As an 11-year-old schoolboy just outside of London, England, Voller got his first taste of theatre as a pirate in a production of Pirates of Penzance. “I was fascinated by theatre as a child,” he says. “They had a big lighting desk and I learned all about it, and started lighting the school shows.”
Working in local amateur theatre, Voller took a theatre electrician's course at what was then called Paddington College (now Westminster College) in London. Voller met the London-based American LD Rick Fisher during a college placement at The Royal Court, and soon after met British LD Andrew Bridge through a placement on the West End show Time in the late 1980s. “This was my first contact with Vari-Lite,” notes Voller. “I learned to fix the instruments and play with the console, which was their own proprietary desk.”
Fascinated with the Vari*Lite technology, Voller wrote to the company and was hired in 1988 as a workshop technician. “I went into Vari-Lite's demo room on the weekends and programmed shows for myself. This was a really good way to learn the technology,” he says.
When Miss Saigon opened in 1989, Voller worked as an electrician at Drury Lane Theatre in the evening, while continuing to work at Vari-Lite during the day. “I left Vari-Lite and moved full-time to Miss Saigon in 1990,” he says. “It was nice to sit down and work on a show. I returned to Vari-Lite as a workshop technician around 1992. In 1993 I was promoted to training manager.”
Along the way, Voller fell off a lighting rig head first. “I was on a catwalk where the floor sections lift up and I must have fallen through,” he recalls. The result was a one-month hospital stay with a shattered right shoulder, a broken left wrist and right upper arm, as well as head and face injures. It took six months before he could return to work full time. “I was young and healthy, which helped a speedy recovery,” he adds.
Through 1997, Voller continued as a training manager at Vari-Lite, though programming more frequently. He struck up a close working relationship with Rick Fisher, working side-by-side with him on numerous productions (including Rat in the Skull for the Royal Court at the Duke of York, Hunchback of Notre Dame in Berlin, and Tap Dogs and Napoleon in the West End).
Farther afield, Voller worked on last year's Eurovision Song Contest in Denmark and considers it “one of the most challenging shows I have done, purely from a scale and complexity point of view. I had met Lars Nissen, the lighting designer for Eurovision, while training him a few years ago,” Voller explains. “Eurovision was the Virtuoso™'s first multi-console, multi-programmer show, so we had a big learning curve as to how it would all work. Lars wanted to be able to program with three programmers and eventually run the whole show from one console.”
Voller also helped train the Danish programmers on the Virtuoso console. “One of the biggest programming problems was during the focus stage with the rig,” he notes. “When three programmers are all trying to focus at the same time, you keep blinding each other, and it becomes quite difficult to see what your lights are doing while being washed out by another programmer's lights.”
In defining the role of programmer, Voller suggests “a human interface between the designer and the desk. I think it is important to make a lighting designer's task of using automated lighting as easy as possible, without having to worry about the mechanics of how to achieve a look or effect.” Once Voller has all the “ingredients,” or basic building blocks ready, he finds it quite easy and quick to build cues and present looks onstage. “Another important aspect of a programmer's job is speed,” he adds. “Some lighting designers are not very patient and want results instantly. In those situations it is always worth roughing something in to give the designer an idea, and fix it properly later on your own.”
Voller stills works in Vari-Lite's London office when he is not working on a show (or two). This helps him stay up-to-date with new automated lighting technology. “When I am doing a show with new toys, I research as much as I can to find out how it works and what it can do,” he says. “I like to go into a show with the knowledge of the fixtures before I get on-site.”
Would he recommend programming as a career? “I would, but you have to be prepared to work hard and have the right attitude,” Voller offers as advice. “So much of the skill of a programmer is communication, not necessarily how many buttons you can hit per second. Once you get a rapport with a lighting designer and establish a language, quite often you will get more work from the designer. It comes back to being able to make the lighting designer's job easy in the use of automated lighting.”
Voller occasionally strays away from programming and into the realm of lighting design, including a recent production of Hair in Vienna, where one of his challenges was handling the moving lights through a programmer. “Suddenly to be working with a programmer made me appreciate what a programmer does for the lighting designer,” he says. “It was a very weird situation to be in, but I really enjoyed the whole process of designing for a big musical.”