A British LD Comes Across, Comes Out, and Comes into His Own

Chris Parry has had an extraordinary career, in more ways than one. His work is notable for the diversity of styles he has brought to theatre lighting — there was the claustrophobic, hothouse world of French aristocracy for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the dazzling pinball wizard effects of The Who's Tommy, the enchanted forest of lightbulbs in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the chiaroscuro of Tennessee Williams' prison melodrama Not About Nightingales, to mention four productions that ended up on Broadway. He has also built a notable career as an educator, and, at many industry seminars, including the Broadway Lighting Master Classes, he has challenged American LDs to make bolder use of unconventional equipment in their work. Most of all, Parry's career has taken him on an extraordinary personal journey that has led him far, far away from the small town of Welshpool, Wales, where he grew up. Parry recently spoke to Lighting Dimensions on the phone from his home in Beverly Hills, where he reviewed some of the high points of a career that began 25 years ago.

David Barbour: What are you currently working on?

Chris Parry: A wide variety — I'm designing a small 99-seat Equity waiver production of Talking Heads, by British playwright Alan Bennett, with an amazing cast of actors like Annette Bening, in Los Angeles. Then Tartuffe, for La Jolla Playhouse, with [director] Des McAnuff and [set designer] Robert Brill. I'm also doing Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden, for the Alley Theatre, Houston. You know, I acted in an Alan Ayckbourn play, when I was 18. The play was Time and Time Again. I played Leonard the librarian.

DB: How did you get started in theatre?

CP: Shall I tell you the whole story? In schools in England, at the age of 13, they do something called streaming, in which they ask you to decide on a major — if you're science-based or arts-based. Well, I couldn't paint or draw to save my life, but I was good with my hands, so my teachers thought I should go with the science track. About a year later, I found myself in a physics class and we were given the task of hanging lights for the school play. That was when I got hooked. From there, I got into amateur theatre groups in and around town. But I had no idea at that point that you could do this for a career.

DB: Then what happened?

CP: At some point in my late teens, I got hold of Richard Pilbrow's book on lighting design — Stage Lighting. I wrote to him asking, “How do you do this for a living?” He wrote back a very sweet letter, saying there was no formal training in England (at that time), and the best thing would be to get a job in the regional theatre circuit and work my way up from there. I didn't actually go to college, by the way. My father always told me to get a job with a future and a pension, so I did; at this point, I was a telephone engineer. Then in my early 20s it dawned on me that you only come this way once, so I wrote to the Royal Shakespeare Company and they asked me to come down for an interview. They ended up offering me a job as a bottom-of-the-rung electrician. That was in 1976.

DB: What was that job like?

CP: Talk about being flung into the deep end. But it was a really great training ground — like the master/apprentice system. I couldn't have had a better education. I was with them for 13 years, eventually becoming assistant head of lighting, and then a designer.

DB: Who were the big designers during your early years at RSC?

CP: David Hersey, Robert Bryan, Chris Ellis, and Mark Henderson — who was very young at that point.

DB: Did any of them have an influence on you?

CP: David influenced me. With him, anything is an option, anything that gives out light can be useful. He once took me on a mystery daytime trip to a gay nightclub in London. The club was closed, but we knocked on the door and were let in. We went to the control room and the guy there showed us this new scanning laser, which David seemed to like. He said, “I think I'm going to use it in Starlight Express.” Robert influenced me in terms of being very patient, calm, and organized. I really liked his aesthetic and color choices, too.

DB: What was your first production at the RSC?

CP: One of my responsibilities was to reproduce the lighting for existing productions when they went on tour. RSC had a season in Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the north of England. I was to assist Howard Eaton, who had lit a production of Macbeth. Howard didn't show up, for some reason or other, and there was a crisis, so the director, Howard Davies, asked me if I could relight it. I said yes, and he liked it. When Macbeth transferred to London, he asked me to redesign it there. The following year, Howard asked me to design Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I was very lucky; it was my first major show, and it ended up on Broadway and I was nominated for a Tony Award.

