Lighting designer Stephen Wickham briefly contemplated pursuing a career as either a refrigeration mechanic or a silver-service waiter, not because he had grown tired of life in the theatre but because he had fallen in love with the idea of living in Perth, Western Australia. And the only way he could emigrate from his native England was to prove to the Australian authorities that his skills were in demand.
"I'd been to Perth on holiday and loved it, but at that time, to emigrate to Australia you had to prove that you were the only person who could do a certain job and that you weren't going to put locals out of work. Theatre lighting wasn't on the immigration list of acceptable skills but silver-service waiting and refrigeration mechanics were. A career change was tempting!"
Fortunately Wickham discovered that he did have a highly sought-after skill: as an experienced operator of the Strand Galaxy lighting desk. As luck would have it, His Majesty's Theatre in Perth was in desperate need of an experienced operator and offered him the job over the telephone. With the aid of the local theatrical union and the Perth Theatre Trust, Wickham was able to prove that he was not taking a job from an Australian, and was eventually granted residency.
Wickham left his position at His Majesty's Theatre in the early 1990s to freelance as a lighting designer, a career which has seen him light productions all over Australia and Asia. Wickham's initial foray into lighting happened by accident when he was a fine arts student at college in Salisbury, England, in the 1970s.
"I became involved in the social scene at college and used to help out with booking the bands who would perform on campus; before I knew it I was lighting them. Fortunately I'm a quick learner. At first I pretended that I knew what I was doing and ended up learning everything on the job as I went along."
A job as an assistant electrician at Salisbury Playhouse was to move Wickham along on his new career path. "I started watching the lighting designer at work and fell in love with lighting as an art form. Informally I became his trainee and went through a fairly intense learning curve during my time there."
Wickham moved on to become the head electrician at a small theatre in Plymouth, where the lighting was controlled by an ancient Sunset resistance dimmer system. Operators had to stand on the system and pull the levers--and there were times when Wickham wasn't heavy enough to achieve a blackout, which required him to pull on all the masters at the same time. But he enjoyed the experience of learning the system and felt honored to be a part of theatre history.
During the 1980s, before he emigrated to Australia, Wickham worked in a variety of British theatres while developing his freelance career. He was exposed to artists like Jonathan Miller and Philip Glass, and developed a passion for opera and dance, whereas up to that point most of his experience had been in drama.
These days Wickham has developed quite a profile as a dance designer, though he prefers not to be categorized. "When I first started freelancing in Perth in 1990 I was getting a lot of work designing dance and in particular contemporary dance. It wasn't that I was pursuing this kind of design work, it just happened that Perth had a flourishing dance scene at that time."
Wickham was content to live and work in Perth despite its isolation; he had no real ambition to work on Australia's more populous East Coast even though opportunities there abounded. Quite by chance he was invited to light Carmen at the Sydney Opera, which gained him favorable reviews. He realized that to further his career he would have to move to Sydney, where he has resided for the past three years.
1997 was a busy year for Wickham, with trips to Hong Kong to light the Pacific Rim Forum, a high-profile conference for Asian business and politics. The forum coincided with the handover of Hong Kong to China, which made the experience a memorable one for Wickham.
He has recently lit a new work for the Australian Ballet as part of a triple bill which he had the good fortune to share with Jennifer Tipton, who was lighting a new Twyla Tharp piece. It was an experience that Wickham relished. "There was no interval between my piece and Jennifer's, so it was fortunate that we both wanted the rig focused in a similar way, though naturally we ended up with very different looks. I find that work is most stimulating when you have great people to collaborate with, and this was definitely one of those experiences."
Wickham has some interesting projects lined up for 1998 including a trip to Shanghai for the Pacific Rim Forum, as well as dance, opera, and experimental works. He believes that as long as he continues to learn and be challenged by lighting it will remain exciting. "Someone once said to me that if you can watch a film without the sound and make sense from the visuals alone, then the filmmaker has been successful. I happen to share that view for the stage and believe that lighting is there to contribute to the vision."