Working as a lighting designer

 19 April 2012

Bruno Poet is an award-winning lighting designer who has worked extensively with theatre and opera companies all over the world.

In 2012, Bruno won the Olivier Award for Best Lighting Design for his work on Frankenstein at the National Theatre.
In 2012, Bruno won the Olivier Award for Best Lighting Design for his work on Frankenstein at the National Theatre.

"I’m very proud that I’m earning a living as a lighting designer. I’m proud of the shows I create, the images I make, the way that one picture moves into another with lights, when it works with the music and everything comes together.

"I really enjoy the process, working with lots of different people in lots of different countries.

"I enjoy the fact that I work four weeks on this show and then I’m onto the next one, and there are some friends and creative relationships you build through that – directors you come back and work with again."

The role of the lighting designer

"The most basic job of the lighting designer is to illuminate the action on the stage so the audience can actually see what’s happening.

"You can make fantastic pictures out of lights, and you’re working in exciting theatres."

"Beyond that, it’s about helping tell the story, either by focusing on certain people on the stage, or giving an atmosphere or a mood, suggesting a time of day, reacting to the music.

"You work with the director and the set designer to create visual stage pictures, which hopefully enhance the storytelling and the audience’s connection to it."

"Lighting design is kind of art for people who can’t draw. You can make fantastic pictures out of lights, and you’re working in exciting theatres on different levels from opera to theatre to dance.

"You’re involved in creative teams and making the whole thing happen, but you’re also involved in the technical side (it’s realised by electrical and mechanical equipment and you have to understand how that works), so I do enjoy the balance of the technical side and the artistic side.

"I have a foot in the camp with the director and the actors, but also with the crew, the technicians, so you’re sort of covering all aspects of theatre, and I enjoy that."

Working in lighting design

"As an example of my typical day, this morning I did some work on my laptop, doing some design for a show I’m doing in Athens next month.

"That’s just working on plan drawings: thinking of ideas and working out how to realise them practically and drawing lights on a plan to make that happen. That’s an on-going thing that I’ve got to work on and deliver this week.

"Then I went into the theatre to see what’s essentially the next stage in the process. They’ve got my plan and they’re actually rigging the lights in the theatre at the moment.

"You work to create visual stage pictures, which hopefully enhance the storytelling and the audience’s connection to it."

"I went along to make sure everything was okay, to see if they had any questions. We wanted to test a particular light to see what it did, so we did that too.

"At the moment on stage they’re rigging my lights and also building the set, so there’s an army of technicians there putting the whole thing together.

"This afternoon and this evening I’ll be in the rehearsal room, watching rehearsals with the director, looking at what they’re doing and imagining what they’re going to look like under my lights.

"So I get pictures in my head of what each moment is going to look like, which then hopefully I can create on stage later on next week when we put the whole thing together."

The stages of lighting set-up

1. Rigging

"The current stage is rigging the lights in the theatre and I’m watching rehearsals. Then we’ll have a rehearsal-room run-through, which I’ll watch. That’s sort of the end of the process in the rehearsal room and rehearsals then move on stage.

"In the meantime, we have focusing. All the sets have been built, all the lights have been rigged and made to work. Focusing is when we go to each light individually, turn it on, and point it to the part of the stage I want it to be.

"Lights can be zoomed so they’re bigger or smaller, with sharp or soft edges, which can be shaped with shutters or barn doors, mechanisms which can square the edges of the beam. The colour I want them to be is put in front of them."

2. Plotting

"Next is plotting, where I sit in the auditorium, normally with the director, and the set’s arranged as it would be for the first scene.

"Then I’ll choose which lights are to be turned on at what intensity, so I’ll be rattling off numbers to someone else who’s controlling the lights on a kind of computer.

"We make a basic look for each scene – without any of the cast there, normally with just people standing in for them – balancing very roughly what each picture is going to look like."

3. Lit rehearsals

"Then we have lit rehearsals. In opera it’s slightly different from theatre: we just light over the top of what the rehearsals are doing on stage and then I adjust the lights accordingly.

"We then bring in the orchestra and you have orchestra rehearsals. Again, I’m working on the lighting over the top of the orchestra rehearsals.

"Eventually you get to dress rehearsal and then opening night. Hopefully by opening night everything’s fixed, it’s all programmed into the computer, ready to perform in front of an audience.

"And then after opening night I go onto the next one…"

Getting into lighting design

"I did a degree in geography, and spent all my time as a student messing around in the theatre. I got approached quite early and asked to help. I really enjoyed it and worked my way up the university heap and ended up doing the lighting design for lots of student shows.

"Observe other lighting designers. Be sensitive to what they’re doing. Watch, look and learn."

"From then on I decided not to go and get a proper job. I spent a few years working as crew to earn money doing whatever – flying, follow-spots, scene-changes.

"And also trying to design my own shows for the experience, unpaid work in small theatres.

"I then spent a while assisting two other lighting designers, Ben Ormerod and Paule Constable, who were very well-established. I assisted them taking their shows on tour, so recreating their designs in different theatres, which is fantastic experience.

"Then I started getting my own shows to light,. Eventually it all started moving, and now I’m earning a living doing it."

Finding work as a lighting designer

"Lighting designers tend to be employed by directors. So it’s about a director I’ve worked with, maybe in the UK, getting offered a job in Geneva and asks me to come and light it.

"Or a designer I’ve worked with recommends me to a director, who asks me to come and do the show. Then we get on well and so he asks me to do the next one.

"Lighting designers will do 12-15 shows in a year, a director may do three or four, a set designer may do about six. So lighting designers are involved for a shorter, more intense time at the end of each rehearsal process, and we swap around between teams a lot more.

"Directors and designers often work together all the time, but they may work with several different lighting designers."

Advice for a career in lighting design

"Light everything you possibly can. It’s horrible, but you do have to do the fringe theatre thing and work for no money, you have to go and observe other lighting designers working. And if you do that, be sensitive to what they’re doing. Watch, look and learn.

"I’m proud of the way that one picture moves into another with lights, when it works with the music and everything comes together."

"A lot of people want to work in the industry, and there are not that many paid jobs, and those jobs that are paid aren’t that well paid.

"So there’s no money and also great demand, a lot of people trying to get the same jobs.

"When you get to a certain level it feels there are fewer people around. Once you’re established you seem to have moved onto to a level where you can keep working."

Lighting design as a long-term career

"What’s hard for me is I’ve got a wife and a young daughter, and my job when I’m working nearly always involves days that start at 9am and finish at 11pm.

"I normally work Saturdays, often Sundays as well, and a lot of the time I’m working away from home. So what’s really hard is to balance the enjoyment of doing the show with the conflict of family life.

"Also the freelance world of finances mean: do I have two weeks at home, or do I say yes to another show and earn some more money? How do you balance that need to pay the bills with the need to be at home, with the need to keep going in your career?

"What I like about opera is that it books along way ahead. So that does mean I can plan family life slightly better than theatre.

"In the future, it would be good to combine the subsidised theatre with more commercial theatre, just so there’s a better financial balance.

"Commercial theatre works slightly differently. The initial fee is about the same, but if it’s a successful show then you earn a royalty on ticket sales, so once you’ve done the job every time somebody buys a ticket you get a tiny amount of money.

"Potentially it means you light a show once and it runs for five years, then you get a chunk of money coming in every week. Lighting designers have made a lot of money doing that."

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