Bryan Raven was just seven years old when John Simpson founded White Light in 1971. Raven joined the company in 1987 after a short stint at Theatre Projects. At that time, White Light had a staff of 15 people. Today, the company has an annual turnover of almost 10 million pounds British sterling and a staff of 75. White Light is the biggest part of the White Light Group, which includes companies that look after CAD, specialist technical servicing, manufacture of architectural lighting fittings, theatre consulting, and automated lighting rentals. Earlier this year, Raven was appointed a director of White Light and The Moving Light Company, the company's automated lighting division. Ellen Lampert-Greaux spoke with Raven in London recently.
Ellen Lampert-Greaux: What are your daily responsibilities at White Light?
Bryan Raven: I am presently the general manager of White Light and a number of its associated companies. As well as looking after White Light, whose main activities are hire and sales of lighting equipment, I also look after The Moving Light Company, The Service Company, Enliten, and Colourhouse. Each division has its own manager responsible for day-to-day activities and my role is to fill in the gaps or coordinate the activities between the various companies.
I can safely say that no two days are the same, and while some days include the less exciting tasks of meetings and administration, I spend a great deal of time visiting clients, theatres, and ongoing projects. I also directly oversee the project team for any work that is out of the ordinary or requires specialist input. For example, I spent a great deal of time last year working with Don Holder on the Planet Earth Gallery at the Earth Center in Doncaster.
ELG: Who are your primary clients?
Raven: Our core business is theatre, especially West End theatre, but as the group of companies has expanded, we are increasingly involved in a huge range of projects. In the last 12 months, we have sold equipment to projects as diverse as Pan [see page 34 in this issue] in Australia, Les Miserables in Buenos Aires, Universal Studios in Spain, and a hotel somewhere in the Arctic Circle. Our rental equipment has been to hotels in Monte Carlo and Helsinki, and to theatres in Italy, Germany, New York, and Oslo. But theatre is still where the heart of the company is, and that shows in the nature of the projects we supply.
ELG: Can you describe your working relationship to lighting designers? What is the give and take in working with them?
Raven: All lighting designers are different. Some involve us in the very early stages, checking that certain gear is available or wanting to try something they've heard about. Others involve us at the bidding or quoting stage. Sometimes we work closely with the designers directly; other times we are working with their assistants or associates or the chief electrician. Every design is different--that is what makes it interesting.
One of the benefits of working in this industry is that the relationships you make are more than 'supplier/customer.' White Light is a big part of the London theatre scene, and John Simpson is active in the theatre industry, not just lighting. Consequently, the company is involved with (and has invested in) activities including set construction, theatre design courses, venue ownership and management, stage automation, West End and touring productions, agency work, and even film production.
ELG: How does a hire shop like White Light stay abreast of new technology?
Raven: Generally, manufacturers are very quick to show us new products that they are developing. Possibly this is because they think we have loads of money to spend, but more likely it's because they know that we will provide some valuable input. Over the years, it has been good to be involved in a range of new products and their development, from the first prototype to the finished product. For example, Dave Isherwood from the Moving Light Company and I went over to Denmark a couple of years ago to talk to Martin Professional about being able to change colors and gobos in the [then newly launched] Mac 500. We were rewarded by being one of the first companies to be supplied with the changeable gobo and color wheels. It was just in time for David Hersey to use them on the Oliver! tour.
ELG: How do you meet a designer's demands for new or unusual equipment?
Raven: Out-of-the-ordinary requests from lighting designers are the part of a job we really enjoy, provided they don't get cut during rehearsals! We also spend time looking at new products from elsewhere in the world. Back in 1993, it became obvious that we needed our own moving lights, so we we set up a new company specifically to look after the hire of moving lights, aptly named The Moving Light Company. MLC now owns nearly 1,000 automated fittings from a range of different manufacturers and has just supplied the London production of Notre Dame de Paris with nearly 150 moving lights.
ELG: What about working with companies like the Royal Opera House and other major institutions?
