Lighting designer Natasha Chivers: ‘Lighting is exciting and stressful. You’re running on instinct’
Olivier-award winning lighting designer Natasha Chivers tells Liz Hoggard about her working relationship with director Robert Icke, being a woman in a male-dominated field and getting inspiration from her favourite bands
Natasha Chivers laughs when she’s reminded of her old quote about how lighting designers are like the bassist or drummer in a band – rather than a lead singer – because they “set the entire pace”. Though, like in a band, she says picking up the theme now, the lighting designer has to work collaboratively and, crucially, sensitively with the rest of the team.
“It’s a good thing for a lighting designer to be sensitive,” she says. “I couldn’t do my job otherwise. At a run-through you need to be able to feel what the character is going through, and what the audience is going to feel, in order to create an environment in which you’re supporting and guiding the audience in a particular way.”
For the past 20 years, Chivers has designed lighting for some of the most visually exciting theatre, dance and live gigs. She can take the audience from a nightclub or a garden to a torture room, just by changing the colour filters.
Chivers started out working with companies Frantic Assembly and Paines Plough and today her CV takes in everything from the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House to site-specific venues, warehouses and wastelands.
She should really be a household name. “I don’t mind but it bothers my mum,” she laughs. “Recently the Association of Lighting Designers had a push to get critics to notice lighting more in their reviews.”
A regular collaborator is director Robert Icke. They worked together on Hamlet with Andrew Scott, Oresteia – where Chivers’ lighting design was Olivier-nominated – and the mesmerising stage version of George Orwell’s 1984.
And now we meet at the Almeida, just before the technical run-through of Icke’s The Doctor, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Professor Bernhardi, a world-premiere starring Juliet Stevenson and Ria Zmitrowicz.
“It’s an exciting play with huge ideas. So at times the set needs to be simple, clean and open. But the thing I like about working with Rob is that you also get to do your thing, production-wise. A lot of his references are TV references. He’ll say: ‘Ooh, let’s watch this bit of the West Wing or The Sopranos.’”
Chivers watches rehearsals, looks at the set model and decides, with the director and designer, what kind of lighting a show should have. She might decide that it should be bright and crisp, shadowy and sculptural or romantic and soft.
She also has to think about practicalities such as the time of day, direction of sun – in a naturalistic set – and movement of the actors. For The American Clock, at the Old Vic earlier this year, which was performed in the round, Chivers had to ensure the lighting worked from all angles.
“You try to get in early with the set because sometimes you can create slots and holes and bits and pieces for lighting. In 1984, for example, we had some lights that flickered a lot. You carve a space for those so they’re where they need to be.”
A lighting designer has responsibility for editing and pacing, she says, telling the audience which way to look. “With Rob’s shows, everything is curated, but you are keeping half an eye on the arc of the lighting and half on the arc of the piece, and how those two things sit together.”
Chivers is in great demand. After The Doctor, she is lighting Yaël Farber’s production of Blood Wedding, adapted by Marina Carr, at the Young Vic and then Annie Baker’s The Antipodes at the National Theatre. How does she juggle all these shows? “It’s like planes coming in to land. They’re all lined up, but you need to concentrate on the one you’re landing at that time. There’s nothing dangerous about the others yet.”
She describes her attitude to light as “quite architectural” adding: “That combination of being interested in people, stories and light is what got me into it. I’m interested in structure – where you start, where you end up and what you go through.”
Natasha Chivers Q&A
What was your first non-theatre job?
Waitressing – with John Tiffany – in a restaurant well ahead of its time called Alaska in Huddersfield.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I did some stage management early on, but as a lighting designer, Frantic Assembly’s Sell Out in 1998.
What’s your next job?
Blood Wedding at London’s Young Vic, then The Antipodes at the National Theatre in October. I’m going to Stuttgart to do a new version of Ivanov with Rob [Icke] in November. And I’m also working on Katie Prince’s Message in a Bottle, a dance-led piece with music by Sting for Sadler’s Wells.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How to look after myself better. It’s so easy to burn out. Company managers take on responsibility for mental health and they don’t get any training. A friend of mine runs a company, Thrive, working with corporates and charities on how you can look after yourselves better in your industry. Vicky Featherstone got us to come in and work with staff and freelancers at the Royal Court. It was great. And I’d like to see it going into drama schools.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Julie Hesmondhalgh and Steven Hoggett because they are both excellent, smart, funny and driven yet hugely compassionate humans.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself because you don’t want to hire the wrong person.