DB: So, Liaisons Dangereuses established you as a designer?

CP: Pretty much. I did more at RSC, the most major being The Plantagenets, in 1988-89. It was directed by Adrian Noble, the new RSC artistic director; it covers the three parts of Henry VI, compressed into two parts, with Richard III tacked on at the end. Bob Crowley designed the sets. It was nine hours long, but I still think it's one of my best works.

DB: Why did you leave the RSC?

CP: When I toured the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby, in 1985, I fell in love with California. I also met an American lighting designer called Richard Riddell, who designed a show at the RSC. He taught at the University of California at San Diego. Well, he arranged for me to replace him for three months in 1988, teaching. I had never taught before in my life, but I found that I quite enjoyed it. Then the University said Richard was leaving, and was I interested in applying for his position? I ended up moving there in January 1989 with my then-wife and son.

DB: What are the difficulties of teaching?

CP: I try not to turn out clones of me. I say things like, “Have you thought about this?” not “I think you should do that.” I try to lead them forward, and help them find their own style.

DB: Do you encourage them to use unusual lighting units in their work?

CP: I try to make them aware of them, yes, but it's hard to find the range of instrumentation in this country that's available to you in Europe. For example, television lighting equipment — in particular 5kW and HMI fresnels — are much more available in theatres in England.

DB: A few years after you moved to San Diego, you lit The Who's Tommy. Had you ever done a big musical like that?

CP: No, I hadn't. I always tell my students I don't do musicals. I'd designed Elmer Gantry at La Jolla Playhouse with Des McAnuff and [set designer] Heidi Landesman. That was my first musical and I didn't have a particularly good time. You know, if somebody called tomorrow and said, “Will you do Hello Dolly! on Broadway?” I'd probably turn it down!

DB: Really?

CP: I don't understand the traditional Broadway musical aesthetic very well. I feel that other designers do it much better — Paul Gallo, Ken Billington. I'm much more happy and responsive to Shakespeare and the classics. Having said that, I did really enjoy doing Tommy. I think I like doing non-traditional musicals. Tommy was scary, however, because it was the biggest thing I'd done in my career and it was very complicated.

DB: Do musicals require a different way of working?

CP: The upfront part is like planning a war. When you're working on that scale, it's hard to keep your initial perspective. There are so many other pressures and distractions. I admire designers who work on Broadway all the time. I don't know how they do it.

DB: The Who's Tommy was a big hit and you won the Tony, but there were other things going on in your life.

CP: Yes, I came out [as a gay man] in 1992. The time around Tommy was the height of my professional career and the most traumatic point of my personal life. My marriage fell apart. There were great highs and great lows, but eventually it all ended up okay. My ex-wife and I are still good friends, and my 27-year-old son and I are much closer than we ever were before. I don't regret anything I did. I believe you have to be true to who you really are.

DB: Had you been struggling with identity issues?

CP: I'm a believer in the Kinsey scale; he had a theory that people move along the scale from “completely gay” to “completely straight” in their lifetime. I think that's what happened to me, over a period of years. I felt I had to find out about these feelings I was having, and so I did.

DB: Are you with someone now?

CP: Yes, my partner/husband Elgin. We've been together for four years. We got married, actually, two years ago at the Metropolitan Community Church in San Diego, which does commitment ceremonies, and we're registered as domestic partners in the state of California.

DB: Did the coming-out experience affect your work?

CP: I think it gives you a different perspective on what's important in your life. Before I came out, I used work to bury my feelings. I used to be a workaholic. After I came out, I became much more aware of the need to have fun. I'm now trying to balance how much work is okay and how much fun time is okay.

DB: You've had a typically busy year, designing all over the US and in England, too. For example, there was Don Carlos at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.

CP: Ming Cho Lee did the set. Every time I work with Ming, I learn more. He gave me a big white box set with lots of molding and doors. One scene was played downstage of a huge white wall and it needed a window gobo across the wall. I tried every window and angle I could think of, and it wasn't right. One day Ming did a little pencil sketch of exactly how he thought the gobo should streak across the wall. I tried it, and it was absolutely right. His sense of composition is absolutely accurate!

