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Rory Dempster

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Lighting designer Rory Dempster who died on February 2 made headline news in The Stage [] when an Australian tribunal ruled that the fatal illness which eventually killed him had possibly been caused while working in West End theatres decades earlier.

In July last year Rory, then resident in Vincentia, Australia. was diagnosed as suffering from mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer which can take up to 30 years to incubate. The New South Wales Dust Disease Board confirmed that he was likely to have contracted it while working in British theatres. During the early sixties he had worked as an electrician, frequently in the lighting grid among asbestos fire screen borders. He also serviced lanterns that had asbestos-lined cable insulation.

Rory Dempster had a long and distinguished backstage career. Born October 31, 1946, the son of the cinematographer Austin Dempster and wife June, he started in rock’n’roll, working on many gigs, including some for Jimi Hendrix. Rory went to the Royal Court in the late sixties where he became the board operator and later deputy chief under head of lighting Andy Philips . With all the great Royal Court directors at that time – Gaskill, Anderson, Page, Gill and Howell – Philips had started to develop the style of lighting which epitomised the work where lighting the actor’s face was paramount. Rory went on to become one of the great lighters of actors.

After leaving the Court and setting up a successful freelance career as a lighting designer, he became involved with the fledgling White Light company , set up by John Simpson and Philips. He was then invited by Peter Gill to Riverside Studios as an associate. When Gill left, he continued this work with David Gothard. While doing all this he was also involved in the emerging company Field Day, set up in Northern Ireland by Stephen Rea and Seamus Heaney.

All the while he was lighting shows worldwide and at home, where he lit all the London productions of Athol Fugard, most of David Hare’s work, directed by the author, plays by Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton, Edward Bond, John Osborne and Gill. He also worked with Joint Stock.

While at the Court, Rory met Jim Sharman, who asked him to design the lighting for the Rocky Horror Show. This, began his international career since it toured everywhere. In Australia he met and eventually married Sally Gjedsted and emigrated. In Australia, during the last decade, he worked closely with the director Neil Armfield. They worked on numerous productions including the Chicago production of Sweeney Todd, later produced at the Royal Opera House. Having lit the original in Chicago Rory was too ill to come over to London and oversee this. Rory died at his home and is survived by his wife Sally.

In memory of Rory’s passion for his profession, the Belvoir Company B Theatre in New South Wales, run by Neil Armfield, has set up a Scholarship for Young Lighting Designers.

Hayden Griffin

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