Raven: Major companies such as the Royal National Theatre and Royal Opera House have their own lighting equipment and we only supply occasional specials or extra equipment for touring productions. However, our sales department has been involved in supplying moving lights for the newly refurbished Royal Opera House with the Moving Light Company commissioning the installation and providing after-sales backup.
For such projects, the White Light Group is ideally placed, as we have all the necessary expertise in one place, and, unlike many sales companies, can provide the full technical backup. Because this technical backup comes from a hire-based company, we have a team of technicians who have 'been there and done that,' and understand that a response of 'Send it back to us and we'll send it back to the manufacturer for you' is not good enough when there is a show that night at 7:30.
ELG: What is the economic state of the rental market in the UK?
Raven: Like most sectors of the entertainment industry, the UK theatre market is suffering from a chronic shortage of revenue funding. This filters all the way down to the suppliers. Our diversification into other markets means that we are no longer as reliant on the theatre industry as we once were, but we are still very much a theatre company. Our sales division has also contributed a great deal to the company over the last few years with a number of large projects as well as selling literally thousands of gobos and sheets of color.
ELG: What about Europe?
Raven: We have tried to enter the European rental market on several occasions, with mixed success. It is an area where we would like to expand, but at the moment we are concentrating on our diversification in the UK market.
ELG: Any future plans for White Light?
Raven: One of our biggest priorities is to find new premises. We had located a superb building last summer, but that fell through and we are having trouble finding the right place. We don't want to move out of central London and also want to avoid moving into an anonymous industrial estate.
We also work with colleges and schools, offering various training initiatives and scholarships for lighting students and generally getting involved with the 'next generation.' I first came to White Light as a customer when I was a student and the way I was looked after then was one of the influences on my getting involved with this industry. We aim to treat all of our customers today in the same way, even though we are five times the size!
Sean O'Casey's heartbreaking WW I drama, The Silver Tassie, has been adapted as an opera by the same name. With a score by Mark-Anthony Turnage and a libretto by Amanda Holden, The Silver Tassie was directed by Bill Bryden, and designed by William Dudley (sets and costumes) and Mark Henderson (lighting). It premiered in February at the English National Opera in London, in a co-production with the Dallas Opera, where it will be seen in the fall of 2002. It has also been taped for broadcast by the BBC.
The hero of the opera is Harry Heegan, a young soccer star who wins the first-prize trophy, or silver tassie (from the French tasse, or cup), for his team. The sweet taste of victory is short-lived as he soon leaves for the war, is injured, and returns home paralyzed from the waist down. As the 20th century moves quickly toward the flapper era, this wounded hero is forgotten and left behind.
Dudley is no stranger to the look of WW I Europe; he designed another WW I epic, The Big Picnic, written and directed by Bryden, and produced in 1995 in Glasgow, Scotland. "The final image of that piece reappears here, with the singers in the form of a war memorial," Dudley explains. Dudley's designs were partly inspired by a WW I memorial sculpture by Charles Sargent Jagger located in London's Hyde Park, which features four bronze soldiers and a Howitzer carved in stone. "The stone part of this was carved as a 9" Howitzer gun like the one I used in the set," Dudley says.
The Silver Tassie is set in the period of 1915 to 1918. Dudley says he went for period authenticity, adding, "I didn't want to play around with this, but wanted to go for the mindset of the time, and their sense of right and wrong. I feel close to the period--my grandfather fought and was 'gassed.' It was a ghastly game played on a platform of patriotism and a sense of duty."
Costumes for the soldiers in The Silver Tassie are based on authentic battle dress of 1916. "You can't use real mud on the stage," Dudley explains. "The heat of the light turns it to dust that chokes the singers." Instead, Dudley dressed them in modern military cotton, dyed and painted a dark bronze-green that looks almost black. The fabric is also sufficiently stiff so as to crease and fold like sculpted bronze. "Once finished, a dark metallic bronze paint was dragged and sprayed with graphite and black over each costume, then they were crumpled and distressed," says Dudley. "The intention was to allow the dull sheen of the old bronze to suggest both wet, slimy mud and the solidity of a bronze war memorial figure. Everything the singers wear or touch in the battle scene is of the same color--the guns, the sandbags, and their clothes."
