, noting that the lighting designer does not see herself as a soloist: ‘It’s interesting that the instruments you choose in your analogy are drums and bass. So you’re talking about rhythm and pace…’ Chivers agrees: ‘it’s not just about 100+ images that operate separately, but they run into each other in a way that’s appealing – then you’re setting the entire pace, and you’re pulling focus so you’re telling the audience which way to look.’ (65) The lighting designer is reading the performance, and at the same time helping the audience to see what is going on. Chivers says that this process is difficult to explain, even to other theatre professionals – but taken as a whole, the interviews in Moran’s book give an extraordinary feel of what it is that lighting designers do.

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