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Lighting designer Sherry Coenen: ‘You can fulfil artistic vision with a bit of sideways glancing’

Lighting designer Sherry Coenen Lighting designer Sherry Coenen
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It’s the season of making a little go a long way at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Designer Sherry Coenen explains how to make the best of lighting

It’s a familiar call for all theatre freelances: “I want to check your availability to design our lighting. It’s a great show, we just don’t have much budget…” But where there are obstacles and limits, you can often create magic by working outside the conventions. From mapping a constellation of stars with individually wired LEDs to a Russian company literally using an electric cooker as a spare dimmer I have seen some creative – and some mad – things done in the name of design.

For technical theatre practitioners looking to stretch the budget, especially important at somewhere like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as long as all the calculations are done to ensure no one is blown up in the middle of a performance, then anything with a plug on it has potential.

My first foray outside the box was for a show called Snap.Catch.Slam at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. Most fringe venues have strict hire policies, and while they will do their best to get you a good deal, you do have to hire from their supplier, even if you have a cheeky Fresnel lens you can dig out of the shed (PAT certified of course).

The show was in a small black-box space and we had a white front light and dark blue backlight but I needed to isolate three different characters and spaces on a tiny budget. Then I stumbled upon a potential loophole – if the hire company can’t supply the lights for a particular design, the company is allowed to source them itself.

So we gave each character a practical light as their signifier. The teacher under her flickering fluorescent tube, and the old lady with a domestic pendant lamp in a chintzy shade – sourced from the, now sadly closed, Homebase by the Pleasance Courtyard. It made for a striking hyper-realistic effect, and came in under budget.

Coenen used the same torchlight technique from Come from Away for Operation Mincemeat at the New Diorama. Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown
Coenen used the same torchlight technique from Come from Away for Operation Mincemeat at the New Diorama. Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown

More recently, I’ve been looking into having actors self-light. On Operation Mincemeat at New Diorama I maxed out the dimmers and got hold of as much LED kit as I could afford and then could power. However, we had a scene in a submarine at the end of Act I and I was all out of everything. I was stumped. Then I remembered the great effect in Come from Away with the pilots in their cockpits – it’s lit by each pilot pointing a torch in their own face. And we already had torches for the Nazi number, so with a bit of cueing practice and focus lessons we found the look of one of the most highlighted parts of the show.   

For the productions that need their actors to be hands free, make them wear lights. For Out of This World at the Little Angel Studios the brief was to create an immersive promenade route through the building, culminating in the control room of the Little Angel Space Agency.

Coenen lined masks with LEDs for Out of This World at the Little Angel Studios in London. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Coenen lined masks with LEDs for Out of This World at the Little Angel Studios in London. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Once there we would send two of the cast ‘into space’ while leaving another in the room to relay messages from the space team. As the ‘space crew’ was actually just operating a micro cinema system upstage we needed to keep the theatre quite dark, while still lighting our earthbound actor.

She needed to move around the stage well lit. But as we had established that this was a real workshop we couldn’t use standard theatre techniques and lights to catch her as it would break the rules of the fantasy world.

So again I adapted an idea from another designer. Joe Price had written a piece in Focus Magazine about wearable LEDs and it was illustrated with a brilliant image of performers wearing sun visors lined with LEDs that lit their face. And with designer Matt Lloyd, we came up with a tricked-out clear-face shield with battery-operated LED tape run around the inside edge of the whole mask. We dramaturgically made it her communication device so she wore it whenever she contacted the space team (and so turned out the lights).  It was such a successful light source that we ended up making a second one for the space team.

Another common experience in fringe lighting design is the unconventional spaces, whether a community centre or a shipping container. These are not built with theatre in mind and don’t have the infrastructure to support conventional lighting rigs either structurally or in terms of power.

I once lit a show called Home Sweet Home at the Bradford Ukrainian Centre ballroom. There were no overhead rigging and only the room’s normal ring main for power, which I had to share with sound. The action took place in the round with seven or so locations for me to delineate plus a couple of musical numbers for good measure.

Home Sweet Home at the Bradford Ukrainian Centre ballroom. Photo: Richard Walker
Home Sweet Home at the Bradford Ukrainian Centre ballroom. Photo: Richard Walker

The budget was passable but there was little point in hiring much more than a desk and some dimmers as we couldn’t actually power many theatrical lights before we popped the domestic breaker. Our set designer Hannah Sibai had created a large central playing space and then had set-pieces for each location that were wheeled on and off – and this was exactly the solution I needed as it gave me objects to stick lights on to.

I headed to B&Q and bought desk lamps, fluorescent tubes, those enclosed domed bathroom lamps, and anything else that looked like it might fit in a care home. I even got a couple of the spot-style track lights that normally light paintings to use as specials to pick out performers in the aisles. Because household lights are generally between 100 and 150 watts, we could power our whole rig – made up of home wares – on just a few alpha packs plugged into the wall. For general cover and full-stage musical numbers there were eight shell footlights with 40-watt bulbs. The total of 1,600 watts, when on at full, covered the room for less than the power of two Par Cans.

In the end, the potential nightmare was pretty straightforward. But on the fringe it’s not just about dodging budget or power restrictions by using non-industry kit. Sometimes it’s about re-purposing equipment that is more ‘DJ’ than ‘theatrical’ and using it in a way it wasn’t designed for.

‘For technical theatre practitioners looking to stretch the budget, anywhere with a plug has potential’

Take LED tape, for example. In December, I lit a show using loads of LED tape. It was beautiful and magical and people cried – but the lights can’t claim all the credit. Then it went on tour and I cried because every few days a show report would come in saying something had been damaged in transit and the tape didn’t work. Keeping the system running was a nightmare.

So when Smoking Apples’ theatremakers said they wanted LED tape as part of the set for their new touring show, Flux, I was filled with dread. Flux’s design is a series of light-up Tetris blocks – wireless and colour changing. Our production electrician Clancy Flynn, an LED magician, costed up outlining each cube with LED tape.

For touring show Flux, Coenen used a series of light-up Tetris blocks. Photo: David Bartholomew
For touring show Flux, Coenen used a series of light-up Tetris blocks. Photo: David Bartholomew

But given my tempestuous relationship touring LED tape I had to find a better way. I had previously used digital festoon (the kind you see strung up outside pubs or at festivals) on Little Angel Theatre’s tour of The Singing Mermaid, so I knew it could withstand the rigours of tour. And being a ready-made system meant we didn’t have to worry about fragile solder connection.

So I had Clancy cost up three strings of festoon and three controllers, while our designer Lloyd (again) mocked up a sort of wine rack cube to secure the bulbs. Then we powered the whole thing off rechargeable mobility scooter batteries. The festoon ended up being marginally more expensive than the LED tape – though actually cheaper once labour was taken into account – and once the tour is over we can just remove the festoon and put it on to other shows or just hire it out for wedding receptions.

These are just a few examples, other designers will have lots more. How often are we given giant dreams on tiny budgets with no power or space and any other number of restrictions?

But rather than banging your head against a wall trying to make a piece of venue kit do something it just can’t, take a look around and see if maybe, with a bit of sideways glancing, something else can fulfil your artistic vision.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from August 2-26.  Full details: edfringe.com

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