Tony Award-winning lighting designer Neil Austin was a featured speaker at LDI2010 and winner of the 2010 Redden Award for Excellence In Lighting Design/Theatre, sponsored by Epic Production Technologies. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux chats with Austin about design and technology, the West End, and Broadway.
Live Design: How did you train to become a lighting designer?
Neil Austin: My parents always took me to the theatre. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a pile of booster cushions watching the latest musical or ballet. I got interested in lighting at school when they built a new theatre, and suddenly, there was a pile of equipment, and no one knew how to work it. No teacher was in charge, and the autonomy appealed to me, so I volunteered, experimented, and provided the school plays with what was, I’m sure, some of the worst lighting ever seen, but I’d caught the bug.
I had no idea how to get into the industry, so I went to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama to study its Stage Management and Technical Theatre Course—two years of vocational training but nothing of design. Instead, it gave me a solid grounding in all the backstage disciplines of theatre and a few contacts to get going. I got a job at one of the last rep theatres in England as the deputy electrician/resident LD. Unfortunately, after only two weeks in the job, the theatre lost its funding and closed four months later after I’d lit only two shows.
That began a period of working as a freelance electrician and an assistant lighting designer, which included relighting in the West End and on Broadway. Throughout this period, I was also lighting my own shows on the fringe for free. It was a bit like being a venture capitalist; you invested your time in a hundred directors on the fringe in the hope that one of them made it. Luckily for me, one of them did and was good enough to take me with him, all the way from the Battersea Arts Centre to the National Theatre. From there, all the doors started to open, including the Donmar Warehouse, which has been a key part of my career.
LD: From the West End to Broadway, do you find that design approaches differ?
NA: I’m not sure that design approaches differ on either side of the Atlantic so much as between individual designers. The paperwork side, though, does definitely differ across the pond. In the UK, the plan is the only piece of paperwork; every piece of information is on it. Lightwright is used a little bit on larger shows, but it is the responsibility of the production electrician, not the designers. When I sit down at the production desk, I have the plan alone, not even a magic sheet.
I do consciously use different equipment when I come to the US mainly because of the voltage difference. Your lamps are brighter, due to the efficiency of smaller filaments, but the most important difference is that your blackouts are twice as long as ours. A 1kW unit in the US takes as long to snap out as a 2kW in the UK. So, for example, when transferring shows, I always try to use ETC Source Four PARs instead of normal PARs if the show involves quick cues.
Apart from that, transferring a show to Broadway involves the same challenges as any transfer—adapting the ideas from one venue to another.
Hamlet was in a proscenium house in London, and so the transfer was relatively easy. The Broadhurst Theatre in New York was much wider than the Wyndhams in London and so required a little bit of extra equipment, but apart from that, the rigs were pretty similar.
Red transferred from the Donmar Warehouse, a small 250-seat thrust stage to the Golden, a much larger—although small in Broadway terms—800-seat proscenium theatre. This transfer needed a lot more modification.
There are a few bits of working practice that differ on either side of the Atlantic. I insist on having costume and wigs for the tech, which I am told isn’t normal practice on Broadway. Time in the theatre is so limited because of the expense that it’s important to make the best use of every second. I find it impossible to understand how a technical rehearsal is useful for anyone, let alone me, without the real costumes.
LD: Let’s talk about Hamlet a minute, with the one large set. How did the lighting inform time and place?
NA: It’s a lighting designer’s dream to have a standing set. The entire evening of times, locations, and atmospheres is down to you. It is a remarkably efficient way of telling a story—no scene changes, no interruptions in the flow of the acting, just a transition in the lighting, and the show carries on.
Hamlet was a huge monolithic set with 34'-high walls surrounding the space. This was restricting on positions and angles, but those restrictions informed the look of the piece. Every doorway provided an opportunity for low-angled shafts of light, and high up in the set were a series of arrow slots through which narrow fingers of light broke into the dark, crepuscular space. “Denmark’s a Prison,” and that was certainly the atmosphere I wanted to create.
LD: Can you talk about your lighting for London Assurance and Women Beware Women?
NA: London Assurance and Women Beware Women were playing in rep in the same auditorium, the Olivier at the National Theatre. It’s a 1,150-seat amphitheatre-style auditorium with a large open-plan stage that has a semicircular thrust. Because of the demands of the rep and the constant changeovers between shows, there is a sizeable house rig, some of which is fixed-focus, but to compensate, there are 100 movers scattered throughout the rig to provide adaptability for each show.
