LD MARK HENDERSON COMES TO NEW YORK WITH FOUR PRODUCTIONS
London-based LD Mark Henderson is one of the busiest in the business. With over 400 theatre, opera, and dance productions (plus one film and a few television shows) under his belt, he usually has one or two, if not three or four things running at the same time in London. Over the past few years, this has also been true in New York City. Last year Henderson lit The Iceman Cometh and Amy's View, which not only ran on Broadway simultaneously, but were also right on the same block. This past season he was once again a double hitter, with both Copenhagen and The Real Thing transferring from London to Broadway. This fall he will continue the trend with Coriolanus and Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Starring Ralph Fiennes, this pair of Shakespearean power plays was produced in London by the Almeida Theatre Company at the abandoned Gainsborough Studios, former stomping ground of Alfred Hitchcock. Henderson talks about lighting these four recent plays that have made the journey from London to New York.
Ellen Lampert-Greaux: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is a powerful drama about nuclear physics and the making of the atomic bomb in World War II. What was your concept for lighting this play that takes place entirely on one set?
Mark Henderson: The lighting design concept was very muddy to begin with. We were all a little unsure of the ground we were entering and what format the production would take and what the look would be. I lined up a selection of "tools" prior to the technical rehearsal and we just built on what we discovered worked as we went along.
Peter [Peter J. Davison, the set designer] had designed a semi-abstract space that had some sense of a lecture hall about it. In the Cottesloe [at the Royal National Theatre], where it began many moons ago, it was played virtually in-the-round and you had a sense of looking down into the space, being observers in the hall. In the many incarnations from that original we have always tried to simulate that feel.
ELG: How did you deal with lighting the pale wood of the set?
MH: The lighting design really followed Peter's abstract theme: It became about the people sculpted in the space (usually with sidelight) with cues to emphasize particular areas or points. The moving lights became very useful for subtle shifting of emphasis.
The pale wood in reality is very warm. I used blue color correction to negate the warmth and tried to instill a slightly clinical feel. The warmth was pulled out in a few moments, where an interior was particularly suggested in the play.
The only time the wooden walls were specifically lit was for the [simulated atomic bomb] "explosion" moment. Heavy frontlight intensity was used to light up the drum wall and an HMI downlight was used for the floor. We were looking for a "white out" sort of feel. Other than that there was no specific light on the walls, they just picked up bounce from the general area. The audience [sitting on the set] were lit only by bounce, apart from house lights that were installed in the ceiling of the drum wall and used as ordinary house lights.
ELG: Can you describe your use of gobos in this production?
MH: A lot of the geometry of the lighting came from the set design: The perimeter of the central oval floor was picked out to emphasize the rim, a lot of circular movement is in the blocking and it felt correct to echo that. It then allowed a central "core" to be lit and that felt right concerning the theme of the play. Gobos or the dark blue wash were then used to dress the void between the areas. There is a distinct V marking in the floor layout and we tried to give that a very vibrant look. The cloud gobo wash seemed to work quite well on the floor, which had global pattern markings.
ELG: What was in your lighting rig for Copenhagen?
MH: The rig was conceived from the original Cottesloe repertory system. Vari superscript *Lite[R] VL5[TM] automated wash luminaires were part of that basic rig, and when we moved to the West End they were changed to Strand Pirouettes, partly due to the control system that we inherited at the Duchess Theatre [a Strand Gemini]. There were two VL6[TM] automated spot luminaires in the Cottesloe but we changed these to a number of fixed specials for the West End.
ELG: Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing has multiple sets with moving walls. What was the challenge in lighting a set like this one?
MH: The production originated at the Donmar Warehouse, which is a very tight space. The movement of the walls and panels was a way of suggesting various locations set within this confined space. We did try to give a different look to each apartment, using different practical lighting sources as the key to the scenes. In some instances that would be a table lamp and in another it would be an architectural lighting panel in the wall that could possibly suggest a different source.
ELG: The play takes place over many months. Do you try to indicate this in the lighting in any way?
MH: There was nothing in particular in the lighting that suggested the passing of time, but we tried to give an indication of time of day and mood. There were a number of cues within the scene changes, following the choreography of the panel movements, that could possibly suggest time changes.
ELG: How did you work with the moving panels?
MH: In the walls and floor of the set there are a number of architectural light boxes giving and creating sources. I tried to echo these on the traveling panels, creating shapes and strips that could suggest abstract sources. Early on in the process I had this idea that the perspex panels could become "windows" and create a suggestion of a daylight source, but this proved not to be too great, so I broke down the whole panels into intense strips and tried to make these give the suggestion.
ELG: What about the use of color?
MH: It was a very white rig color-wise. A lot of the warmth came from white at low intensity, and blue color correction was used to contrast this. The Donmar being a compact and intimate space meant that we could get away with a lot lower intensity of light than the West End version, so it felt a little more cinematic and fragmented in the Donmar, but I don't think we lost the atmosphere and mood of the piece as it moved.
