Some lighting designers call themselves artists, while for others this type of work is more accurately described as a craft. Given the varied requirements of the profession – a flair for image making, technical facility and a willingness to collaborate – you could easily make the case for either. The world of lighting design has undergone major changes during the past few decades, with most lighting designers now working freelance rather than in-house at theatres up and down the country. Peter Hunter, resident lighting designer at the Salisbury Playhouse until a recent restructure saw his title change to chief electrician, is well placed to remark on these developments in the industry, while Paule Constable and Emma Chapman share insights from the world of freelancing.
Paule Constable, lighting designer, freelance
My career is based on long-term relationships with directors. It was Complicite first, then Katie Mitchell, Michael Grandage and Rufus Norris, and Marianne Elliott and I have worked together for 20 years.
Because I do work that’s collaborative, it’s based on a huge amount of trust and risk, with people not judging the work that you’re doing and expecting you to serve things up immediately. That only develops when people know that it’s worth taking the risk. You don’t necessarily always know that it’s going to succeed, but you’ll give it a bloody good go.
I stumbled into lighting, really: my flatmate at university had a job as a follow-spot operator for the summer and she fell madly in love and ran away to Spain. I had no job and I basically lied and turned up and pretended to be her. Fortunately the other person operating the follow spot on the show was a young woman who had just finished training at RADA. If it had been a guy I would never have done it but I just went over to her and said, “I haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m doing” and she looked after me.
I started in music, then moved into theatre, and then opera. But Complicite really was the big thing that started me out. I designed The Street of Crocodiles for them in 1992 and suddenly I got an Olivier award nomination and people started thinking I was interesting.
I have to tread quite carefully in terms of trying to do the work that’s right for me and the body of work that interests me. People still hold up the West End and Broadway as being the greatest thing out there when actually it’s not where the risky, interesting work is happening.
The key thing for me is always whether I think the piece should be done. It’s great when we can entertain people but I don’t do shows that are light entertainment; that’s not really where my heart lies.
The biggest mistake that people make with lights is they think lighting design is about lights when it’s not: it’s all about darkness. You start with nothing.
Emma Chapman, lighting designer, freelance
I did a stage management technical course and went to Salisbury Playhouse as an assistant electrician for a couple of years under Peter Hunter, which was amazing because at that time as an assistant you could light all the youth theatre shows in the studio and then the main house. They had fantastic lighting designers coming through and I could just watch them and I could do all their plotting and rigging for them.
Then I got a great opportunity to light High Society for Deborah Shaw at Aberystwyth Arts Centre when I was 21. It was one of those things were you suddenly get a break to do something really exciting with an experienced but kind, nurturing team. I pursued my freelance career from then on.
I like to be involved at the beginning, from before the white-card model. Particularly with budgets being really tight at the moment, if you can go to the theatre with a complete vision, you are more likely to get the money for the light to do that or build lights into that part of the set.
The big thing for me was Roundabout. When we did it in Sheffield, it was a prototype auditorium with a traditional lighting rig. Then it transferred to Shoreditch while I was heavily pregnant. So my journey goes through having my little girl and then launching Roundabout. It was the perfect thing to keep going through a time that can be difficult in terms of trying to maintain a career and presence in the industry. I was incredibly lucky because of the support Paines Plough and [Roundabout designer] Lucy Osborne gave me – and when [lighting supplier] Howard Eaton came on-board it was amazing.
We developed a unique pre-focused LED system, meaning the show looks identical wherever you see it. It uses two types of LED: dynamic white and RGBW. The dynamic white allows the designer to emulate from tungsten through to HMI, with the RGBW providing all other colour. There are 627 LEDs, all 13 degree, allowing a huge amount of flexibility of colour and direction with the addition of pixel-mapping capabilities to run effects. It has very low energy consumption meaning Roundabout can tour to places with more limited power facilities while being more eco-friendly.
A lot of my practice, when I look back, is having practicals on stage. Those built-in elements to sets are important to me. When I look at Roundabout, I see the journey of Howard and me designing that Roundabout system and it all being part of the architecture, because that is where my love of light is as much as anything.
Peter Hunter, chief electrician, Salisbury Playhouse
I started playing with lights at school like a lot of people and then trained in stage management and technical theatre at LAMDA. I arrived at Salisbury as a lighting designer in the spring of 1980 and have been here ever since, through thick and thin.
You were looking after the building, the electrics, the plumbing and other general maintenance. Three resident electricians worked on the shows and all the design work was handled in-house. That was very much a community, we all worked closely together. There were no freelancers to come in and light things.
However, the work has changed. There is less involvement with the mechanics of the building and the design opportunities are now comparatively rare. I enjoy working with the freelancers but it’s more as the production electrician than as a designer. Freelance designers do a lovely job.
I miss the opportunity for young people to learn on the job because there is not the opportunity that there used to be. In a theatre that used to do 19 to 20 shows a year in both spaces, they were all done in-house. Everybody would have a chance to do a bit of lighting and a bit of sound, whereas now there is an emphasis on technical aspects of supporting the production rather than being particularly creative. We are here as a support industry quite a lot of the time. It’s up to the lighting designers to say what they want. Then for us to try to facilitate that and make sure it happens.
I miss undertaking some of the maintenance aspects of the building, having been involved with it for such a long time, but I am not sure that is appreciated. It was part of the job that I was brought up to do. It’s second nature to me, whereas nowadays it isn’t expected.