It's been a busy year for Joanna Town, the head of lighting for the Royal Court Theatre in London. The theatre itself is undergoing a major renovation. Then there are the temporary venues being used in the interim. And Town's career as a freelance lighting designer. She even made her New York debut when the Royal Court's production of The Steward of Christendom moved to the Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall.
Town joined the Royal Court in 1990 as chief electrician and worked first with artistic director Max Stafford-Clark, then Stephen Daldry. "We usually produce 12 to 14 shows a season," says Town, who designs the lighting for three or four of these herself. "The others are done by freelance designers," she explains. In 1994, Town designed lighting for the premiere of The Steward of Christendom, and has been redesigning it ever since, it seems. The show has gone through six permutations: from upstairs in the small theatre at the Royal Court, on a tour of the UK, back to the Royal Court in the larger downstairs space, on to an international tour including 10 weeks in Australia and New Zealand, as well as several trips to Dublin, and then New York.
Directed by Stafford-Clark, the play is a tour-de-force by an actor who never leaves the set as he wanders in his own head from dreams to reality. "The set is a blue-gray box with Plexiglas walls," says Town. "When we are in a reality sequence it looks solid, but when in a dream state, the color of the room changes from blue to lavender." The biggest challenge for Town was that the size of the set changed with each venue, and the light plot grew accordingly. "We always kept the simplicity; that's part of its beauty," Town says.
Not so simple is the renovation of the Royal Court itself, which is scheduled to reopen next fall. Town is part of the renovation team spearheaded by Theatre Projects Consultants. "The facade and the balcony fronts will remain," says Town, who points out that expansion was virtually impossible on the theatre's land-locked site. "There was no room to push out walls, so we could only go up and down a little," she says, noting that the London Underground runs below. "The lighting at the theatre dates to 1955, with an expansion from 80 to 120 circuits during the last decade. We will now expand to 350 circuits."
During the renovation, the Royal Court is performing in two theatres in London's West End, the Duke of York and the Ambassador's, which has been divided temporarily into two spaces. "We brought in the fire curtain," says Town, "and brought 60 seats from our old upstairs theatre to create a theatre on the stage with a fixed grid overhead. We are using the Ambassador's in-house lighting system." The other space is the auditorium where a cantilevered stage covers some of the seats. "The firewall is not soundproof, so we do a show at 7:30pm on one stage and another at 9:30pm on the other."
Town began her career as a followspot operator on the piers in Blackpool for a series of popular entertainers. From 1980 to 1983 she worked at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which she describes as "a space module suspended in an old corn exchange." From there she made the move to London, and until 1986 worked summers for tent tours around London's parks and winters with the English Touring Opera, then called Opera 80. "We worked in a large variety of venues all over the country, from Sadler's Wells to a sports center in Newcastle," Town recalls. "I learned most of my design skills there. As chief electrician I interpreted the work of many different designers, and that's how I learned my craft."
Now 35 years old, Town has moved from chief electrician to head of lighting for the Royal Court. "I love working in a building as chief electrician," she admits. "I love working with people and building up an electrical department, and creating an easier venue to work in. I also love being at the theatre every night." Her schedule at the Royal Court allows a total of 11 weeks a year to pursue her freelancing as a lighting designer, and she averages 10 to 12 shows per year, both at and away from the Royal Court. Recent productions include Otello and The Marriage of Figaro for the Nice Opera, and La Traviata done on a contemporary set for Music Theatre London, which does small-scale English language versions of classical operas.
"I love the buzz of sitting in an audience or backstage and knowing that every night might be different. I just don't think you can beat live theatre," Town says. "I sometimes feel like a frustrated artist who wants to put things down on canvas, so I find that lighting is a great means to communicate. You can use color to tell the audience what's going on, or to create an emotion." Town admits to a preference for experimenting more with color than with new technology. "I love it, and think it's very exciting, but you shouldn't use technology just for the sake of it. Although the new equipment is so much better; it has made our lives much easier. I say that, and yet I love The Steward of Christendom because it is so old-fashioned and basic."
Town might enjoy the challenge of working on a film, and she has just started to do a bit of architectural lighting design. "I like shaping a space for different events," she says. But it is unlikely she will ever abandon the stage. "As a freelance designer I get to pick and choose my shows and have the advantage of doing good plays. I never wanted to do anything else and cannot imagine not working in the theatre."