If you hadn’t been a lighting designer, what would you have been?
A sculptor or a ceramist. I’ve always quite liked form.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I do a lot of my working on paper. The messier the better. I can do CAD drawing, but it doesn’t work for me.
When Chivers started in the early 1990s, there were almost no female lighting designers. It was a very blokey profession. “And getting people to do very quickly what you need them to do, and keeping them on side is half of the job,” she says wryly.
There were also no formal lighting design courses. She trained in technical theatre and stage management at LAMDA, but on a 1990 work placement at the Almeida she “lingered a bit too long at the back of the auditorium” watching the light-focusing session. “One beam of light hit the stage and transformed the colour of the floor and the atmosphere of the space. And it was at that moment I decided to become a lighting designer.” She realised it was a way of “being connected to the heart of a show”.
She started by working in fringe and pub theatres: “It was trial and error: put the gel in, change the gel.” Then she helped set up theatre collective Art Threshold in a basement in Paddington. It was led by Brian Astbury, who set up the first non-racial commercial theatre in South Africa called The Space Theatre. Creatives involved included Rufus Norris, composer Max Richter and costume designer Katrina Lindsay of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fame. “We had this amazing summer where we raised £8,000 by writing to famous people and then we put on a season of plays.”
They built the rostra and set up the lighting rig. “It was in the spirit of what happened in South Africa,” Chivers says. “Brian was a photographer so he’d say to me: ‘You might not want to put all the lights at the front, you might want to get some light from behind and create some shape.’ Early in your career, there’s a lot of what-ifs. What if I have it wrong?”
Later she moved to work with Frantic Assembly – she’s known co-founder Steven Hoggett since her teens – and then Paines Plough with Vicky Featherstone.
Her reputation continued to grow and in 2007, she won the Olivier alongside Mike Robertson for lighting design for Sunday in the Park With George, which played at the Menier Chocolate Factory and transferred to the West End.
Even now, working on major stages, she laughs, she’s still flying by the seat of her pants. “It’s the only department that doesn’t get a practice. The costume department do fittings, the sound designer can play the music to the director, but because of the amount of gear, the rig only goes up during tech. That’s what makes it exciting and stressful. You’re running on instinct.”
Once the team has committed to a design, it’s an expensive process, she says. “The rigging going up takes eight hours, then focusing all the lights takes another eight.”
Although she’s worked on serious classical texts, Chivers gets as much lighting inspiration from music gigs. “Sigur Rós are amazing. I love the Chemical Brothers with their lasers and lights shows,” she says.
“I did a gig with Neon Neon, who are part of Super Furry Animals, and the National Theatre Wales in the Berghain nightclub in Berlin and it was one of the most extraordinary nights of my career. We were in an incredibly cool old gasworks, and it’s a narrative album about a communist publisher so we told the story but with movement and text alongside a gig.”
Today she judges a competition for the ALD and admits to having a soft spot for fringe companies working in “old basements with old floodlights, a couple of festoons and some Anglepoise lamps”, who have a bold vision – as opposed to entrants with expensive kit and a comprehensive plan.
Coming up through the fringe has taught her to improvise. “You get used to making something out of nothing.” Recently she went to the National to brainstorm the set and lighting for The Antipodes. “We had a meeting in the design office because the set’s over budget and we were trying to work out how to knock 20 grand off. Rufus and I were laughing because, as he said: ‘We once built a theatre for eight grand.’”
CV Natasha Chivers
Born: Worthing, 1970
Training: LAMDA (1989-91)
• The Lizzie Play, Arts Threshold, London (1992)
• Sunday in the Park With George, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (2006)
• 1984, Nottingham Playhouse, UK Tour (2013), Almeida, London (2014); Playhouse Theatre, London (2016); Hudson Theatre, Broadway (2016)
• Oresteia, Almeida; Trafalgar Studios, London (2015)
• Sylvia, Old Vic, London (2018)
• Electric Counterpoint, Royal Opera House, London (2009)
• Electric Hotel, Requardt and Rosenberg, London (2009)
• Belonging, Skanes Dance Theatre, Malmo Opera House, Sweden (2018)
• Babs – filmed on stage at Catford Palace Theatre for the BBC (2017)
• Olivier for best lighting for Sunday in the Park With George (2007)
• UK Theatre Award for best design (shared with Lizzie Clachan) for Happy Days at Sheffield Crucible (2011)
Agent: Mark Price at AHA
The Doctor is at the Almeida, until September 28. Blood Wedding runs at the Young Vic, September 19-November 2
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