ELG: For Coriolanus and Richard II, you collaborated with director Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown to produce two plays in an unused space. Where did the lighting equipment come from?
MH: A lottery package paid for the equipment to go into Gainsborough. The Arts Council gave the Almeida some finance in advance of their refurbishment package that allowed the rig to be purchased prior to the Almeida itself being re-equipped. This meant that whatever we bought for the Gainsborough had to be compatible with what the Almeida would use later.
ELG: Where did the power come from?
MH: There was a slight panic regarding the power requirements for a while, and there was a time when we were going to have to run the project from generators, but a local power source was found and all was well, thank God.
ELG: The interior of the studios was cavernous. How did you decide on lighting positions?
MH: The trussing and lighting positions were pretty much governed by the architecture of the space. The whole of the back wall was to be seen, which meant that all the positions had to be high in the roof space, which was a little scary for a while in terms of angles and throw, considering that we were dealing with the Almeida complication as well, which has a much lower grid.
Because of the changeovers required to run the shows in repertory it meant that we really needed overhead access to all of the rig. After drawing up various proposals we ended up with trussing providing walkway access to the equipment which itself was rigged on separate bars running parallel to the trussing. In the end it worked very well both in terms of access and in terms of the look, as the extra height we had to deal with, I think, added to the epic scale of the space.
There were two vital side positions in the downstage corners that were really the key to the acting light, and we were then able to use the overheads to give a spatial effect. We tried to make it a theatre-friendly working space, making it not dissimilar to working in a normal theatre venue - we were all theatre people, so we tried to make it familiar ground.
ELG: Why did you make the decision to use followspots?
MH: As the space was so wide and your angle of vision could be so split, I used the followspots to try to pull focus, to let the audience know where the focus should be. This then allowed the rest of the stage to be "dressed" without having to worry too much about having to completely wash the stage in facial acting light. The followspots weren't solely for Ralph Fiennes in that respect, but they did help pull focus and also to try to make Richard II "glow" which was part of the design brief. The spots themselves were Pani beamlights and not digital ones. There were no moving lights in the rig.
ELG: What was the concept for the lighting of Richard II?
MH: We wanted to make Richard II very beautiful, very glorious, and tried to convey that Richard II himself brought light and warmth into the space with him. As the production went on, we drained the warmth and shifted to a much colder, bleaker look and feel, following the narrative of the play. We had a haze machine virtually constantly running to allow us to see the beams and shafts, and using the height and angles to fill the space with light.
The floor area is pretty vast, so I tried to break up the area with gobos and used the followspots for emphasis, with sidelight to cut across the actors without having to light all the floor space. There is also very low sidelight skimming across the floor surface to emphasize the contours and texture.
ELG: How did you make Coriolanus look different in the same space with the same rig?
MH: Coriolanus we wanted to make more industrial, and the intention was to use the architecture of the building more. However, we had to pull back slightly on that, as it became so powerful that it tended to overwhelm the acting space below. There is a notable color difference between the two productions: Richard being very warm and soft, initially anyway, and Coriolanus sharper and more harsh.
For Coriolanus we used a lot of neon sources in the large windows and the floor to give a very bright, white, cold look. The perspex floor void was filled with smoke at certain moments and we were able to bounce off this to give a central emphasis.
ELG: The Gainsborough space was quite imposing and impressive. How will the set be different for the BAM performances?
MH: There is a touring set version for BAM and Japan. Of course we can't take the Gainsborough back wall with us, so there is a slightly different treatment with two large sliders at the back of the stage, wooden for Richard and perspex for Coriolanus, and a large suspended gantry/walkway surrounding the acting space.
The rig has gone to conventional across stage bars, but with no overhead access we have had to double-rig to cope with the repertory system.
ELG: Will the lighting change dramatically at BAM?
MH: The basic look of both productions should stay the same, with changes just to facilitate new blocking and different scenic elements. We are in the Harvey Theatre at BAM, which is good because the overall atmosphere is not dissimilar to Gainsborough, with the slightly derelict feel. The majority of the rig at BAM will come from the BAM stock, which is of course mainly Strand Lekos and Colortran ellipsoidals, so there will be a good deal of transferring of levels and so on to cope with the difference.
ELG: Will you be at BAM to relight these two productions?
MH: I am only over for the pre-production week when we will rig and focus, and do the initial look at the lighting prior to the acting company arriving the following week.
ELG: What are the primary differences between London and New York?
MH: Equipment rental costs are much cheaper in New York, therefore you are able, and expected, to rig more. But labor costs are much more expensive, therefore it feels more restricting in terms of being able to change and experiment once in the theatre. It becomes a different discipline.