Dudley has the wounded men retain the same tone in their clothes even after the war, while the other characters wear more color. His reasoning here is to separate the two groups, as the others are not interested in the wounded war veterans. "They won the war, but so what?" Dudley asks. "This was the last gasp of Britain as any sort of world power, and American troops finally helped them win the war."
The opera opens in the family room of a Georgian-style townhouse in Dublin, and Dudley used translucent panels to add depth. As the opera opens, the men's costumes are a split of athletic jerseys and war uniforms, as if the war had already entered their lives, while the women are wearing shawls to represent their industrial life. "Women started working for the first time during the war, in munitions factories," says Dudley. "They were emancipated and would never be the same. After the war, their dress shapes changed and were made with better fabrics."
At the end of the opera, Dudley dresses the women in party gowns designed to represent 1918 and slightly into the future. "This is a new generation, the Noel Coward generation," he says. "They pre-figure the flapper era and were as feminine as possible, to get as far away from the war as possible." The dresses have designs etched on velvet and mounted on gauze, which floats over the silks and satins.
The designer also used overlays in each scene to create the feeling of the industrialized world, using a series of custom DHA gobos in Robert Juliat profile spots. Dudley describes Henderson's work by saying, "When you put the gobos into the lights and they are projected onto black, some interesting things happen--where the light doesn't fall, the blacks become richer. Mark lit it perfectly."
The images are based on painting of the era by artists who were sent to the front as official war painters, as well as the patterns and colors that were painted onto naval ships so German U-boats wouldn't know which way the ships were moving.
His replica Howitzer is made of steel, fiberglass, and plywood, and was built by Steven Pyle, a UK artisan whose credits include sculptures for the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera. The Howitzer sits on a turntable engineered by the UK company Delstar, and rotates 270 degrees, thanks to a hydraulic motor placed under the stage.
"The gun raises and lowers as well," notes Dudley, who first uses it to represent a troop ship in a shipyard, before it moves into the battle position of the artillery gun. "O'Casey originally asked for a ship's funnel to open the play, but the opera is more epic and needed a bigger image, so I added a whole wall of soldiers waiting to go to war."
For Henderson, the opera was "dark and moody," and his lighting closely followed Dudley's use of projected gobo images. There are rear-projection screens for backlight through the windows, but all of the gobos are front-projected, using five 2.5kW Robert Juliat profile spots hung on the balcony rail. They are projected onto the full set, or just sections of the walls and masking.
To light the tableaux of the soldiers going to war, Henderson used Lee 200 for a heavy blue toplight, mixed with a gobo of a shipyard and water ripples projected by an older model Strand effects wheel. In the actual battle scene, he added red and white cyc floods and small xenon beacons. At the end of this scene is a "white-out," with HMI fixtures at the proscenium aimed at the audience. "It's like the horror of the war in one big blast," says Henderson, who used instruments from the ENO's house rig for the most part.
For the domestic scenes, the light is softer, with Rosco 78 and Lee 201 for a crisp blue in the crosslight. "This helps pick out the singers and pull them away from the scenery," says the lighting designer, who also used Rosco 25 and 26 reds, and in Act IV, a little pink to "cheer things up a bit and add a little warmth for the party scene," where custom-made lanterns with white shades of molded fiberglass have colored light bulbs and gel to match the colors of the girls' dresses.
"There is very little frontlight except at the proscenium," Henderson says. "It is a dark environment with light cut into the key areas to pick out as much as you can. But the lighting is evocative, and in operatic language, it is not so crucial to have the faces as well lit as in the theatre. It's a matter of taste whether people want to see more faces or not.
"Bill Dudley has a great knowledge of light and thinks it all through," says Henderson, who collaborated with Dudley and Bryden on The Ship, also in Glasgow. "You can see in the model photos that Bill knows how he wants the production lit."