An aspiring actor who took up lighting in order to tour with a production in the mid-1980s, Charles Balfour is now rarely out of work. He tells Fergus Morgan how he squares being a self-confessed Luddite with his technical job
He has lit dozens of productions at some of the country’s biggest venues, including the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, but Charles Balfour never wanted to be a lighting designer. His 30-year career, he says, is “full of accidents and not terribly glamorous”.
Born in Manchester in 1964, he was originally an actor in the mid-1980s, and it was only when the company he helped found – the Shadow Syndicate – couldn’t find a part for him in their 1986 show Blood of Angels that he moved from performing in front of the lights to standing behind them.
“It was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome and there wasn’t a part for me. I was very upset that I wouldn’t get to go on the tour,” Balfour says. “And that’s when someone said to me: ‘Why don’t you do the lighting?’ I had no idea about lighting at all, but that got me in the van. So I lit the show, and I rather liked it. “After a while, I was receiving more offers for lighting work than for acting work, so I sort of got the message. I’m probably a better lighting designer than I am an actor. Maybe one day I’ll give acting another go, though.”
Balfour’s career since then has taken him from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the West End. Working largely in theatre, with a sprinkling of dance and opera thrown in, he has lit shows including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Imelda Staunton, Mojo with Ben Whishaw and Rupert Grint, Richard III with Martin Freeman, the stage adaptation of The Kite Runner and many more.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked the machine that put polish in tins for Johnson’s wax.
What was your first theatrical job?
I did work experience in the Redgrave Theatre in Farnham.
What’s your next job?
A Museum in Baghdad for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s okay to make mistakes.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
German artist Joseph Beuys.
If you hadn’t been a lighting designer, what would you have been?
Hopefully an actor. Probably an unemployed actor.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
None at all.
In 2013, he won a UK Theatre Award for his work on the Manchester Royal Exchange production of Peter Whelan’s The Accrington Pals, and a Knight of Illumination Award for lighting Jez Butterworth’s acclaimed play The River – a production that transferred to Broadway with Hugh Jackman in the lead role. But, Balfour says, “there’s been no plan and lots of luck” during his career.
“I had no formal training whatsoever,” he says. “It was all sham and bluster. I wouldn’t stand a chance these days. I was laughed at a lot to begin with. I’d say things like: ‘Can we have the big boxy lights now?’ I had absolutely no technical knowledge when I started. But perhaps that helped. I don’t know.”
‘I can’t think of a better way to learn than to pick up a piece of equipment, put it somewhere, and have a look at what it does’
Instead of formal training, Balfour learned on the job. “I can’t think of a better way to learn than to pick up a piece of equipment, put it somewhere, and have a look at what it does,” he says. “Cause and effect. I realised quite early on that lighting was just cause and effect.”
He has picked up specialist knowledge over his career, of course, but despite the drastic developments in lighting over the last two decades – “It’s been bonkers,” he says – Balfour is still “not very interested in technology”.
“It might sound strange, but I’m not a techie,” he says. “I don’t get excited talking about technology. I love using it.
I love seeing the effects I can do with it. That’s amazing. But I always rely on people more intelligent than myself to sort out the technology. I’ve been quite open about being a Luddite throughout my career. I rely very heavily on my team because they can fill the gaps in my knowledge.”
Some lighting designers pay close attention to achieving realism in their work – in making sure their choices accurately reflect the time and setting of what’s happening on stage. Balfour, though, prefers to focus “very much on the emotional side”. He talks to the director and the designer of a show, he takes inspiration from the artists and their movements and he gets into the rehearsal room to meet the cast – all to immerse himself in the world of the production as much as possible. After that, he says, he works “quite a lot on instinct”.
“I’ll certainly pay attention to whether it’s cold or it’s hot, or whether it’s set in Russia or in Cuba. But what interests me is the emotional temperature of the show. I don’t think my style is terribly flashy, but I like to get into the emotional intensity of the show.” He continues: “I like to tell the story as far as I see it. So it might not be totally naturalistic. It might be a lighting state that’s inspired by what’s inside the protagonist’s head, as opposed to where they are, or what time of day it is.”
That said, Balfour doesn’t want his work to draw attention away from the action. His philosophy is that the lighting, first and foremost, is there to support the story. “I try not to get in the way of a show too much. I try not to bruise the show too much. I quite like to stay in the background. Obviously I think lighting is hugely important, but I see some shows and I find myself watching the lighting and missing what’s going on. It’s like overacting. I really try not to overact.”
When we speak, Balfour has just left the technical rehearsal for his latest show, Our Lady of Kibeho, which runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London until early November, having originated at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate in January. Written by Katori Hall, it follows events in Rwanda in 1981, when three Catholic teenagers claimed to have seen visions foretelling the impending genocide.
“It’s an extraordinary story,” says Balfour, explaining his approach to lighting the show. “What I was very interested in was the ambiguity of it. I didn’t want to come down on either side and say: ‘Yes, this definitely happened’ or: ‘No, they made it up’. I wanted to create some minor miracles, but ones that were quite explainable.”
“So I set the scene – yes, it’s in Rwanda, it’s beautiful, it’s warm – but then I interrupt proceedings with a little flash, or a little quiver in the lights,” he says. “It’s subtle at first, maybe some people don’t even notice it, but there’s something, and then that language grows and grows towards the climax.”
Today, Balfour is much sought-after as a lighting designer. He’s rarely out of work, lighting up to 15 shows a year and often finding himself working 14 hours a day, six days a week. Despite winning two awards in 2013, though, he is not particularly used to being in the limelight. Not many lighting designers are.
In March last year, the head of the Association of Lighting Designers Johanna Town spoke out against the lack of recognition afforded to lighting designers, saying that “people still think we walk in, there’s some lights there and we point them at the stage”. Balfour, though, isn’t too bothered about critics overlooking his work.
“I’m not upset that I don’t get mentioned,” he says. “If I do get a mention, that’s terrific, but I don’t want to criticise critics because they’ve got a really difficult job to do. I think a lot of the full-time critics really do understand what we do, but it’s just not their first talking point. Hopefully I’ll have helped their enjoyment of the show without them even realising.”
Our Lady of Kibeho runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, until November 2
Born: 1964, Manchester
• Woyzeck, Gate Theatre, London (2004)
• Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre, London (2013)
• Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Harold Pinter Theatre, London (2017)
• Various shows for Richard Alston Dance Company
• UK Theatre award for The Accrington Pals (2013)
• Knight Of Illumination Award for The River (2013)