As venues remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the head of lighting at London’s Royal Court tells Theo Bosanquet about discovering his vocation at his local arts centre, working his way up as a lighting technician via the National, and why he is confident the industry can recover from this unprecedented situation
Having now worked at several leading venues, Johnny Wilson, head of lighting at London’s Royal Court, says he appreciates the collegiate nature of the technical community – he will often call his former colleagues at other venues to borrow equipment, and they respond in kind. He paints a picture of a backstage world that is highly interconnected, and highly supportive. This will no doubt be crucial in the coming months as the industry faces unprecedented challenges.
We first spoke in early March, before the theatre world was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. Catching up with him shortly after the Royal Court announced its closure, he describes himself as still being in a state of shock. “We gathered as a building on March 16, and Vicky [Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court] told us we were going to suspend all our shows. I told my team they shouldn’t come in if they don’t have to, and by the time I’d done that Boris Johnson had announced that the government was essentially closing everything.”
But theatres can’t easily shut up shop overnight, and the process of closing the building has not been straightforward. It’s further complicated by the fact the Court has a touring show out at the moment – Poet in da Corner – and Wilson has had to work through the process of returning hire equipment.
He confirms that the Court is continuing to pay its staff as well as casual workers, to cover for the work they would have done on the affected productions. “I’m fiercely proud that we are doing this,” he adds. “People still won’t be earning as much as they would normally [due to the lack of overtime], but it should make a big difference.”
However things play out over the coming weeks and months, Wilson is confident the theatre industry can recover. “I absolutely think we’re going to come back and make marvellous stuff. I don’t think we’ve been through anything quite like this before, but we’ll be fine – it’s just going to be slightly unrecognisable for a while.”
It helps that the Court has a tight-knit team that is remaining in close contact throughout the crisis. Wilson is effusive about working in an environment where “everybody’s twopenny-worth is actually worth that”.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Technical assistant at the Mill Arts Centre in Banbury
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s never wrong to ask a question.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Andy Gutteridge, technical manager at the Banbury Arts Centre, and Stuart Crane, head of lighting at the Old Vic.
What’s your best advice for would-be lighting technicians?
Go and see everything you can, and don’t be afraid to ask if you can help.
If you hadn’t been a lighting technician, what would you have been?
I’ve absolutely no idea. Certainly not selling phones.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Around the turn of the century, after walking into his local theatre at the age of 15 and doing some work experience in the lighting department, he decided within half an hour that he had found his calling. That theatre was the Mill Arts Centre in Banbury, Oxfordshire, and Wilson ascribes much of his subsequent success to the mentorship of the venue’s then technical manager Andy Gutteridge.
“He was incredible, and really took time to nurture myself and several others,” says Wilson. “He no longer works in the industry – he’s now a postman – but he sparked a generation of theatre technicians in Banbury.”
After this early epiphany he went on to study at Guildhall, where he got to experience other technical disciplines before refocusing on lighting. His early professional gigs were mainly corporate events for White Light, but he soon discovered how much he missed the theatre.
His first break on this front was working on Kneehigh’s widely acclaimed production of Brief Encounter at the Haymarket cinema in 2008. He found it eye-opening how much his input was valued, even though he was at a “relatively lowly level”. His first in-house job came soon after, working for two years as a lighting technician at the Barbican.
‘When it feels right, when lighting helps join things up, there’s a really nice click moment in my head’
Wilson says that for him the element that distinguishes lighting from other technical disciplines is its ability to knit a production together. “When it feels right, when it’s helping join things up, there’s a really nice click moment in my head, and that’s amazing. To me that is far more interesting than being on the stage.”
In 2012 he joined the National Theatre’s Olivier team, where he worked for five years. This was followed by a stint in the Lyttelton that coincided with Marianne Elliott’s technically jaw-dropping revival of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. “It felt like the world was talking about that production, which was a lovely thing to be part of.”
London’s Royal Court came knocking soon afterwards, and he is relishing the opportunity to head up a department.
In normal circumstances for a show at the Court, Wilson is usually involved throughout rehearsals, and works particularly closely with the lighting designer to realise their vision, even when ideas come in late and he has to think on his feet. The real skill of the job is facilitation, he says, and keeping everyone on side.
Sometimes this involves taking a leap of faith. He recounts working on Julie at the National with Guy Hoare – “a fabulous lighting designer” – when they hit a problem: the set had a ceiling. To circumvent this, they took the radical step of using standard domestic lighting. “Those lights ended up being the workhorses of the show, the gamble really paid off.”
Such creative thinking is a prerequisite of the job, and has become more urgent in the context of the upcoming EU regulation that could force theatres to use only LED lighting. It would mark a seismic change – some say grave threat – to a sector that currently relies on traditional tungsten filament bulbs.
“We’ve had a stay of execution,” says Wilson, referring to an agreed five-year suspension of the law as applied to entertainment. “The Association of Lighting Designers has done exceptional work getting the EU to listen to our concerns, but we mustn’t assume this has gone away.”
He emphasises that anyone who assumes Brexit will exclude the UK from the rule is mistaken, seeing as most of the major lighting manufacturers are based in Europe. Plus our influence at the negotiating table has inevitably waned. He fires a stark warning shot: “We need to stop behaving like [this issue] has gone away, and act as if it’s coming back.”
Wilson says the fundamental objective of the directive – to improve lighting efficiency and thus reduce its environmental impact – is one he wholeheartedly agrees with. The Royal Court recently committed itself to becoming a carbon-neutral venue, and he is impressed at how quickly staff have responded. “There has been a cultural shift in the building on all fronts, not just in production. Sustainability is now a key part of making a show.”
‘The ALD has done exceptional work getting the EU to listen to our concerns about the Ecodesign directive, but we mustn’t assume it has gone away’
The venue is also at the forefront of improving conditions for theatre workers, whether it’s accommodating childcare or providing mental health support. As the father of a young son, Wilson appreciates this progressive approach. “It’s a demanding job and we do antisocial hours, but we’re making great strides towards making things work. On days when I need to leave to collect my son from nursery, for example, my wonderful deputy will step in. Evening work will always be part of the job, but I think we’re on the way to improving things.”
He particularly welcomes the introduction of the Mental Health First Aid scheme, in which members of a company train to help their colleagues when they’re facing challenges. Wilson has found this “immensely supportive”, especially considering the industry presents very particular mental health challenges to staff both on and off stage.
But despite these occupational difficulties, Wilson never regrets his decision as a 15-year-old to embark on a career backstage. He beams when describing the experience of taking his son to work. “The magic of the theatre is absolutely there, and you can really sense his excitement,” he says. “I think he’s quite pleased his dad works here.”
Born: 1985, Banbury, Oxfordshire
Training: Stage management and technical theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Career: Events technician, White Light (2007); lighting technician, Brief Encounter, West End (2008); lighting technician, Barbican Theatre (2008-10); lighting technician, English Touring Opera (2010-11); lighting technician, National Theatre, Olivier and Lyttelton (2012-18); head of lighting, Royal Court Theatre, London (2018-present)
• Brief Encounter, Haymarket Cinema, West End (2008)
• Il Tabarro/Gianni Schicchi, English Touring Opera (2011)
• Collaborators, National Theatre, London (2011)
• Angels in America, National Theatre, London (2017)
• Ear for Eye, Royal Court, London (2018)