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A lighting designer tells how the light gets in

Nigel Levings is one of the world’s leading theatre lighting designers. After a 45 year career he says the abiding measure of success in his field is that no one notices what he has crafted with light to help tell a story on stage.

In his early career Levings was the first to be fully employed by an Australian theatre company as a lighting designer. He has lit over 490 original productions including 174 operas and 28 musicals. He has lit opera in St Petersburg, Paris, Washington, London, Cardiff, Berlin, Baden Baden, Innsbruck, Bregenz, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Seoul and Toronto as well as all the major opera houses of Australia.

In this extract below from Leving’s ‘Platform Paper’ titled The Lighting Designer: What is ‘Good Lighting’? (published by Currency House) in which he explains how he approaches the art of stage lighting. The essay is out now.


As soon as a potential project comes up in discussion, I begin my process. I start to research all I can about the work, the venue, the company and my colleagues on the creative team and the cast. If it is an opera with an available recording I will start to listen to it in detail. If the piece is based on another form of literature I will read the source material. Usually I start this research process well before I begin to discuss the directorial approach— the concept—to the work. I need to come to my own understanding of the script and of the team with whom I will be working. I make notes about the work and the structure of the piece, paying particular attention to any mention of light conditions. I believe very strongly in the primacy of the text. Sometimes when I see productions that so deliberately play at odds with what is written I feel deeply angry. If you do not agree with Chekhov’s conclusions or characters then write your own bloody play, don’t trade on somebody else’s words or reputation.

I saw two productions by the Scottish opera director Sir David McVicar recently and they encapsulate everything I hate about this type of theatre.

How soon the design process starts, however, varies from production to production. Opera companies used to contract their creatives more than two years in advance but these days the advance time frame is severely reduced. Theatre companies, too, are inclined to leave the lighting contract until the last minute, which means that work offers come in a rush before next season’s brochure goes to the printer. Perhaps this is a cash flow management issue for theatre companies: they will be required to pay a percentage of the lighting designer’s fee upfront to secure their services, and importantly their availability, for rehearsals and the technical production period.

I care deeply about how the stage is lit and work hard to ensure that all elements of the production are speaking the same language. I saw two productions by the Scottish opera director Sir David McVicar recently and they encapsulate everything I hate about this type of theatre. Firstly I could not see the singers, either in the Don Giovanni or the Cosi Fan Tutte.

Nigel Levings

He seemed not to give a stuff about singers wandering around trying to act in the dark. Secondly, in the Cosi for example, he chose to ignore everything Mozart had put into the lovers’ final reconciliation music in order to make some point about an ongoing bitter struggle in the relationships. It’s not that I intrinsically object to regietheater. Who could after seeing the brilliant Chéreau Ring?

I just object when directors don’t listen to the text. In some hands these strong directorial statements can work wonderfully to elucidate the text. I did an Orfeo with Barrie Kosky many years ago and I recall one scene in which he had the chorus tapping pencils while they all tried to emulate Orfeo creating his music. There was a sort of jazz syncopation in the pencil tapping that made it immediately clear that this music of Monteverdi was where jazz came from—the birth of the cool many centuries before it hit New York.

“La Boheme” by Puccini, directed by Baz Luhrmann, Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House, 1990. Photo by Branco Gaica.

The actual process of ‘designing’ is relatively simple: you read a script and come to understand the time and place in which the text is set; you analyse the geometry of available lighting positions set by the theatre architecture and by the strictures imposed by the set; you discuss with your colleagues the overall creative approach to the work. In most instances you will then have to prepare a lighting drawing on this basis, particularly if it is a commercial musical. If you are careful you will leave enough wiggle room in the drawing of this rig to take account of developments in the rehearsal room. But in most cases during the rehearsal process you will be looking to see how you can create the lighting imagery from the equipment allocation represented in your lighting drawing.

Working relationships with directors are as varied as any other human relationship. The briefings can be succinct over a coffee or drawn out over weeks. Ultimately it is hard to talk about lighting, the broad approach is usually clear from the set design presentation but the myriad details of transitions and colour tones and visibility gradients can really only be seen when the production is on stage. Sometimes there will be endless discussions and trials of certain effects. The opera Die tote Stadt requires that a portrait of a character’s dead wife comes to life. The director Bruce Beresford and I experimented a lot with a holographic projection technology called Musion which is a contemporary variation of the old theatre trick called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’. In the end we abandoned this option as it only worked for a limited audience angle of view. It was not going to work for the cheap seats.

Directors have many answers to the question of what is good lighting. One such answer might be ‘lighting that I do not have to do myself ’. It is my thesis that the role of the lighting designer developed when the range of equipment and complexity of control got beyond the conditions in which the task could be accomplished by the director and the set designer shouting at the theatre electrician.

My general advice to such directors is that if you get a dog, you do not need to bark yourself.

