PL&P Features

The Next Stage: PL&P's 2019 Theatrical Lighting Designers Pane

This article orginally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.

By Michael Raine

Welcome to our 2019 panel conversation with some of the finest and most acclaimed theatrical lighting designers in the industry, some working here in Canada and others working on Broadway, London’s West End, and elsewhere. We’re picking their brains to find out what is currently exciting or concerning them about the discipline in which they work, and to share some quality advice and insights with their peers.

OUR PANELISTS

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PL&P: What’s the latest product or piece of technology that you’ve incorporated into your work with good results, or that you see as a potential game changer for theatrical lighting design?

Paule Constable: The quality of LED engines we’re able to work with at the moment is extraordinary. I redesigned the 25th anniversary [tour] of Les Miserables, the one that played on Broadway, and we’ve just sent that out on a U.K. tour again. I’m a bit of a tungsten queen and love that kind of palette, but we’ve changed them all for [Martin MAC] Encores very successfully. All the Profile scroller cross lights we’ve changed for [Source Four LED Series 2] Lustrs. The guys from White Light, the big rental company we use over here [in England], came to see it and they said, “You’d never know that the show wasn’t a tungsten show.” It’s a real turning point for us in terms of possibilities.

Other than that, I am using a lot of GLP products. On this, I’ve been playing with the impression X4 XL. They created a yellow-chip version, which we’ve been playing with, and in this we’ve got the conventional version. Essentially, I’m looking for something that can replace a par can scroller or 5K. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re getting really close.

Kevin Fraser: I particularly like the new crop of white LED profile moving lights. I did a show last year with High End’s SolaFrame Theatre and they were really great. I have a show coming up with a bunch of Ayrton Diablos and they look quite promising.

Louise Guinand: The progress in LED colours is a welcome addition to the tool kit. That, combined with advances in automated lights, vastly expands the options. Initially, many of the automated instruments were not ideal for theatre, especially in quiet, intimate, or intense moments. The improvements through the years have made them much more viable.

Martin Labrecque: I’m playing a lot with products from Astera. I find them very clever and very well made – IP 65, wireless DMX, and a 20-hour battery. The all-in-one concept is very appealing to me. As for a game changer, I would say a very small company from France called Minuit-Une; they’re making this absolutely fantastic product called IVL. It’s a laser-based lighting fixture and what it does is amazing. I’m quite sure we’ll see a lot of those soon.

Kevin Lamotte: I often work in repertory situations and need to find ways for a single light to do more. We recently purchased 10 of High End’s SolaFrame Theatre units for the Festival Theatre at the Shaw Festival. These units have an LED engine with good CMY colour mixing and are absolutely quiet. We’re now able to start placing moving lights closer to the audience.

Peter Mumford: I’d say the MAC Encore [by Martin], especially now with the heavy frost. My favourite is the cool version. I also very much like the X4 Bar 20s by GLP.

PL&P: Thinking back to the last two or three years, which widespread trend – in terms of tech, workflow, or industry relations – has had the most significant impact on your work or the theatrical lighting sector in general?

Constable: There’s lots of change going on. There’s technology change, there’s environmental sustainability change, and there’s also change in terms of looking for a more diverse workforce and looking for different models of how we make work. I’m just negotiating to try and have a project that we’re working on covered by two women as programmers because one of them has got two kids. So, the idea or models of how we work and job-sharing and things like that. I think we’ve had very fixed ideas of what it takes to make a production and I feel like we are slowly opening the possibilities of there being different models of working… Also, how to make it an industry that encourages a more diverse community into the area is important. There is a lot of talk of that to do with actors and directors and writers, but actually, it has to be throughout the whole industry to really make a change.

Fraser: The proliferation of affordable LEDs is having a big impact. In my world, we’ve gone from “can we afford some LED tape?” to “how much LED tape do you want?” In terms of workflow, and this is a trend that is longer than two or three years, many producers increasingly want bigger productions for the same budgets and in the same tech time. It’s like trying to put 10 kg of art into a 5 kg bag…

Guinand: It seems that more and more theatres are acquiring some LED head fixtures, which is giving so much more colour flexibility. That said, I still feel the need for some traditional fixtures as opposed to an all-LED house. Another frequent element is a mover of some sort. This is a very valuable tool, especially in a time where one is frequently having to provide a lighting plot before all the staging is planned. Having a moving fixture eliminates the need for a range of traditional fixtures being used as “specials.”

