When I was nineteen or thereabout, and a hopeful drama student, a teacher brought us to see Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance. It was a lovely, lovely production, directed by Massimo Castri. Everything was perfect – direction, actors, costumes, scenes – but what I truly remember, more than twenty years later, are the lights.
Nothing fancy, mind: the summer morning at curtain up, and then the day’s progression, and candlelight at night… all done – I think now – with whites and yellows, and little more. Ah! Back then I hardly knew there was such a thing as lighting design at all, but I truly wish I could remember or find out who was the lighting designer, because, as far as lights go, that night was my imprinting.
It took me ages to understand that. I had to go through an infatuation for playing, then to write a novel with a hero working backstage, then walk away from theatre, then walk back as a playwright, and an understudy, and a stage manager, and an assistant director… And I don’t quite know how it happened, but at some point I found myself at the lighting board, and, before I knew, unofficially designing lights.
And from the very first time someone yelled at me “do think up something, there’s a good girl,” I tried to recreate what I had seen in that long ago Marivaux – with whites, and yellows, and oranges. And saw that the learning curve is very, very steep when trying to do it alone. One goes by trial and error (many, many errors), especially when working with a very small company, people who have no theatre of their own, and tour quite a bit. One often works with hired backstage people who hardly bothered to read the play, and have stage experience enough to cram in a thimble, with room for three aspirin. One would dearly like to be guided, and has to stumble, dragging along an electrician or two… Not to mention the fact that There Is Never Time For a Proper Tech Rehearsal – or there would be in theory, but it always gets swallowed up by something else, and how come you’re not ready? Didn’t you have a whole afternoon for this stuff?
Then you read Judith Cook’s Backstage, and weep a little on finding out that they have much the same kind of trouble at the Royal Shakespeare Company – only unfathomably bigger… Except, let us be honest: when you are trying to patch up your lights at the last minute, after Someone Changed Something minutes before curtain-up, the RSC’s lighting troubles are the last of your thoughts.
Oh, and what about the times when you finds yourself with equipment whose working can be summed as on/off? Or with immoveable pairs of luminaires in such delicate hues as ox-blood, Smurf blue, mint syrup, and jaundice yellow, and oh, but it’s not like the dimmers work? Or else one of those boards with a dozen colours meant for rock concerts, and a gazillion intermediate hues, if only you had the time to find them out – but there is never time, and who cares anyway, after all yellow is yellow?
At times it is like trying to paint a watercolour with a pack of neon highlighters… And yet. And yet I love it, and go on by trial and error, and make experiments, and get electricians used to my eccentric ways, and sometimes manage something that isn’t too ugly to look at, and love it when we play in the open, so we can have some real fire onstage… And this is the year when I begin my apprenticeship in the matter. I’ve fount myself a real technician-cum-designer, who won’t object too much if I sit by him as he works, and – if I behave – might even let me help sometimes…
And some day I’ll be able to recreate that long ago made-up summer morning. It’s a kind of quest, after all: a quest after Unreal Sunlight.