The recent coverage given to lighting designer Andy Phillips — full page features in four British national daily newspapers — was simultaneously gratifying and sad. It was gratifying because someone who works in our field was getting so many column inches in a publication other than Lighting Dimensions. It was sad because the articles were obituaries marking Phillips' untimely — if not entirely unexpected, given his hearty history of drinking and smoking — death on September 18th.
For those who don't recognize the name, Phillips was a lighting designer who scythed his own route through the craft of lighting in the 1960s and 1970s. After training as an actor and then working as a prop maker and then as an electrician, he ended up as head of lighting at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1965. This was a period when the Court firmly cemented its reputation, established the previous decade with John Osborne's Look Back In Anger, as the heart of new British writing. Between 1965 and 1972, Phillips lit over 80 consecutive productions, most of them premieres by authors such as Edward Bond, Arnold Wesker, David Storey, and John Osborne.
With his deputy Rory Dempster — who passed away earlier this year — Phillips established a style summed up as “white light,” using little else but correction filters to remove the warmth from tungsten light bulbs and carefully focusing precisely controlled areas of light from well set-up spotlights, the Strand Patt 264 being Phillips' declared favorite. Court shows also often removed all of the overhead masking, exposing lighting rigs arranged in a carefully designed pattern to make them an overall part of a show's stage picture.
That style was well known and often quoted in interviews by Phillips and other lighting designers and by the directors and writers who penned Phillips' obituaries. “He told me that he lit the whites of the eyes,” recalled Edward Bond, describing a career that “changed the appearance of the modern stage and influenced the theatrical work of a generation.” But, with Phillips and Dempster both now gone, do we actually know what that style was?
I never really knew Andy. I met him once. I only ever saw one of his shows, M Butterfly, a long time ago and also, in its bold monochromatic use of strong colors, a complete rebuttal of his image as a “white light man.” His working methods were influential, though. He didn't write a book on lighting, as Richard Pilbrow did, but he did feature in a fabulous book called Theatre At Work, in which author Jim Hiley brilliantly documented every detail of the making of John Dexter's Life of Galileo at the National Theatre in 1980, including the hirings, firings, tantrums, and tempers. It was compelling reading for someone outside theatre craving information about it and would still be compelling now for anyone who can find a copy. It covered Phillips at his pugnacious best, difficult and demanding but, at the same time, committed and fully involved, all in the cause of making the show better as a member of a long-established creative team (Dexter, Phillips, and designer Jocelyn Herbert).
But that doesn't really tell us how Phillips lit a show. That's the thing about lighting. It's a talent unique to each practitioner. It's also the most ephemeral of arts. Anyone else who creates something leaves a legacy: the pictures or sculptures of artists, the words of authors, the sounds of composers. A lighting designer leaves nothing, apart from memories: an “insubstantial pageant faded” leaving “not a rack behind.” The closest we get to anything more is, perhaps, via the images captured by the lighting designer's symbiotic partner, the production photographer. And it's sad to note that Phillips' death was closely followed by that of one of the best of that breed, the superb London-based photographer Ivan Kyncl.
Perhaps it's some subconscious fear of this lack of permanence that leads so many lighting designers to move on to other things that will leave something “permanent” behind. Think of the theatre consultancies of Richard Pilbrow and Jules Fisher and the auditoria they've been responsible for; the manufacturing companies set up by others; the books or the moves into education — a legacy created by passing on knowledge to the next generation. Phillips did something similar, too, founding, with Rory Dempster and John Simpson, a lighting rental company they named after their lighting style — White Light, which thrives to this day, though Phillips hadn't been directly involved with the company for some years.
As well as his vision for lighting, we've also lost a link to lighting history channeled through Phillips. Look at his fellow nominees in the two years he was nominated for the Tony Award in New York. In 1988, for M. Butterfly, he was alongside Andrew Bridge and Paul Gallo. In 1975, for Equus, one co-nominee was Abe Feder, a true pioneer of electric lighting. Phillips and the others of his generation are the bridge that links then to now. We need to capture that knowledge now so that it doesn't just vanish, leaving us without a full sense of how our profession was built. The ESTA/ USITT Oral History of Theatre Lighting and Its People project has done important work in this area in the US, and Paul Dexter's Road Cases project promises to extend this. It is arguable that other countries really need similar schemes.
But, perhaps, even if we can never precisely recreate his style, and if some of the history he carried is lost to us, we can continue to be inspired by Andy Phillips. He was arguably the lighting designer's lighting designer, dedicated to the art of lighting, though he preferred to refer to it as a craft. He was dedicated to serving the playwright and the actors, never drawing attention to his work, making it subservient to others. He refused to compromise on his principals or his preferred methods of working, lighting only with the actors on stage. He adopted technology when it was needed, rather than for the sake of it. He openly spoke his mind as part of a creative team to make the show better.
How many of us want to work like this but compromise along the way? Maybe Andy Phillips' legacy will be to remind us that, to create the best work in this most collaborative of art forms, we need to work with people who are as passionate and not compromise along the way.
Rob Halliday is a lighting programmer and designer. He can be reached at email@example.com.