Gavan Swift is a prolific lighting designer, whose recent projects range from The Daylight Atheist for Sydney Theatre Company and a revival of Saturday Night Fever to Midnite, a children's opera for Opera Australia/Windmill Performing Arts. In addition to his extensive design work, the 32- year-old was associate designer for Down Under tours of The Lion King, The Full Monty, and Cabaret, as well as The White Oak Dance Project. He graduated from Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in 1994 with a degree in technical production and now teaches lighting there.
Swift recently spent two months in New York on a fact-finding trip, watching LDs (including Don Holder, Ken Posner, Duane Schuler, Brian MacDevitt, Mike Baldassari, ML Geiger, and Ken Billington) at work, sometimes lending a hand. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux caught up with Swift to get his take on the differences in lighting styles from one continent to another.
LD: How do you perceive the differences in lighting between Australia and the US?
GS: Historically, Australian theatre has been primarily influenced by English theatre and its traditions. With the advent of the blockbuster Broadway musical (probably beginning with the Australian production of A Chorus Line), our industry started to be influenced by American lighting methods. With the exception of the Patt 23, Australian lighting has been dominated by zoom profiles, Fresnels, PCs, and English [read: Strand] asymmetrical cyc floods. Slowly, through exposure to the American style of theatre, PAR cans, fixed angle profiles, and striplights have become commonplace. In fact, the most common PAR can in use is the 110V PAR64, while we run on 240V. It is important to note that while the Patt 23 was a fixed angle profile, it had a “base down” lamp, while American fixed angle profiles used mainly axial lamps. Until the development of the 240V version of the HPL and GKV lamps for the ETC Source Four®, Shakespeare, or Strand SL, we had to get by with a 240V FEP globe for the Altman 360Q if we wanted to use fixed angle profiles. And the FEP was a very fragile lamp. It didn't help that most axial lamps used in our market were actually developed to run on 220V for the European market, and our power at 240V would automatically stress the filament.
LD: What about the design process itself?
GS: I really like the American style of plans and paperwork and the detail with which shows are designed, implemented, and documented. Unfortunately, I have to generalize, but the American style of designing systems of light is very different to the Australian (and dare I say, English) style of designing around acting areas, specials, and set highlights. The idea of equally spacing lamps on 18" centers and duplicating pipes to create a system of light was completely foreign to me until I moved onto bigger shows and was exposed to American lighting designers. I know not all shows are actually designed this way, but as an example, I think there is a point to be made.
I also think the American theatre lighting education system is better than ours, especially the graduate lighting design programs like Yale and NYU. We really have no equivalent to that standard of lighting education.
Since I first used it on the Australian production of Cabaret, I have also become a huge advocate for Lightwright and the detailed documentation it creates. Up until that point, I had always used Excel or FileMaker, but the way Lightwright works, particularly its integration with Vectorworks Spotlight, is an unbeatable combination.
The Australian theatre industry now sits in the middle, equally influenced by American and European theatre styles and available equipment. I think this gives us the opportunity to use a wide range of equipment and to develop our own style of lighting using techniques acquired, adopted, influenced, or developed from ideas and techniques all over the world.
LD: What was the most challenging project you have ever designed?
GS: One of the shows in my recent past that was particularly challenging, but rewarding, to design is The Aunt's Story, a play adapted from the novel of the same name by Australian author Patrick White. The director of the play, Adam Cook, wrote the stage adaptation while studying at NIDA. After a workshop production at NIDA, he put the play in a drawer and left it there for 10 years. In 2001, the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Melbourne International Art Festival asked Adam to direct his play, having seen a reading of a new version in 2000. The play tells the story of a woman, Theodora, who doesn't fit into society's norms for a woman at the end of the late 19th/early 20th century. In the second act, the play takes a surreal twist, as she slowly descends into madness.
The main challenge of this production was how to convey her descent into mental disintegration to the audience. The difficulty was that the play had to go into the theatre for a week for technical rehearsals, load out for two weeks while another festival show was in the space — and go back into the rehearsal room — and then load back in to the theatre and open within three days. It felt like a repertory show but without the repertory lighting rig. The show before us was a dance show with a rig that was impossible to share or adapt.
The design solution was to build strange and magical elements into the lighting. As Theodora started to lose her mind, the style of lighting had to follow. Set practicals were introduced. The use of color became stronger, and parts of the set became translucent to make the set become integral to her mad world. I also needed a lot of individual specials. Followspots were out of the question, as I didn't have the budget, so moving lights became important.
In the end, I only needed one moving light. I used the Strand Pirouette. This is a 2.5kW plano convex spot in a moving yoke, with a color scroller and control over the beam size. It sounds like an incredibly simple light, and it is, but it is a moving light solely designed for theatre. It doesn't move very fast, but it is incredibly accurate and quiet. It is also a very bright light, so it can be flooded out and still maintain a good output. I used this light to pull characters out of the stage pictures without it appearing like a moving light at all. It was also brilliant at creating a very filmic “zoom in” look using its superior brightness and smooth color scrolling. It is not a very popular light — there are only four that I know of in Australia — but it was the right light for the right job, which I think is essential for good lighting design.
LD: Any other recent challenges?
GS: The second example of a challenging production is the current tour of Saturday Night Fever. The show was directed by Arlene Phillips, based on her UK tour version, except the scenery, costumes, lighting, and sound were all being designed by Australians. All of our pre-production and design meetings were conducted via conference calls or emails. The show had to be designed to tour Australia, New Zealand, and into Asia.
Eamon D'Arcy, the set designer, and I decided to completely incorporate the lighting rig into the set and design our own light-up dance floor. Working with technical director Richard Martin, we came up with a method of using a rope light product under a layered and tinted Perspex floor that was bonded together into 2m×1m sections and “keyed” so when put together, it was completely flat and devoid of any screws. The lighting was pre-rigged into the set during the equipment preparation period, and the whole show loaded onto a boat bound for Singapore. This was the part that made us all a little nervous.
Even though we designed and built the show in Australia, it was to open at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore. The ship left Sydney the same day as rehearsals started! This left us all with very little room for error as our entire network of support and equipment was going to be a nine-hour international flight away. Luckily, it all worked out very well, and the show was a hit (it is still on tour), and as a result of the Australian production, D'Arcy and I were asked to reproduce our designs in London for the current revival. Additionally, our technical director was also engaged to advise on how to build the floor and paint the scenery.
LD: Do you have a specific process for remounting shows such as The Lion King?
GS: I can easily sum up my process for remounting American productions in Australia: give the lighting designers what they want! If I have to request a substitution, I try to find out exactly what that piece of equipment is doing and then try to propose a suitable replacement. Most of the time, a substitution will only occur when a product is basically unavailable. For instance, I don't know of any ETC Sensor® dimming systems for hire in Australia. So when I receive a specification listing them, I suggest an alternative more suited to our industry and rental stock.
LD: How do you feel about new digital media technology?
GS: I am certainly open to it, although noise is a big issue, and fans from projectors can be very distracting in a small- to medium-sized venue. It all has a time and place, but there is a real danger of imposing new technology on shows that don't really need it.