There are also spaces in the rig to add your own specials. I was lucky to not have to share the rig with anyone else as I designed the first three shows of the year, so I added a system of scrolled PAR sidelight that was useful to all three pieces. I love lighting at the National Theatre. There are great house crews to work with, and the fact that you are only adding extras to a house rig means less plan-drawing time.
Even so, I find the Olivier the most challenging space to light. The rig is very high—the backlight bar is a 50' throw to the stage—and the sidelight positions tend to spread across the stage, opening the picture out. The entire rig is in sight of the audience, and so the entire effect is very epic.
These two shows couldn’t be more different, one a restoration-style comedy and the other a Jacobean Tragedy. London Assurance is an 1842 comedy by Boucicault, a playwright and producer who, amongst other things, developed a product for fire-proofing scenery! The show involves many asides and monologues performed straight out to the audience. There was more front-of-house in this show than in my entire career before it. I also found myself using a much richer color palette than I normally do; the language and situations were rich and comedic, and the lighting needed to be, as well. The show was broadcast live to cinemas all over the world as part of the NT Live scheme.
Women Beware Women is a lesser-known tragedy by Middleton, set in Florentine Italy of the Medicis, updated to the 1950s in our production. The piece is full of whispered conversations and subterfuge, ending, in the fifth act, in a masque and a massacre of murders where almost the entire cast ends up strangled, stabbed, or poisoned. We staged this as a dance piece with the set constantly revolving to reveal all the different moments leading up to the finale. This section of the show proved by far the most challenging, as the revolve mechanism at the National doesn’t run to the same speed each night, so attempting to follow parts of the action as it rotated around was quite a challenge, and I was glad of the two followspots available to me. They are from a high sidelight position, SL and SR, and highlight without being too obvious. The palette for this show was very muted and cold. It is a pretty dark piece right from the very start, and the lighting reflected that by not acknowledging the sunlight that you might more typically associate with Italy. I added some long, low backlight from DHA Digital Light Curtains, as one of the great challenges in the Olivier is providing a dynamic backlight that pushes the actors forward toward the audience. The standard backlight is so high that it tends to become more of a top light and flattens the image rather than enhancing it.
LD: Do you design with an eye to an eventual tour or transfer, or does that come later?
NA: No, the original production needs to be extraordinary before any guarantee of a transfer comes, and it is always possible to revisit a production when it is a known entity and redesign it for a transfer or tour.
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LD: Your work was acclaimed in New York with the Tony for best lighting for Red. Can you describe your concept for the lighting of this play about modern art?
NA: This is a wonderful play about being an artist and the process of making art. It touched all of us working on it, and we all had favorite sections that resonated with our own experiences. As I read the play and researched Rothko, it became clear that he was utterly controlling of the environment he painted in and that his paintings were seen in. I visited the Houston chapel and was lucky enough to get a private view of the Seagram murals in the Tate Gallery where I was allowed to bring a flashlight and light the paintings much brighter than normal to see every detail.
In many photographs of his studios, you see the windows blacked out and scoops on stands that he wheeled around his studio to light the paintings. That was the first decision about our production; we would have two practical scoops on stage for the actors to interact with. I then expanded that idea of Rothko using theatre lights in his studio to include three sets of footlight battens from the 1920s. These were the keylights for the piece, so not only was it the smallest rig on Broadway, with no movers and no scrollers, but the primary sources made it by far the oldest rig on Broadway, as well.
The play includes the greatest gift to any lighting designer—something I am sure we have all wished for: the opportunity to turn on the work lights during the show and demonstrate to the audience what it would look like if we weren’t there. In the text, Rothko’s assistant suddenly realizes why Rothko is so controlling of his environment—that, under the wrong lighting, the paintings are dead—and he goes over to the light switch and turns on the fluorescents briefly to demonstrate the point. This moment proved a revelation for many members of the audience, including art curators watching the show, and I’ve since been approached by the Prado in Madrid to light an exhibition of Goya’s paintings as they might have appeared to him under candlelight.
LD: Is there one production that stands out as particularly challenging in which the results were ultimately satisfying?
NA: Every job has its own set of challenges and requirements, so it is always satisfying if you conquer them. It’s wonderful that every show teaches you something new and that there are always things to discover.
LD: What advice would you give young designers or students about getting into the business today?NA: See as much theatre, of as many different types, as possible. It will broaden your horizons, challenge your beliefs, and ultimately help inform your style. You have to love the art form wholeheartedly to spend the hours working in it that we do. And don’t get stuck as an associate; remember your dream, and follow it at all costs.