It’s Sunday so i’m procrastinating. 

I recently led a workshop for Nuffield Southampton Theatres all about lighting design as part of my work with Nuffield Lab.

One of the things that struck me when trying to explain how one goes about the business of designing lighting for a show, is how different a process it can be every time.  Especially in regard to trying to communicate an aesthetic, light is such a slippery sausage. I spent quite a lot of time asking the workshop group to share what their instinctual visions were of certain situations or scenarios. Your perfect sunset. What does happiness look like?  And naturally we all had wonderful unique responses. I never cease to be amazed by how light can achieve these emotional recalls in people, to be frank I’m crap at this end of the lighting design cannon. 

I find it hard to think of lighting as an act of recreating something else, recreating the perfect sunset, recreating that image of happiness. It seems dead behind the eyes and try hard or at least when I do it! Thats what I go to the cinema for. What makes me excited is immediacy and idea of shared space, where we gather together to share something, to experience, to grow. Viewing the exchange like that makes me think about light on far more gestural level, being much more concerned with managing the parameters of the encounter than using light to denote every once of context. Of course there’s different versions of this ideal, sometimes light simply must tell us we are inside or outside or that it’s all gone to shit! However, when you find those moments to break the odd customs and rules of lighting theatre we’ve made for ourselves you end up somewhere far more magical and oddly democratic. 

Still Ill by Kandinsky (Photo - David Monteith-Hodge)

Still Ill by Kandinsky (Photo - David Monteith-Hodge)


For example in Kandinsky’s Still Ill  we set up an extremely functional and playful language which frames the action precisely, whilst still referencing a fun nod to poor theatre, simple effective, light amps up the tempo, has some cute tricks. Alas there's more. Inter-spliced amongst the highly framed super theatre imagery were subtle shifts in the surroundings. Light slowly builds in the all mighty void above the stage, we become aware that there is something more beyond, and it’s messy complex and we’re certainly not in control of it. Still Ill’s narrative climax is the end of the conveyer belt. An awkward and frank discussion about how hard it can be to be the best we can to one another. Therefore the the framed theatricality ends, all is laid bare, light floods the stage and house from up high, with no indention of sticking to the contours of setting line. We’re all in this together. By allowing this dialogue to play out without any attempt of framing it with a ‘cute’ lighting context we end up somewhere even more horrifying, we’ve smashed the comfortable passive relationship and now we’re all feeling awkward and a little at a loss. Delicious. 


So I guess my way into a design these days is so much more about discussing what the audience relationship is or could be, as opposed to what our version of late autumn is. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was an interesting hybrid. At the core of the design concept there was a desire to really embrace the act of really enjoying storytelling. A bare space, embodied by a company of actors who tell the story with what they’ve got. It allowed for light to be much more driven by a sense of architecture than a need to provide all of the context as we’d already surrendered most of it. The audience inhabiting the space too meant that there would be an automatic need to manage their relationship within the space. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream with MA Acting Classical at Royal Central (Photo - Patrick Baldwin)

A Midsummer Night's Dream with MA Acting Classical at Royal Central (Photo - Patrick Baldwin)


To get back to the matter of how we talk about light…Much of our communication as a collaborative team of creatives on this project was visual and carried out through Slack. Which is a fantastic tool for amassing a cloud of wider contextual sources. For my part I tended to share images that either presented a direct response to the space Andreas had designed (Light and concrete), or that shared the same sort of emotional temperature that we needed to achieve as part of the arc of the lighting design (Empty bedrooms, Todd Hido, the highly cinematic work of Gregory Crewdson).  Quite literal images Joshua! I hear you cry! Well yes, the problem with finding common ground with light is that it has to be relatable, which tends to mean lots of photographic references to the everyday world. 


I suppose the lesson here is that we cannot live in a world without context, every action in light is informed in some way by an event in the natural world. This leads us neatly back to the workshop in Southampton. 

I’d asked everyone to scribble down a simple journey that they have taken. It could be anything. The journey here. The journey to school. The journey to work. Then in pairs I asked them to consider the sorts of emotions that had popped up in the story. The excitement of the police car. The loneliness of suddenly being alone in the house. The feeling of freedom as the ferry reached the open sea. Then we all considered what these feelings could look like if reinterpreted through light. Then, a challenge. To use a selection of odd domestic fittings and any of the contents of the room to share that story with an audience. 

Tricky at first, but after a little encouragement of failure I was struck by the inventiveness in the room. Each group had a fantastically different way of expressing the emotive everyday content of their journeys. It was fresh it was immediate…and we didn’t once discuss the best way to create a general cover. Thank the lighting lord. 


Until next time.