"With actors it's about faces, with dancers it's bodies," says leading Canadian LD Robert Thomson. "A large part of my job is to guide the audience where to watch, and to frame the action." His "action" embraces theatre, opera, and ballet with equal enthusiasm, energy, and versatility, resulting in his vast body of creative achievements during an illustrious 20-year career.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1955, Thomson was educated at the University of Guelph and Ryerson Polytechnical Institute's Theatre Design Program. As a student he worked on sound at Ontario Place, a concert venue in Toronto, where the stage manager encouraged him to attend Lester Polakov's Studio and Forum of Stage Design in New York. Lighting-wise, he cut his teeth under the tutelage of Polakov, John Gleason, Peggy Clark, and his hero, Thomas Skelton, whom Thomson deems "the person I most wanted to emulate."
Dues were paid working as assistant to lighting designers with productions at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the Dance Umbrella in New York. He was seduced by all three media as he made the decision to forge his career in Canada.
Thomson immersed himself in the theatre community across the country in sound and light. It was as a sound man that he joined the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake at age 21, a company that would allow him to develop his lighting skills as well as nurture his career-long love of repertory ensembles. "In rep you share, bounce ideas off, and influence one another. There's a lot of collaboration. You have to get into the other people's heads when you're working on the same plot. I was fortunate not to be pigeonholed. That's harder to do these days."
Within a short time, Thomson received his first solo lighting assignment at the Shaw--Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, a musical melodrama. His originality created excitement, and since the Festival was dark during the winter, he worked through the hiatus at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, under Bill Glassco's artistic directorship, for two and a half years. Glassco was an innovator who welcomed new plays and experimental productions.
"It was like being in a studio with a magic box that had a grid and allowed me to explore color and angle--I'm very big on angle," Thomson recalls. "I lit all Bill's shows. We would talk about things but there was a real collaboration among all the artists. He allowed me a lot of freedom; he was not the kind of director who insists that if someone comes onstage through a door he must be lit at the door. I'm not as interested in the technical side as the communication and the visual vistas, where the pictures come from. The Tarragon was a great place to open up and have each show be a different painting. You also had to be very creative to get what you wanted when you didn't have the budget to buy it."
Thomson continued to hone his craft in a whirlwind of activity. Production followed production at the Shaw, where he was head of lighting design from 1987-1997, in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and London, Ontario. In 1985, he began his dance career as resident lighting director for the Desrosiers Dance Theatre. He designed all its productions for two years and supervised them on tours to the American Dance Festival, Jacob's Pillow, BCBC, and the Australian and Hong Kong Arts Festivals. Thomson's lighting of Desrosiers' Blue Snake for the National Ballet of Canada led to his appointment as the National's resident lighting designer in 1988, a position he has held since then (he is also a past president of the Associated Designers of Canada Association).
At the Ballet, Thomson is challenged not only with new productions such as James Kudelka's Desir (recently part of the National's program at City Center in New York) but also with maintaining the repertoire and supervising the seasons. Among his chores are dealing with "ballet teachers who will tell you how the lighting should be or ask why it has been changed from the design they remember. I use special lights to center dancers, and have them see the floor. I also try to filter out their insecurities. When a nerve-wracked soloist insists a followspot is too bright, I tone it down a notch to make him feel better. When you get close to performers you know what they need, what they're comfortable with.
"I have less and less time to fix things," he continues. "Dance gets very few rehearsals with people. I get the ideas in my head in the rehearsal hall--creative, visual pictures--by knowing where everyone is at all times. In the range of light to dark, people standing in the dark may be the most interesting place to look. After a run-through I write it down with a sense of where everyone is. It gives me control over cueing. If I have to ask where people are, I lose control. I need collaboration but I also need to maintain a line on where to go. Once the production is running it's impossible to fix."
Kudelka, who is the National's artistic director, had recreated Desir for a number of companies but wanted a unique version for his own. The dance is a romantic exploration in a moonlight environment. The original production used a vista of moving clouds as background. "We created a 6' central moon hanging on a black background, a reverse of the sky," Thomson says. "It was a deep, dark purple-blue (R385 plus R121). We added a sparse cluster of seven 3"-diameter stars made by light boxes that changed color from cold blue to red. I keyed the light with a large central pool with two pairs of 5k fresnels in purple (R385) and dark blue (R80). A narrow illuminated horizon line appeared behind a black scrim which, using a diagonal cut border, we later transformed to a tapered wedge in dark blue (R83) and purple (R385)."
Thomson's color palette contained a full range of cold (R3204, L366, R364) and mid-blues (L161) to very saturated dark blues, red-blues to purples (R80, R385, R56), and two moonlight gobo treatments (R364) overhead and in the mid-boom position. "I also used a warm abstract gobo treatment (R17) from the pipe ends and a warm mid-boom (R17) to contrast the blues. I tried to create an evocative nightscape of changing images of the moon, stars, and a shifting horizon viewed individually and juxtaposed against one another, playing against a varying quality of light for the dancers."
The LD has created original designs for six full-length ballets and 20 mixed program pieces for the National to date. "My role is to maintain the integrity of the entire repertoire and also to create and nurture a lighting plot friendly to guest designers. I get to work with world-class designers and I remove restrictions, rules, and color palettes so as not to conform to a dance rig. My job is to protect and insulate the designers from as many encumbrances as possible. They get very little time--two to two and a half days. I try to act as a facilitator to enable them to be creative."
Opera also plays a major role in Thomson's prolific portfolio. He has lit productions for companies in Vancouver, Ottawa, and the Canadian Opera Company (COC) in Toronto. His 1993 award-winning collaboration with director Robert Lepage and scenic designer Michael Levine on COC's Bluebeard's Castle/ Erwartung played the Brooklyn Academy of Music and toured to accolades around the world. The operas were designed as a double bill in repertory with each other.
