Backstage: Howard Hudson – ‘Edinburgh is like the Hogwarts of theatre’
Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet may be sitting at the top of his CV now, but Howard Hudson’s career as a lighting designer began, as most do, working on the fringe, and in the hectic bustle of Edinburgh.
“Lighting a show on the Edinburgh Fringe is very different,” he says. “You get given a rig and you have to make do with that rig. Of course this can be a good thing, because you’re limited and have restrictions so you have to work harder to make the vision of your show work.”
Hudson’s career trajectory is punctuated by Edinburgh sojourns. “I’ve worked on shows in the Edinburgh Fringe three times and all very different experiences. My first show, in 2007, was a show called Histrionics, a new play that I think we did at the Underbelly. It was my first experience of working on a shoestring. We rehearsed in London, and then we all went up and we were staying in a flat with six other people. I was on the floor, on a blow-up bed next to the designer, and all sharing the same toilet and bathroom. It was such a buzz; the first time you go up you’re struck by the amount of like-minded people congregating in one space. It’s like a Hogwarts of theatre.”
Five years later, in 2012, Hudson would return to Scotland’s capital with a show from the Old Vic New Voices season, again at the Underbelly. “It was a piece called Strong Arm. That experience was different because we had the Old Vic as a producer and I was given my own room in a big house and we all got looked after very well. Expenses were paid, which makes a huge difference in Edinburgh.”
He returned two years ago to find that, once again, his lot had improved. “The last time I designed for the Edinburgh Fringe was with a Brazilian dance show called Brazouka, choreographed by Arlene Phillips and produced by Pamela Stephenson, definitely a weird, wonderful mix. We teched and rehearsed at the Gardyne College in Dundee, which had a space that was very similar to our venue, the Assembly Hall. For that show we got put up in a very beautiful hotel and all the food was paid for; I was flown up for the first time. It was about as glamorous as it gets in Edinburgh.”
All the while, Hudson had been an important presence on the London fringe, racking up three Off-West End theatre awards, as well as working on regional and overseas productions. The designer won his Offies for Burlesque at Jermyn Street, and The Hired Man and Ragtime, the latter two at the Landor. -International highlights include Swan Lake in -Lithuania, a -production of The Phantom of the Opera in Romania, Titanic and Gaslight in Toronto, and more recently the Brits -Off-Broadway season in New York.
Q&A: Howard Hudson
What was your first job (both theatrical and non-theatrical)? Pulling pints at the North Star on Finchley Road. In theatre, the Shakespeare Revue at the old New End Theatre in Hampstead.
What are your next jobs? Die Fledermaus (Opera Holland Park), Crazy For You (Watermill), The Rivals (Bristol Old Vic), Peter and the Starcatcher (Theatre Royal Northampton)
His first opportunity came at a pub theatre in north London. “The people who gave me my first break were John and Katie Plews at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. This was a fantastic introduction to the business and I was being paid to light shows properly. Those were great days because you could stay behind as late as you wanted and just play around, making mistakes and working stuff out as you went. I lit about 20 shows there in just a few years. Then I met the lighting designer Mike Robertson, who took me on as an assistant and programmer for a few shows. I assisted him on some shows and programmed a few shows for him and learned a slightly bigger version of the lighting process.”
For nearly a decade, Hudson has enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with director Thom Southerland, designing the lighting for shows such as Mack & Mabel, Grey Gardens and more recently Titanic, which has since been revived in Toronto, Tokyo and has just enjoyed a triumphant return to the Charing Cross, which Southerland has joined as artistic director.
“Thom and I have done I think 15 shows together now. We started off doing really small shows at places like the Finborough, Landor and smaller fringe venues. I’m now keyed into what Thom likes visually and his way of storytelling, which is stripped back, very simple, with only what is absolutely necessary on the stage. I think it’s important to build relationships with fellow creatives in this way, especially when you are younger, so you can all climb the ladder together.”
And climb the ladder is exactly what Hudson has done, chalking up his first West End credit when he was invited to join the creative team at the Garrick to design the lighting for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet, which finishes its run at the theatre on August 13.
“Romeo and Juliet has been really, really exciting. I got the email about availability a year before it happened but we didn’t know what the show was. No one was supposed to know, I don’t think it had been announced, and so of course we were sort of, ‘Yes, of course. We’ll make it work whatever it is’. Then we found out it was Romeo and Juliet and I had to go and meet Ken at the Garrick.”
“I got the job through Christopher Oram, the production’s set and costume designer. Over the past few years I seemed to have worked with all of his students and assistants: Morgan Large, Andrew Riley, Lee Newbie and David Woodhead. All of these people have in the past worked with Christopher and they’ve learned a lot from him. I have him to thank.”
While this particular credit marks a major turning point in his career, Hudson credits working on both the Edinburgh and London fringe as a major part of learning his trade. And there is another important working relationship for Hudson – with his agent of six years, Helen Mumby at Macnaughton Lord Representation.
“I was working for about five years on my own without an agent. I was lighting about 30 shows a year back to back. I felt that I was able to manage myself, but as the shows started to get bigger and you deal with bigger producers and just bigger processes in general, having an agent has been invaluable. They’re able to look after all of the business side of things and they’re also able to advise and say, ‘No, we don’t think you should do that,’ or write to people and try to find avenues into theatres and stuff like that. Of course one element of the job is to negotiate fees, and for me, not having to get involved in financial discussions with people who I’m about to work with has proved invaluable.”
CV: Howard Hudson
Born: 1985, London
Training: BA Fine Art, Chelsea College of Art and Design
Awards: Off West End award for best lighting design 2011, 2012, 2014
Landmark productions: Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, Garrick), In The Heights (Southwark Playhouse and Kings Cross), The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾,The Musical (Leicester Curve), Titanic (London and Toronto)
Agent: Helen Mumby, Macnaughton Lord Representation
Current and upcoming shows featuring lighting by Howard Hudson include Crazy for You at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, until September 17; the UK tour of Night Must Fall, August 19-December 3; The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic, September 9-October 2; and Peter and the Starcatcher at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, November 29-December 31