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Rob Halliday: All work and no play could make lighting design dull

Photo: Valerii Ivashchenko/Shutterstock
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I’d be curious – if a little frightened – to know how much of my career (which I often think of as just a sequence of happy accidents) has been spent staring at a blank screen, the high-tech replacement for a blank piece of paper.

I’m sure it’s the same for others: sometimes the blank moment is brief, when an idea is already formed in your head, ready to be realised. Sometimes it’s much longer: maybe the idea isn’t coming at all but you have to start doing something, particularly if the deadline  is looming.

For lighting designers, there are two moments like this: the first, when you sit down to draw the plan, fortunately happens in private. The second, when you sit down to light the show – a blank stage instead of a blank screen – is altogether more public. While you’ll have an idea by then of what you’re trying to achieve, you also have a room full of people ready to offer an opinion.

It’s particularly challenging that you’re the professional employed to light the show. You have to deliver – your experience means you can deliver. All those earlier shows have taught you things that work, things that don’t. But the danger is, the more you know, the less you experiment. You fall back on things:  that favourite angle, the colour your swatch book naturally falls open to. You reason that maybe that’s why you’re actually employed  on this show.

The thing is, you got to know those things because you used to have the time and freedom to experiment: to try things, to make mistakes and to play. So why stop now? Of course you still learn a little each time, but perhaps to a lesser degree. The time to experiment gets lost in the rush to get through tech and have the show – with its ever-bigger budget putting you under ever-bigger pressure – ready for its first audience.

Play is good. At a recent lighting workshop for a bunch of fantastic kids just discovering the joy of theatre, we had two lights, two dimmers and a pile of gel. We played with angles by picking the lights up and moving them around, with colour – sometimes astounding combinations of colour – by just holding the sheets in front of the lights. We talked about how each combination made us feel and what it made us think of. I think I learned as much as they did, mainly because there was no deadline and no right or wrong. And yes, I did write some of those colour combinations down.

Part of the problem is that we lack playgrounds – places to play with lights on a real scale. Students: you’re lucky to have places like that. Take advantage of them. The rest of us are jealous. But remember back at school, when you used to get playtime among the serious work? Maybe we should get back to that, setting aside a little time for play, for trying the outlandish, the unlikely and the impossible, every time we are lucky enough to be in a theatre full of lights.

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