Labrecque: The first thing I can think of is the slow-but-inevitable death of tungsten fixtures and, of course, the era of LED coming to the theatrical lighting sector. It changes the way I think about lighting, it changes the schedule, and it changes the looks of the overall production. We need to educate ourselves and learn to work with those new tools and educate the directors and producers, too. Even if I love tungsten and I hope it never disappears, I think it’s a pretty exciting moment in the lighting business.

Lamotte: Two things. First is adding LED cyc units, movers, and ETC Source Four LED Series 2 Lustrs into conventional tungsten rigs has been mostly a blessing and a small curse. The criticism I have for the LED equipment is outweighed by the flexibility and new solutions offered. Second, styles of directing and staging are evolving to more fluid ways of working. New options open all the time.

PL&P: Has the proliferation of video technology impacted your workflow in the design process and the overall production?

Constable: The best thing about projection or video design for me is that it has introduced me to some really brilliant new collaborators. I’m very fortunate in that I tend to work on shows where, if projection or video is becoming part of the conversation, there is an acknowledgement that it has to be creatively driven. So, that tends to be in the hands of a separate designer. The days where it would be the set designer giving it a go, or the lighting designer, those days really have gone in the rooms I find myself in, which is great. I think that one of the exciting things is that there are more and more people coming in to create content and manage content. It’s a whole new conversation coming into the room and that can be extraordinarily exciting, if you find the right collaborators.

Fraser: It is essential to control the amount of light that hits the projection surface so the projections don’t get washed out. For me, this usually means more side lighting and less front lighting on performers near projection surfaces. There are some effects that can be done a lot better with video than with conventional lighting, such as rain or snow, and it’s great to be able to use video for those. A down side is that theatres often add video to a show without adding time in the schedule, so lighting cue sessions turn into lighting and video cue sessions. This is difficult for both lighting designers and video designers.

Labrecque: Now there’s a new player around the table and we have to make sure that they’re integrated properly during the creation process and in the production week because their work has a direct impact on mine and on the overall production. When there’s projections in a show that I’m working on, big or small, I want to be as close as possible to the designer. It’s important to me to understand where they’re going, what the colour palette is, what the content is, etc. But most importantly, I want to have control over the intensity of the projection. As a lighting designer, it’s still my duty to balance the light on stage and so I consider that projection or video wall as a light on stage.

Lamotte: It’s far from my expertise but I have enjoyed the collaboration with the projection designers that I’ve worked with. Last summer I did the lighting design for Stephen Fry’s one-man show, Mythos. It is a retelling of the Greek myths… Projection designer Nick Bottomley was able to add images of maps, paintings, sculpture, and the colour and sunlight from photos of modern Greece. That element made the show magic. Lighting can often be so abstract and projection so literal. When they come together and each design discipline works at collaborating, it can be transcendent.

Mumford: I’ve been working with projection in the theatre since the late ‘60s – then in film – and still do, so I’m not a newcomer to its theatrical application… It’s a whole new world but one that relates very closely to lighting design – it has to. I must say that generally it’s been very rewarding to collaborate with video designers, especially, for example, with people like Wendall Harrington.

PL&P: LD Brian MacDevitt recently told Forbes: “We lighting designers have a joke that it’s not the best lighting, but the most lighting that wins a Tony,” and that “...voters respond to big lighting events, not subtlety.” Do you feel any kind of pressure from producers or audiences to “go big” or “stand out” for its own sake?

Constable: It sort of breaks my heart that people think that “good lighting” is lots of lighting. I’ve spent my entire career making lighting that wasn’t like that and no one is going to expect me to suddenly pull that out of my tool case… But yes, I think there is a belief that more is better, but actually, in the current environmental climate, we have to stop believing that. We have to start thinking that it’s a precious resource that we’re using. Also, using it well makes us better designers. More isn’t better.

Fraser: I wouldn’t say that I feel any increased pressure to “stand out.” I try to provide lighting that is right for the project. For some shows it’s appropriate to have flashy lighting that calls attention to itself, and for some it’s not. Most of my work is in musical theatre and there’s a convention that musicals typically have enhanced lighting since they are not, by nature, realistic. Even in musicals, though, there is variation.

Guinand: As my world is more in traditional theatre, at times another adage becomes the important one – “If you notice the lighting, there is something wrong with it.” It entirely depends on the nature of the piece as to which quote comes into play. The advances in lighting allow for incredible light shows that can be exquisite. There is the risk at times of being too much in love with the spectacle and what can be done to realize that, in some instances, less “show” of light can be more supportive to the story. In these instances, it becomes the choice as to when to use the big effects to accent and when to focus on subtlety and simplicity and that requires a delicate skill.

