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Lighting designer Bruno Poet: ‘This is a kind of art for people who can’t draw’

Bruno Poet

Bruno Poet tells Nick Smurthwaite about the importance of tungsten lighting following the proposed EU ban, going on tour with Sigur Ros and Bjork and his return to the Bridge Theatre for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

Nicholas Hytner’s immersive, promenade staging of Julius Caesar in 2018 was the standout hit of the Bridge Theatre’s opening season. Now, Hytner and his creative team are looking to repeat its success by turning to one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A key player in this process is Olivier award-winning lighting designer Bruno Poet, who worked with Hytner at the National Theatre and again on Julius Caesar, which the Guardian praised as “an affair of sense-bombarding horror”.

Julius Caesar review at Bridge Theatre, London – ‘a kinetic, promenade staging’

Poet says: “It is a really exciting way to do Shakespeare, the energy and urgency generated by Julius Caesar was really thrilling.

“We take the seats out of the stalls, so there are 400 people standing in the pit and the action all happens in the middle on ramps and platforms, with the audience standing around. There is nothing framing the action in terms of regular scenery, so a lot of my work is about pulling focus, telling the audience where to look.

“Sometimes members of the audience are lit inadvertently. I was worried about that on Julius Caesar, about the audience feeling self-conscious, but having lots of faces looking up at the performers produces a strange kind of energy and focus that you don’t get with a more traditional configuration.”

Since he won the Olivier for best lighting for the National’s Frankenstein in 2012, Poet hasn’t stopped, sometimes lighting as many as 15 projects in one year, jetting off to theatres, opera houses and stadiums all over the world. For someone who never had any formal training, his career trajectory has been astonishing.

He says: “I did some stage lighting at school in Wolverhampton, and while I was studying geography at Oxford I spent all my time lighting shows for university drama groups at Oxford Playhouse, learning the ropes from various professionals. I must have done 50 or more shows.”


Q&A Bruno Poet

What was your first non-theatre job?
Putting VHS tapes in boxes.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Crewing at Oxford Playhouse.

What’s your next job?
Apollo, a tour opening in Los Angeles next month, about the moon landings.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s okay to be scared at the start of every project.

Do you have any advice?
Don’t be a diva.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Linda Clayton, Stephen Unwin, Ben Ormerod and Paule Constable.

If you hadn’t been an lighting designer, what would you have been?
A doctor.

Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?

While at Oxford, Poet was involved with a National Student Drama Festival show that ended up going to the Edinburgh Fringe. “I met the lighting designer Ben Ormerod while I was in Edinburgh and he invited me to assist him on an English Touring Theatre show in London. When I left Oxford, Ben asked me if I’d be available to relight As You Like It, which was going on tour.

“I got some really lucky breaks early on. Paule Constable was another mentor who gave me some assisting jobs, and I did the lighting for corporate parties and events to keep the money coming in. It’s hard to earn a living from lighting design when you start out.”

Given that nearly all lighting designers are freelance, he was lucky to secure a “regular” job as lighting designer for Garsington Opera from 1998 to 2014.

As with sound design, being a lighting designer requires a finely balanced set of skills. “It was all much simpler when I started out,” Poet says. “I regard technology as a tool rather than an obsession. My knowledge of the technology has evolved alongside the technology itself. You learn by doing it. Your first thought is: ‘What story am I trying to tell at this point in the show? Am I trying to create a particular mood, or trying to build tension, or suggesting what time of day it is, or simply focusing on one character?’

Benedict Cumberbatch and Naomie Harris in Frankenstein at the National Theatre, Olivier (2011) for which Bruno Poet won an Olivier Award in 2012
Benedict Cumberbatch and Naomie Harris in Frankenstein at the National Theatre, Olivier (2011) for which Bruno Poet won an Olivier Award in 2012

Poet lit the revival of Miss Saigon in 2017 and Tina the Musical last year: “With musicals you are often reacting to the music. How can my lighting help the audience catch the mood of a song? Whenever you have music, it makes the transitions, emotions and structure easier to bring together. Music tells you what to do.”

Even though there are sometimes more UK lighting designers than there are jobs to go around, Poet says they are “very helpful and collaborative” as a community, thanks in part to the efforts of the Association of Lighting Designers.

It has been a difficult time for UK lighting design, with the EU threatening to ban the use of tungsten lights because they do not meet energy efficiency guidelines. If enforced, it could mean that shows such as Hamilton, The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King would be presented in “a hugely compromised manner”, Constable has warned.

Paule Constable: The prospect of theatres literally going dark is real

Poet says: “It is a serious artistic threat, because there aren’t adequate ways of replacing the technology we use. At present we have an extensive palette of tools. Tungsten has a very particular, beautiful quality of light and not being able to access that would be a heart-wrenching loss. At the same time, a lot of the new technology is really good, and gives us more choices, and there is no doubt that the energy use with LED is better.

“We are so lucky, at the moment, to be able to use both tungsten and LED. There is a lot of LED in Tina, which works very well for the colour range I wanted, but there is also a lot of tungsten because it gives it a softer, period feel. I don’t believe scrapping perfectly good tools with newly manufactured LEDs just to save electricity is a sustainable solution.” Like all creatives, Poet prefers to work with tried-and-tested teams, and a brief glance at his CV sees a recurrence of directors, including Hytner, Kasper Holten, Jo Davies, John Fulljames and Marianne Elliott.

He says: “I think conceptually in response to the director and the designer, so it is often helpful to sit in on rehearsal and work out the lighting design from the movement and placing of the actors. I can build up a picture of the show in my head. Lighting design is a kind of art for people who can’t draw.

“Every production brings together a different group of people and a new set of challenges. I love being involved in the creative choices and a part of the machine that makes a show happen. The most exhilarating part of the process for me is the technical rehearsal, when you have to think on your feet and make quick decisions. Time is always against you.”

Bjork in concert, lit by Bruno Poet

Poet lights as many operas as straight plays, and in 2013 his career took a turn when he did the lighting for the Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros. He was creative director for their 2016-17 tour and did lighting effects for Bjork’s Cornucopia tour this year.

When he’s not on the road, Poet lives with a wife and teenage daughter in a remote part of south Cornwall.

He says: “I spend so much of my working life in dark theatres, it’s wonderful to escape to the seaside. My wife, Annabel, is a former stage manager so she gets the world I work in. She is very supportive and sometimes the family comes with me overseas. I’ve been trying to reduce my workload, but it is difficult to turn down exciting offers. One of the good things about opera is that it books so far in advance, it’s easier to plan your down time.”

CV Bruno Poet

Born: Wimbledon, 1972
Training: None
Landmark productions:
• Ripley Bogle, National Student Drama Festival (1992)
• A Difficult Age, English Touring Theatre (1998)
• Lighting designer, Garsington Opera (1998-2014)
• La Clemenza di Tito, Liceo Barcelona (2006)
• Rusalka, Opera North and Opera Australia (2007)
• All About My Mother, Old Vic, London (2007)
• Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, National Theatre, London (2009)
• Frankenstein, NT (2011)
• London Road, NT (2011)
• Carousel, Opera North, Leeds (2012)
• Sigur Ros world tour (2013)

• Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre, London (2014)
• Tina the Musical, Aldwych Theatre, London (2018)
• Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre, London (2018)
• Bjork’s Cornucopia (2019)
• Green Room Award for Rusalka (2007)
• Olivier Award for Frankenstein (2012)
• Knight of Illumination Award for Sigur Ros tour (2013)
Agent: Clare Vidal-Hall

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at London’s Bridge Theatre until August 31

Rob Halliday: EU lighting rules process is tedious – but we’re getting there

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