"The set has a steeply raked platform covered in black pool liner," Thomson says. "Running diagonally upstage is a large, forced-perspective gray block wall. The principals play behind a gold picture frame that frames the entire proscenium. In Bluebeard, a black scrim was placed behind the frame and became the venue for almost all the action. A second forced-perspective wall sits opposite with seven doors, ranging from 5' to 20' in height each, with a keyhole, sized from 11/2" to 18", plus a black roof that closes the stage into a small room. A golden castle model floats and spins outside the up center doorway, replaced by a set of ascending stairs with an iron gate."
Says the LD, "We created a visual scenario that reinterpreted each of Bartok's images behind Bluebeard's castle doors. The original called for a beam of specific colored light ranging from red through the rainbow to blue, to emanate from each door, to symbolize the unseen room within. These colored beams would have been a technical triumph at the time, but we wanted to explore the rooms more symbolically." [See "Door-to-door lighting," page 60, for a behind-the-scenes look at how Thomson achieved the design team's vision.]
Using the same set, water elements and all, Thomson describes Erwartung as a "forest of the mind" in which the point of view of the audience is constantly being moved. It is an exploration of a surreal world, "a show about maintaining single shadows with clear and simple images. These productions were a technical nightmare but it was great fun."
In the theatre, Thomson spends much of his time trying to understand what the director and actors are feeling. "My job is to unify several different visions. The technical is the easy part. I'm very hard on myself emotionally, being in touch with something to unfold. The world the actors are presented in can be so varied that you have to hit just the right note. I'm selfish--I want to go on a magic journey in the rehearsal hall to discover something new to unify, more what that experience evokes in my imagination than merely the script. There is huge trust involved in what that particular world needs to be. It's so much about what the audience sees or does not see from moment to moment. I try to evoke the senses as well as visual landscapes. In Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney, for instance, Iwanted the audience to feel and smell Ireland as well as see it."
Thomson's fut ure is as hectic as his past. He is lighting a production of Paula Vogel's much-acclaimed How I Learned to Drive for Canadian Stage in Toronto, working on remounts of Bluebeard's Castle/ Erwartung for the Vancouver Opera, and George and Ira Gershwin's A Foggy Day for the Shaw, lighting Kudelka's new Swan Lake (with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto), and Balanchine's Apollo for the National Ballet.
"I tend not to work very much in commercial theatre," Thomson says. "I work with the inventory a company has. Rather than be frustrated by not having use of the newest generation of equipment, I shoehorn a production into what I have available. I dream of having the freedom not to have to worry about it, but it's ultimately about what you do with equipment--not what you have."
Julie Rekai Rickerd is a Canada-based freelance writer specializing in travel and the arts.
LD Robert Thomson explains how he solved a technical problem for one of his most acclaimed productions, Bluebeard's Castle (pictured). "Initially we planned to illuminate the entire opera with only the light coming through the doors. We later added two followspots high in the narrow proscenium slot behind the scrim. I had counter-raked tracks built in the wings outside the first five doors to allow the lighting effects for each door to move in and out of the threshold of the door on custom-built dollies. This allowed the first image to appear as a smaller door image that then slowly expanded as the dolly was tracked toward the doorway to envelop as much of the room and the singers as possible. Later, the dollies were retracked to reduce the size of the door. Many of our effects had manually operated elements, whether they be the motion of the dollies or the lighting effect itself."
The LD went door to door with his lighting scheme. "For Door 1, we created what we called the 'Fire Effect' by combining a Pani effects projector, two ellipsoidals with fire effects disks, and the projected image of smoke shadows. Door 2, the 'Welding Effect,' had a mirror-lined box with three mirror-covered flippers that were connected by pulleys to a manually operated handle. A 4k HMI fresnel was pointed into the mirror box but all light was reflected off the multiple mirror surfaces within to create a series of moving and overlapping images, with tempos set by the operator listening to the orchestra."
For Door 3, referred to as "Shimmer of Gold," "three ellipsoidals were bounced off a gold foil panel just outside the door, creating an intense, glittering bottom light. The shimmer was created manually with a small Mylar curtain moving in the path of the reflected light. Door 4, 'Flower Garden,' had a scenic setting with leaves and a leaf drop operating at the doorway, through which we directed a 4k HMI. The light started far offstage and dollied toward the foliage, creating the illusion of vegetation growing. We also created a green pathway, like grass, that dissolved to red with a manual gel "roller blind."
Thomson says Door 5, "Kingdom," used an HMI Pani projector to create a pie slice image of Earth from space from the stage right proscenium and clouds through the door; the movement of the cloud projection created the illusion of planetary motion. "As the lower area of the raked stage was filling up with 500 gallons of water (for Door 6, 'Veil of Tears') we mounted a counter-raked reflection tank outside the door and a 5k fresnel above the waterline to create the reflected water images in the hand-rippled liquid. I also reflected several ellipsoidals low in the proscenium slot to expand the image of rushing water."
Door 7, "Chamber of the Past Wives of Bluebeard," had one of the most dramatic images: The transformation of the pool of water to blood. "The final tracking door closing was achieved in the model box with one Luxo lamp," Thomson says. "In real-world scale, we hung a counter-raked truss in the wings with two lights for each door, creating a continual pathway of light through each door as it slowly flew out approximately 25' (8m). Despite the size of and throw distance to each door being different, the movement created an illusion of one upward-moving source illuminating all the doors. It is always easier in the box."