I’ve gone grey as my lights got more colourful; here’s hoping they won’t fall out of the grid. So how does the last decade measure up and what does the next one hold? It’s a story of shows, of friends, of venues and of producing companies as much as it is a story of technological and process evolution.
Dance is still my passion. No longer for Cambridge Contemporary Dance after the company re-founded but its back catalogue of 2007-2014 is one to be proud of. Nor for the student dance society (variously Manx Gnat, King’s Contemporary Dance, CU Contemporary Dance Workshop and CU Dance Society). A tough decision after 18 years working with them but it was time to move on and the show was losing its way (and eventually lost its slot). But it was a delight to discover CUTAZZ in 2011 and a decade on their enthusiasm is undimmed and it is sheer joy to work on their shows.
I abandoned paid freelance work in the last decade. While I miss the exposure to other designers, lighting desks, toys and technology on large corporate budgets the money was never good at persuading me to be in London for a 4am call! It’s a different contract with amateur shows. At one extreme you have no need to commit anything for the producing companies that get it wrong; at the other you can expend blood, toil, tears and sweat far beyond what would be economic for the projects you love.
My connections with my student contemporaries have dwindled. I’m delighted to see so many go on to be famous and successful but I miss the development shows at Battersea Arts Centre, the ADC and the Edinburgh fringe. No touring, no trips to London for Resolution at The Place and no taking over Her Majesty’s for Channel 4 on a Sunday afternoon this decade.
The decade gone by was blessed with friends. I am lucky to know so many talented people in Cambridge and for the reciprocal commitments that arise with such a full calendar of amateur shows.
Then there is the drinking club with a theatre problem – or is that the other way around? Despite a decade of designing in Cambridge it took until 2007 for the Penguin Club to recruit me and back in the noughties its shows were lit by one or two usual suspects. So much has changed over the decade and now the club counts a double-digit number of lighting designers working most years and still more opportunities than Penguins. I was even persuaded to serve time on its committee – at least I now have the T-shirt.
Co-designing was the biggest change. There are a lot of facets to a good lighting design – the concepts, style and look, spotting cues in rehearsal, the rig to support the design and implementing and focussing it in the venue, programming, tweaking and operating live, practicals and tuning things as a show beds in. Having overlapping but different skill sets gives a huge boost to the productivity and to the quality of the end result. Co-designing Hot Mikado with Rob Loxley was a “Duh! Why haven’t I co-designed before” moment and it also got me back into lighting musicals. It’s been a productive working relationship and there are many shows to be proud of – Secret Garden for its tight focus enabling the stylised use of colour on such a confined stage, Avenue Q for its outstanding cast and for being hilarious fun, Spamalot for heralding the return of hired sets and for fitting in the venue and Priscilla Queen of the Desert for its sheer scale and ambition to name but a few. There were funny moments and frustrations too – I should tease Rob for vastly increasing his collection of incandescent lightbulbs over the decade though rarely in time for the first night! Although that’s a bit like my collection of dratted Eagle gobos I suppose.
The venues and companies have changed too. Back in 2009 the received wisdom was that the ADC (with more lights than seats in the auditorium) was a fantastically equipped venue and the amateur shows in there were first rate. The Mumford redeveloped right at the start of the decade. It made minor changes to the dimming and invested in a large pile of Source 4 and ADB Fresnels that served it well – the rig was modern and practical and well suited to the space. When the Leys Great Hall re-opened in 2014 they spent the bulk of the money on the infrastructure and left the rig alone. LED’s time was coming and they’ve augmented the rig with new LED fixtures every year since – standard rig is entirely LED and very flexible for it. It’s a great space and a welcome addition to the options for Cambridge drama. The ADC redeveloped the building in multiple phases but until the most recent phase left the lx rig alone. I often think the ADC has suffered from its starting point of being well equipped as it has been overtaken by venues that were less equipped but spent the money more recently. It’s Patt 243s are 59 years old this year! If it retired its conventionals faster it would have a more suitable and flexible LED rig – and supporting the conventionals with a brand new 120 ways of dimming right at the end of the decade was surely bonkers.
Cambridge has a great pool of performing talent but I worry that the producing companies have not kept pace with the changes to technology and the production process. And the less said about the show budgets the better. The ADC ticket pricing is a contributory factor – it’s depressing to see amateur shows elsewhere sell for twice the price and the results are clear to see on stage. Cambridge Theatre Company deserve a mention here for bucking the trend – for its ambition and high production values and for proving you can make this work on decent budgets outside the ADC. I don’t wish to be negative about the other companies – I would love nothing more than to see Festival Players and Pied Pipers explore other venues, CaOS do more modern shows like Sister Act, and maybe another town group return to the Arts theatre.
Technology has been continually evolving over the decade. A decade has gone by where I haven’t drawn a paper lighting plan and haven’t used a Strand lighting desk. For the big shows they were all pre-plotted and all have rehearsals captured on video (latterly in HD). Most were pre-visualised. At the start of the decade my shows were mostly lit with conventionals – today they are a rarity. ETC have made huge progress – back at the start of the decade my rant “Ramblings of a grumpy Strand user” was the top hit in Google if you searched “ETC Ion Strand“. But continual improvements to the software, good customer support, retirement of the wretched Ion face panel layout, timecode and a competent offline mean the rant has deservedly slipped to at least sixth. The iPad, released in 2010, is now a default control surface for wandering around the venue with. Programming operates at a higher level – fewer numbers, less writing fixture profiles, more labels and reference data. User interfaces have improved and you can pretty much organise your control surface how you like.
Programming wings are commonplace. Interoperability with MIDI, Ethernet, media servers and show control has all improved. A lot more can be done outside of the venue. I can now pre-visualise in gratuitous 4K UHD!
Predictions are hard – especially about the future. What for the decade ahead? Despite the leaps and bounds it has made control of lighting has much room to improve. Augment 3D is one to watch – as is the general potential of AR when combined with an understanding of the underlying geometry of your production space. I suspect my gel guillotine will gather dust for the decade ahead. While I don’t know what will replace it DMX as a form of control is daft and running up against limits. Who knows someone might even come up with a wireless control system you can trust – although I’d put power and data over the same cable as an alternative contender given lights are always going to need power. I hope and pray the world gets better at colour space management and colour calibration. Visualisers need to become more accessible and more integrated with control systems. Better interchange of data (control and optical performance) between manufacturers, control systems and visualisers.
What do I regret? Mostly that I focussed so hard on what I was doing I rarely had time to capture it on camera. My eternal thanks to Duncan Grisby, Claude Schneider, Rob Loxley, Peter Buncombe and many more for capturing some of what I’ve illuminated. Perhaps I don’t regret failing to buy a van load of Vari*Lite VL2000s. Perhaps.
What of the decade ahead? I should probably light some drama. I plan to raise my game, work harder and strive for better shows. Mainly though I plan to spend more time in the moment.
Happy New Year!