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Lucy Carter, lighting designer: ‘I use light to create the ebb and flow of emotion’

Lucy Carter. Photo: Martin Shaw

Award-winning lighting designer Lucy Carter is rarely restricted in her art. Though best known for her collaborations with choreographer Wayne McGregor, she has worked in opera and theatre as well as creating installations in galleries and public theatre spaces.

Of all the theatre-based disciplines, lighting is the least tangible, the most elusive. Set designers can create models, choreographers can demonstrate steps and costume designers can draw sketches and run up a few test frocks; lighting designers have no such luxury. So how does she go about it?

“I write everything down in a notebook in the initial discussion. I don’t even think about light to start with. Then we all go away and do our research. I read a lot. If it’s opera, I look at the artist and the period and do a lot of background reading. I am not an artist and I don’t draw a lighting environment. Everyone works very visually now: we all populate each others’ minds with feelings and ideas.

Carter has produced lighting designs for installations and opera, as well as theatre shows such as Oil at the Almeida in 2016. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

“It is possible to light a model box,” says Carter. “I don’t. My method is to talk about it. Some directors don’t understand what you are talking about and some do. Eventually you translate the architectural plan of lighting and write a cue synopsis known as a ‘cue list’. The other notes are all theoretical. That’s the hardest part for a lighting designer. You get more and more anxious before you get into the space. You can’t reveal anything until you are on the stage. You are very exposed. You are the last one to show what you can do.”

Carter has worked with McGregor from the earliest days of his company Random Dance and has seen many developments in lighting technology over the years. Although she says she does not keep up with developments – “I can’t read technical information for the sake of it” – she ensures that she has people around her who do.

What is the most significant innovation in lighting design?

“The development of the lighting desk,” Carter says. “The computers that control the lights. I use video content and feed it into my lights to give them different behaviour. My programmer has increasingly become my collaborator. My geeks are my technicians who can translate what’s in my head into algorithms.”


Q&A: Lucy Carter

What was your first non-theatre job? I was a waitress when I was 14 or 15. I loved waiting on tables and doing bar work. It was very social and I got to observe life.

What was your first professional theatre job? I studied dance and drama at Roehampton Institute, I started creating the lighting for my own choreography, and then for everyone else’s work. I basically became the dance department’s lighting technician and lighting designer. When I graduated they found the money to create a part-time position for me, to continue the work I had been doing.

What is your next job? Elektra for Gothenburg Opera, directed by Stephen Langridge.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Being a lighting designer is not glamorous – and you need to take vitamin D supplements.

Who or what is your biggest influence? The people I collaborate with. They provide me with a list of their inspirations to discuss that I then research and discover. That way I am always learning and discovering new things that go on to inspire and appear in my work as I create.

What is your advice for aspiring lighting designers? Any work or experience offered to you is worthwhile, as you never know where it might lead. I went along to the Place in London with a friend who was lighting a show there, as I had no designing work at the time. Then I was offered work as a technician there. That is where it all started happening.

If you hadn’t been a lighting designer what would you have done? I have no idea. At no point did I consider what I might do, lighting just kind of found me, thankfully. Now, I would like to be a window dresser.

Do you have any superstitions or rituals? Be prepared – my girlguiding stood me in good stead. I don’t really believe in theatrical superstitions.

Carter admits that she is far more interested in stylisation than naturalism and it comes as no surprise to hear that the hardest lighting job she has had to date was in the open air.

Far in 2010; one of Carter’s spectacular collaborations with Wayne McGregor. Photo: Ravi Deepres

“It was Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh,” she recalls. “We were up against the elements – we were actually on the beach with the audience facing the sea. It was a natural landscape and very epic and the lighting didn’t cut the mustard to begin with. Not until it got dark.”

Despite her claim that she is not ‘technical’ in the most advanced sense, Carter is constantly thinking up new avenues for lighting design, stretching the boundaries of what lighting can achieve. She has made installations with no live performers at all, such as the recent No Body at Sadler’s Wells. It is a form to which she is increasingly drawn.

“I am working on an oratorio for English National Opera at the Royal Festival Hall in July. I am staging and ‘concepting’ the whole thing. It is very much about how I can use light to create the ebb and flow of emotion directly with the music.”

Emotion is a word she often uses when describing the purpose behind her lighting designs. For Carter, lighting is not just about illuminating areas of the stage or highlighting bodies in movement.

“Whenever light hits our eyes it creates a visceral, emotional response in the audience. It is like music. They are all the textures we play with. It never fails to create an impression when I first switch on a light. It is a very manipulative art form.”

Finally, I ask Carter whether she is constantly aware of lighting in the real world. Doesn’t that make life a bit difficult?

“Definitely,” she laughs. “It’s a nuisance if the lighting environment is really awful. This may be a curse for other people, but I like that I feel that way. Because it reaffirms my conviction that what I do is right.”

CV: Lucy Carter

Born: 1971, King’s Lynn
Training: Roehampton Institute, University of Surrey; Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions: Chroma, Royal Ballet (2006), Atomos, Random Dance (2013), Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera (2013), Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre (2013), Woolf Works, Royal Ballet (2015), Oil, Almeida (2016), No Body, installation at Sadler’s Wells (2016)
Awards: Olivier for dance for 2 Human (2004), Knight of Illumination for dance award for Chroma (2008), TMA achievement in opera award for Lohengrin (2013)
Agent: Simon Ash at Loesje Sanders

Elektra runs at Gothenburg Opera from February 4 to April 9 

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