Johanna Town, lighting designer: ‘I want to be a springboard to bring out the best in people’
Since being bitten by the lighting bug at the tender age of 10, Johanna Town has carved out an impressive career with theatre and opera companies. Now the Association of Lighting Designers’ new chair, she tells David Walker about the passion that’s driving her quest to share knowledge and improve technical education
For Johanna Town, the incoming chair of the Association of Lighting Designers, theatre runs in the blood. If that is hardly an unusual statement for those in the industry, her follow-up certainly is, as she adds: “Though not by choice.” Town, who would go on to be head of lighting at London’s Royal Court theatre for close to two decades, was introduced to the theatre by her parents. They were, it transpires, “massive” amateur dramatics fans, “so I was always being dragged off to rehearsals as a young child instead of being looked after by a babysitter”.
While she was never destined to appear on stage – “absolutely no way” – Town was fascinated by the technicians as they worked their magic backstage. “I can particularly remember at the age of 10 operating a Strand Junior 8 board under the watchful guise of the lighting guy and thinking this was brilliant.”
It was on a school trip to watch a show at Manchester’s Royal Exchange – she went regularly in the mid-1970s – that she had her “light-bulb moment where everything just clicked, quite literally as if you had turned on a switch. I instinctively knew at that moment this was something I wanted to be a part of. To touch people through theatre”.
Finding a job proved tricky. Town “just wanted to play around with motorbikes and Junior 8s” but her mother wanted her to go to college and get a qualification, and the school careers advisers had no knowledge about the theatre or contacts.
Her father died when she was 10, but her mother continued to cultivate her interest in the technical side of theatre, regularly taking her to the Royal Exchange. Her mother would always try to get seats close to the open plan control area, so the young Town could watch the professionals at work.
“One day, I leaned over and simply asked: ‘How do you get a job in theatre?’ The technician replied that they did apprenticeship schemes, so I applied and was fortunate enough to get in.”
The course was two years, though Town stayed an extra year to continue learning “the maths, the physics and everything else that came with it” before moving on to summer work at the Liverpool Playhouse, touring with the London Bubble Theatre Company and follow-spotting variety acts on Blackpool’s North Pier.
She became head of lighting at London’s Royal Court in 1990, where she remained for 17 years. She lit more than 50 Royal Court plays – including Rhinoceros, My Child and Scenes from the Back of Beyond – and was one of the lighting architects when the venue was refurbished at the turn of the century.
In 2007, she returned to freelancing life, with jobs that covered everything from prestigious West End productions to grassroots theatre. Her work ranged from lighting Some Like It Hip Hop for the ZooNation Dance Company through to Porgy and Bess at the Royal Danish Opera House. Not bad for someone who, early in life, was told she wouldn’t achieve anything due to her dyslexia.
With a depth of knowledge from across the industry, and already a professional rep for the ALD, her promotion to chair, a role she started in January, should come as no surprise.
“The role of the chair in the ALD is to be an adviser to the exec committee and channel them into achieving things that are important,” she says.
“I want to be a springboard to bring out the best in people who have plans and ambitions, and this includes equality and diversity. It feels like a great point in my career and it is good to be a role model. As an individual who’s passionate and believes in theatre, I want to be able to reach out and help as many others as I can.”
One of her most important initiatives goes back to the days when she was struggling to find work in the theatre. The Lumiere Scheme aims to provide a path for keen, talented young people about to leave education who don’t know how to break into the industry. With three Lumiere schemes a year in three different venues, the aim is to train up paid lighting assistants and get them on to around 36 shows.
Most schools teach you about dance and performance, and some may cover a little bit of stage work, but no one teaches you about lighting
“Most schools teach you about dance, performance and some may cover a little bit of stage work, but no one teaches you about lighting. I want to be able to get school leavers and anyone else who is interested into apprenticeships, whether this is by working in a theatre or even shadowing a designer.”
Town’s desire to improve technical education is clear. By using her new position within the ALD, she is keen to get a programme of teaching in schools alongside theatre companies to inform students what it’s like being a technician, and ultimately get them working within a live environment.
“Having said that,” Town says, “the industry is brimming with freelancers. Some have a theatrical background, and some don’t. Therefore, I also want to ensure that the ALD is a name that people will know as being a massive resource centre where they can come to for help, training and advice.”
Backstage has often been seen as a male-dominated arena. At a time when the spotlight has been on power dynamics across the industry, especially around gender, Town has not felt affected by the issue or that she has been held back.
“My work speaks for itself and as such I get employment through experience and merit,” she says, adding: “Everyone should be treated as equal and I strongly believe that.”
As a veteran of the lighting industry, how does she respond to the introduction of modern technology from LED units to moving lights in production?
“I love using LED,” she says. “Where else can you light up an entire stage in red, only to then change it at the drop of a hat to blue if that’s what the director requires?
“However, I do feel that your imagination gets less the more movers you use, so I try to stay as creative as possible without going over the top.”
That is not to say she overlooks traditional lighting methods, and has strong views on tungsten halogen lamps, which hit the news recently after talk that the European Union is considering banning them in entertainment lighting due to environmental concerns over their energy inefficiency. It would leave theatres unable to buy tungsten lamps by 2020.
Town believes lighting designers need to fight back, echoing lighting veterans, including Paule Constable, who have criticised the development.
“We all know why we still love tungsten, but now we need to formulate how to present that love as a critical, practical argument as to why this still-unique tool should not be unilaterally banned,” Town says.
“If this happens, it will affect everyone involved in stage lighting, from the amateur dramatic societies to the fringe venues and repertoire theatres around the country. These venues cannot afford to replace their units with such a short deadline. This needs to be phased over a period of time, if at all.”
Her next job is on Frankenstein at the Royal Exchange in March – the theatre where she learned how a lighting enthusiast could break into the business – and she talks about using lighting to create an added level of fear in the production.
“The secret of a good design is to take an audience into a world and submerge them into that environment without them realising it,” she says. “If I can capture an audience, then I’ve achieved my job.”
CV: Johanna Town
Born: 1960s, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire
Training: Apprenticeship at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Landmark productions: The Crackwalker, Gate Theatre, London (1992), Rose, Lyceum New York and
Royal National Theatre (2000), The Permanent Way, National Theatre (2004), My Name Is Rachel Corrie, Minetta Lane Theatre, New York (2006), Les Liaison Dangereuses, Salisbury Playhouse (2010), Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, National Theatre (2012), Fracked, Chichester Festival Theatre (2016)
Agent: CVH Management