He's just 26 years old, but David Howe has already created an interesting niche for himself on the lighting scene in both his native England and abroad. In London, he heads the temporary installation division at Elektra, White Light's lighting design arm, and at the same time does a fair bit of globetrotting as a theatre LD and assistant to Paul Pyant, Hugh Vanstone, and others.
His projects at White Light take him from designing retail lighting for window displays at Selfridges, Harrods, and Harvey Nichols (all London department stores) to adding a creative touch to trade shows across Europe. In Amsterdam, he used PanCommand color changers with ETC Source Fours, Strand Toccata effects projectors, and a Strand 520 console to light an exhibit for Unisys Computers.
"There was a Lycra 'sock' above their booth, like a ceiling," Howe explains. "The concept was to wow visitors to the booth. It was a very theatrical approach for a computer show." The ceiling changed from the cool tones and amber of sunlight to the dark blues of night. "It was always different anytime you looked at it."
As a child in Somerset, Howe recalls that he was already playing with lightbulbs at home by the age of seven or eight. "I put different colored ones in the lamps and did little shows turning them on and off. I also created lighting for my own little puppet theatre." In high school he studied theatre and worked on local amateur productions, and went on to study stage management at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London (there was no lighting course offered at the time). "Lots of freelance designers came in to light the productions," Howe notes.
Among the designers that Howe met during those years was Mark Jonathan, who was working at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. "He was the first big designer I met and he gave me so much enthusiasm for it. Then he introduced me to Paul Pyant, and we kept in touch." In fact, Howe interned with Pyant, serving as his assistant for six months during his second year at college. "I got more and more involved, taking notes and calling the followspots for shows like Radio Times and Assassins. It was a great experience."
His internship with Pyant finished with the Royal National Theatre revival of Carousel. In an example of perfect timing, Carousel transferred to London's West End just as Howe was finishing college two terms later. He was employed by Cameron Mackintosh as Pyant's assistant. White Light, a leading London rental shop, supplied the lighting equipment and hired Howe as part of its team. "I came into their sales department as someone with theatre knowledge. I remained in sales for a few years and continued to freelance on the side."
He continues to assist Pyant, and Howard Harrison as well on Ain't Misbehavin' and Hugh Vanstone on Dr. Doolittle. He also designs large charity galas, and various fringe theatre productions. Howe's first West End project, Forbidden Broadway, has opened at the Albert Theatre for a limited run in August/September. He is also designing lighting for The Demon Headmaster, a play touring the UK this fall.
"The trickiest thing I have ever done is the revival of Carousel in Japan, because of the language barrier," says Howe, "while the hardest was a production of Nine in Buenos Aires. The production values and what the show is about are not at all what Buenos Aires is about. It's a musical play, you really have to think about it, and it's a very difficult show to get right. It was also the most technically difficult, as the equipment was not readily available."
Howe also supervised a British Council touring production of Twelfth Night in Zimbabwe, which he calls "absurd. I never saw dimmers like they had, and in one venue we used one lightbulb and two 5" fresnels and did seven performances in three venues in one week. It was right after some local riots, and they locked the audience in to protect them, but they loved it."
In Howe's view, "lighting should be complementary to the show and not take over just to show off the designer's capability. To keep your lighting fresh, you should keep your eyes open; see how the light catches a wall in a different way or see how color is used. These are ideas you accumulate subconsciously. It may be a happy accident but you remember the image."
From his perch at White Light, Howe has access to cutting-edge lighting equipment, but contends that "the equipment isn't always everything. Sometimes it's better to have to make do and be more inventive. If you had everything you wanted you'd be an unhappy person." Howe also admits to being quite shy when he doesn't know people very well. "I've been lucky so far. Workwise I go further as I know people better."
In 10 years' time, Howe hopes to be designing "lots and well. I like working with a group of performers and enjoy the feedback of the creative team. What you produce depends on who the people are. There is no right or wrong result. But in the end, the audience reaction is the key thing for me."