Today lighting systems allow for an extraordinary level of control over the components of the lighting rig; but such flexibility requires detailed planning and a considerable specialist aptitude for the task. Some directors like to micro-manage all aspects of a performance from the angle of the actor’s hand to the intensity of any one of several hundred lighting instruments. Personally I try to avoid working with these directors. It is clear that they do not really need me and would be happier with an electrician to shout at. My general advice to such directors is that if you get a dog, you do not need to bark yourself.

Directors rehearse performances in spaces where every area of the marked-out space has equal value in terms of its illumination. Into this space they try to create a traffic of the stage that brings to light the internal relationships of the characters and the meaning of the text. By the end of the rehearsal process a pattern of movement around the stage is relatively fixed. In opposition to this is the fact that human beings are phototropic animals. In other words our everyday movements and the positions we adopt in the world are dependent on the lighting conditions in which we find ourselves. In most instances we subconsciously avoid glare, we read where the light is best, we listen intently in the dark. In winter we seek the warmth of the sun, in summer the shade of the trees. As an exercise in power we like to have our backs to the window so others cannot see our face but we can see theirs; at our dinner tables we like a warm interior glow and are comforted by the cosiness induced by the darkness surrounding us. No matter how old and wise we get there is always a residual fear of the absolute dark and all the associations of the unseen that it brings to mind. None of the vast range of human phototropic responses to light are dealt with in the rehearsal space. So it is part of the lighting designer’s task to reverse engineer an emotional architecture of light in the space when no such motivation has been there as part of the rehearsal process.

Opera directors are.. not responsible for the casting and find it easy to blame the performers.

Many times I have seen directors unhappy with one particular aspect of their work—and in even more cases with particular aspects of an actor’s performance. At these times a director’s view of ‘good lighting’ might be that which puts the weaker aspects of the production in the dark. Lighting designers are sometimes called ‘The Princes of Darkness’. Not guilty!

‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ by Astor Piazzola, State Opera of SA, 2010.

In my career it has always been the director who has asked for less light or more darkness. Opera directors are particularly prone to this as they are usually not responsible for the casting and find it easy to blame the performers. To elicit the best work from other members of the creative team, the director needs to encourage their active contribution. It is only when directors can persuade their team that the text in hand is important, and the project valid, that we are in with a chance to create something worthwhile. To enthuse the creative team with their vision of the work enables the director to bring out the best responses from their team. As far as the lighting is concerned this should be something much better than they have ever personally imagined. The set design is sketched and modelled and discussed through many drafts until the ideas and the approach are clear.

The integration of the lighting into the overall production is fundamental to any mark of quality in the design.

The costume designs also go through many drafts before they are carefully drawn and presented; but light cannot be modelled: it is extremely difficult to even discuss the lighting in other than broad terms. For the director, in this case, good lighting is that which takes the ideas and spirit of the work developed in the rehearsal studio, expands and surprises with its interpretation. An elegant and appropriate flow of light from one cue to the next will count highly as good lighting with a director. Most of them spend so much rehearsal time concentrating on the rhythm of the work that an ability to move at the appropriate pace will be highly valued. So we arrive at the understanding that the integration of the lighting into the overall production is fundamental to any mark of quality in the design. How well have the creative team played together? How good is the fit?

“Namatjira” starring Trevor Jamieson as Albert Namatjira, 2010, bigHart and Company B. Photo by Brett Boardman.

I prepare a lighting plan indicating the placement of my chosen lighting equipment in the space. I used to write what I called a ‘shot list’, a list of all those things I needed the lighting design to achieve. My drafting process would then be to draw circles in pencil over a printed copy of the set design plan. These circles represented areas of lighting control. I would give them a letter designation and then go about adding lights to cover the areas, crossing them off my shot list as they went on to the drawing. The rough draft would have a small cross to represent the light position, an arrow indicating the direction it was pointing, a letter to designate the area it was to light and a colour filter number. After the draft process I would place drafting paper over the plan and proceed with stencils and ink to draw the final plan.

From my plan the lighting crew rig and interconnect all this equipment. Then I come to the stage and direct the focus of each individual lighting instrument according to my ‘design’ intentions. Once all these elements are there on stage I finally have the palette of possibilities in place and can begin creating the lighting cues from various combinations of these lights at various intensities. I then rehearse and adjust the flow of the lighting images. I polish and re-jig and amend and re-consider and sometimes start again, until I finish—or more often run out of time. I then collect my cheque and move on to the next job.

Main image: Moonlight and Magnolias directed by Bruce Beresford, Melbourne Theatre Company 2009. Photographer: Jeff Busby.

One response to “A lighting designer tells how the light gets in

  1. I agree about McVicar’s Don Giovanni when I saw it in Melbourne. It just left a nasty taste in the mouth figuratively.


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