DB: The Beard of Avon at South Coast Repertory?

CP: It's a very funny play about who wrote Shakespeare's plays (very appropriate for me); the style reminds me of Blackadder, the Rowan Atkinson TV series. I was working with Chris Acebo, who designed the set. He's a UCSD alumnus; it was really interesting to be working with a student I'd helped train years earlier. He did a very abstract set, with a huge panorama behind it. It ended up being much more colorful than I thought it would be. David Emmes [the director] kept pushing for more color and I kept resisting, but in the end he got his way. A sprawling play, lots of locations.

DB: The School for Wives was also at South Coast Rep.

CP: I seem to do at least one show a year there. That was another set with a big white wall. The floor was grass, like Astroturf, with a kind of off-white exterior street wall behind it. At stage right was a series of orange receding portals with a picture of the lead actress on it. It was much more about being inside the mind of Arnolphe, the protagonist, than anything literal. Again, it was very colorful. I think I either do extremely colorful or quite monochromatic shows.

DB: You've said that the revival of The Secret Garden at Royal Shakespeare is a favorite among your recent projects.

CP: Yes, but it was really challenging! I love to find ways of treating the set to provide the atmosphere. Anthony Ward designed a set made of huge sheets of painted-on Plexiglas. They were beautifully painted; stunning monochromatic treatments of layered misty landscapes and bare trees, but it took me a long time to figure out how to light them successfully.

DB: What was the solution?

CP: I found that to reveal the scenic paint treatment accurately it was all about silhouette and backlighting — especially to light the haze in the air itself, and to reveal the picture in layers. The production was extremely monochromatic, a cold, misty atmosphere, mysterious and quite dark in places — until the garden was revealed at the end, when it became bright, vibrant, and all about green growth and red roses — colors we'd never seen before! Adrian [Noble, who directed] kept wanting it darker and darker. I felt we actually got too dark in the Ballroom at one point! But I love working with Adrian. He's very patient and calm. He maintains a positive atmosphere. I try to work with directors who have that kind of energy now. As I get older, I don't have time for directors who bring a negative energy to the room, and who like to cause tension.

DB: You've worked in very different venues — Broadway, the West End, subsidized theatres. What are the differences?

CP: The West End commercial experience is a lot more relaxed than Broadway. There just seems to be less pressure — at least on the surface. I don't know why that should be. The regional theatre here is very similar to the feeling and quality of working in England's regional theatres. But my aesthetic changes when I work in the latter, partly because of the different range of equipment that's available in England. When I came to America, I had to learn the American method of lighting, which involved breaking the stage into so many areas and doing systems of frontlight and sidelight. In England, they do grid the stage also, but Americans break it down into smaller and smaller areas. British theatre uses a lot more fresnels, so the areas are bigger and the sources are fewer. On Les Liaisons Dangereuses, my American assistant, Katy Orrick, trained me to design the American way.

DB: Has your work changed over the years?

CP: Not that I can notice — maybe others can. I think I've just refined my style, and I used to be very picky in previews, thinking it was never finished. At every preview I would take bundles of notes, but I've become a lot more accepting. I've learned not to keep picking at it the whole time. I could make tiny, minor changes, but who's going to notice? Just me. So why am I doing it? I still don't like seeing shows on opening night, because I know I'll just take more notes.

DB: Having completed your first quarter-century in the business, do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

CP: I'd like to break into television lighting. I did a mini-internship when I was living in New York last year. I hooked up with Alan Blacher, who does the Ricki Lake and Rosie O'Donnell shows. He was very generous and took me under his wing for a while; showed me what he did and how he did it. But I just don't know how to break into it right now. I guess I'll have to find my own way — again! My 50th birthday is coming up this year, but I don't feel I'm ever going to retire. It's strange. Everybody says, do you have a long-term plan? I don't. I never had a plan originally, and look where I've ended up.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.