Live Design: You won the 2009 Olivier Award for your lighting of The Chalk Garden in London. Is your process different for lighting a classic play like The Chalk Garden or Ivanov, which you also recently lit, compared to a or new play that has never been seen before?
Paule Constable: The great thing with Ivanov is the classic Chekov four-act structure, and in each act—as with Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and most of his plays—the emotional temperature of the scene is reflected in the light needed. More than any other writer, he uses light as a character; it is active. Take Uncle Vanya: it is a descent into darkness, literally. But this is Chekov, the writer. It is not to do with whether the play has been done before. Some writers are light-aware; some are more abstract. Every time you approach a text, a libretto, a piece of music, you have to be open to the possibilities it presents. Sometimes, you have to define the landscape; sometimes, you have to trust the text. You should light everything as if it were the first production. I think this is an approach I learned in coming from a devised theatre background—with UK company Compli—so my process relies upon responding to the text and to the moment, not having a predefined sense of how something should be done.
LD: Do you approach opera differently from theatre or a straight play differently from a musical?
PC: I often say there are no differences, but there are. Music puts us in a heightened emotional place. With opera, we are almost always looking at the epic. The emotional stakes are higher; the pictures and the sense of event are more extreme, and light can have huge space to play within this. And there is space; opera does not happen quickly. It is about a conversation between the light, the singer, the space, the audience. When it is good, there is nothing better. With musicals, you have less time to talk to an audience; you have to deliver a sense of time and place much more quickly. It has to deliver its information rapidly. It is less of a conversation and more a series of instructions! Plays? Well they can happen in many ways, but I miss the orchestra. The golden rule of opera is never to ignore the music. In fact, in theatre, we should never ignore the text, the actor, the story. The link between them all, and all performance, is storytelling. Tell the story. It is just the scale and the speed which can be different.
LD: What is the latest piece of new technology you’ve been excited about and why?
PC: Generally, I have been really disappointed in LED technology in theatre, but I used Martin Professional’s EvenLED wall for the revival of Oliver [at the Drury Lane in London], and it was absolutely amazing as a tool. It opened a new door for me. Issues of energy consumption are hugely important at the moment, but trying to replace one technology with another is not the answer in lighting or in life. We have to think about the way we use equipment—the way we approach our work. Smaller rigs, pl—less units use less power. I am looking at the i-Pix BB7, as well. I think that has potential.
LD: What were the challenges of some of your recent productions?
PC: For Phèdre [at The National Theatre], you have to make the sunlight in the space clear enough that company members can play to the sun as they would another actor. Phèdre, played by Helen Mirren, chooses to avoid daylight. We were putting one of the most famous actresses in the world into a space where she doesn’t, as a character, want to be lit! We used a lot of very strong directional light and then a lot of bounce in the space to give a sense of areas where the light was direct and areas where it was indirect.
Oliver—where to start with the challenges of lighting a musical? My biggest challenge was making a musical that works for the audience—that delivers the world of Lionel Bart and Stratford East and Victorian Vaudeville and also is true to Dickens. Cameron Mackintosh, Charles Dickens, and Lionel Bart are all tough, demanding, and exciting as collaborators. The result is necessarily filmic, as our vision of Victorian London relates to films and paintings. It is quite dark! The first numbe"Food, Glorious F" is probably one of the moments when it works best.
War Horse [at The National Theatre]—an amazing experience, and a collaborative team of 16 people and a scale of puppetry and emotional engagement never tried before. Madness on paper. It’s an exercise in communication—always keeping the story alive and never dropping the baton. There is little scenery; we tell the story using simple shifts of palette. One moment it might be sound, the next video, the next light. We put the audience in a storytelling space on a massive scale and then tell them the story as if they were children. Light is incredibly important because it can shift the space quickly. It’s a whole article how we did it and the world of the rig. More another time, perhaps!
LD: What’s on for you now?
PC: Phèdre at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, a transfer from the Lyttelton at the National Theatre in London; a new piece for the Royal Ballet; the new David Hare play, The Power of Yes—an artist’s response to the global recession—at the National. We work-shopped the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical through September, which is due on stage in London in the New Year and New York later in 2010. We are doing a new version of Les Mis to tour in Europe and the US and very excited to be coming to The Met with a new Don Giovanni and Anna Boleyna in 2011.
LD: What are the challenges of a rep house like English National Opera (ENO)?
PC: Rep houses, like the National and ENO, are great if you absorb what they have to offer and work with that…then add more. I get so used to working in rep that I find the tyranny of a blank sheet of paper quite terrifying. Front-of-house positions are normally just there. I only need to think about the art.
LD: What advice would you give to young designers just starting out?
PC: Only start on this journey if you truly love what you do; it is neither glamorous nor well paid. That said, I feel hugely privileged to do something I love so much for a living. The light of everyday is so beautiful, so extreme. Trying to capture a tiny moment of that and put it on stage—how amazing. And find your collabora—the people you want to create with and work with, your peers. Work to articulate a voice for your generation, not to take on the ideas of others.