Labrecque: I would not say all producers or directors are like that, but yes, there is a tendency to have a “wow effect” very fast. And with the tools today, it’s easier and faster than ever before to go big and make lots of effects very fast – but they all look alike.

I think, even with the tools and the new technology today, as designers we need to have time to think. Subtlety demands time and reflection and I will always fight for that. I prefer that we don’t see my lighting design but I’m in sync with the actors on stage and their emotions. It doesn’t interest me to do my own lighting show. I want to be part of a creative process where every department is on the same page.

Mumford: I’m privileged to be nominated for two Tonys this year for two very different pieces. King Kong, a musical, is a very flashy and up-front piece of work and, I guess, possibly falls into the “big lighting” category, although I’m very proud of it. On the opposite spectrum is The Ferryman, a play, which is a much subtler piece of work that I would describe as “controlled naturalism.” So, I’m especially delighted that that has been picked out.

It certainly can be true that it’s the very upfront work, lighting-wise, that gets noticed, but I think that things are changing and more and more people are understanding the various roles that lighting design plays, especially in terms of narrative work.

PL&P: Do you think the barrier for entry into lighting design and operation is higher or lower now than it was, say, five years ago? In your experience, what’s specifically contributing to that, and any advice for people looking to get a start in theatrical lighting?

Constable: You need to develop a voice and some life skills. I think many of the most interesting designers, their first study wasn’t lighting; it was philosophy or literature, etc. Just have some life experience. And if you know you want to work with the stuff, and if you think lighting is about stuff, then work with stuff and get your hands dirty. But actually, I still think you learn the most by doing the job and from some form of apprenticeship, whether that be in an educational situation or outside of one. So, there are many more access points but nothing will beat enthusiasm and a good eye.

Fraser: I think it’s harder to get into theatre lighting design now than when I started 40 years ago… Supply and demand has always been an issue, with more lighting designers (or aspiring lighting designers) than there are shows to light, but it seems to have become more extreme. I think there are more productions to light now but more of these are in small theatres and less in big theatres. Unfortunately, the small theatres pay a lot less, so it’s more difficult to make a career.

The best advice I can offer is to diversify. Look for any opportunities in the lighting industry, whether that’s as designer, technician, or programmer. If you want to be a lighting designer, you can still learn a lot by being an electrician… It’s impossible to know where a lucky break will come from, and it’s important that you are fully prepared to take advantage of the opportunity when it happens. Also, be pleasant to work with and respectful of everyone you meet. You never know where that person will be in five years. I worked with an apprentice stage manager who is now artistic director for a major regional theatre.

Guinand: There is definitely a need for a greater understanding of what the technology has to offer. As a lighting designer entering the business, currently one has to have an awareness of so much more than even a few years ago. At the same time, the information is easy to access.

The need is very different if you are in a situation where you are using almost exclusively in-house gear as opposed to a situation where you are spec’ing all or most of the gear. In many of the regional theatres in Canada, you are dealing with the equipment that is there, and perhaps augmenting with some rental in special situations. If you are doing your plot with no house inventory to work with, the knowledge required as to what can work to create the show you are building is much broader. You need to have an awareness of what is out there and a sense of what will fit into your budget.

Lamotte: Interesting question; I spoke with some colleagues who are younger than me. Access to the knowledge is certainly easier. There are many colleges and universities that teach some form of lighting production and/or design. Interviews, videos, podcasts, etc. with working designers are easy to access. Software tutorials and industry access is available all the time. It seems that for those things, the barrier is lower. The higher barrier is the opportunity to light a show. The opportunity to make design decisions and implement them is where all the learning is done. My advice is be patient and generous with your collaborators and coworkers; design inspiration often comes from them. Also, getting more than a working knowledge about art and literature and music will guide you.

Mumford: Now we have lighting design courses all over the place, which is great but also contributing to the highly competitive nature of our area. Students now have a lot more technical training, which is totally necessary because the technology has become pretty complex… but it’s important that the art of creating with light is not buried in technology and that emerging practitioners are concerned with ideas, concepts, and an understanding of the aims and aesthetics of each production. It’s also important that young lighting designers understand the importance and value of collaboration and find their generation of directors and stage designers to collaborate with.

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Michael Raine is the Senior Editor at Professional Lighting & Production. Michael has extensively covered nearly all aspects of the lighting and production industries.