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Rob Halliday: Light, said Fred – why theatre owes a debt to those behind the behind the scenes

Fred Foster, lighting pioneer, who has died aged 61
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Is it possible that theatre is built in three layers? On stage. Behind the scenes. And then behind the behind the scenes: the people and organisations that supply the products and services that make the shows.

If behind the scenes is meant to be invisible to the audience, this next layer is completely unknown. For example, whatever part you play in theatre, TV or film, you have been affected by products presided over by a man called Fred Foster. Yet most will never have heard of him.

In 1976, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Fred came across the college’s pioneering Q-File computer lighting console, which at the time cost $250,000. He and his brother figured they could use then-new microprocessor technology to match what the console could do in a device costing just $5,000. A year of work and they did it. Forty years later and there’s a very high chance the theatre you’re in has a lighting control system from the company he created, ETC.

In the early 1990s, ETC was still the tiny outsider battling against established industry giants, and Foster took a chance on an innovative new design of spotlight. That light, the Source Four, is now the mainstay of performance lighting around the world; those established giants, gone or subsumed by organisations from outside our world. More recently, the LED Source Four has been the light that has persuaded designers that LEDs can work for performance lighting.

A young Fred Foster with the very first ETC product: the Mega Cue lighting console

Foster would freely tell you that he didn’t necessarily create any of the products. But he was the visionary, the leader, able to see what lighting practitioners would need before they realised it themselves, able to marshal a talented team to deliver that future as real, practical products.

His real passion was people. At the annual cocktail party at the LDI trade show in America – where the lighting students sponsored by ETC got to meet the rest of the lighting world – Foster’s rule was there could be no conversations without a student involved. He also took the decision that all of the money from the sale of ETC’s lighting remote apps would go to the backstage charities Behind the Scenes and Backup: that’s translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

He really, really cared about the people who chose to work for his company, and made it his job to impart a sense of fun (handing out ice-cream at ETC events), a sense of elegance (the beautiful theatrical design of the Town Square central atrium at ETC’s headquarters) and, in the four years since his cancer diagnosis, a sense of democracy, making employees shareholders in his, now their, company.

Foster passed away a few weeks ago at the age of just 61. If the marquee lights of Broadway and the West End should have been dimmed to celebrate anyone, they should have been dimmed to celebrate him. But that’s the thing about being behind the behind the scenes: people often have no idea who you are. Well, now you do.

Rob Halliday is a lighting designer and programmer. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/Rob-Halliday

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