Nick is Head of the School of Design, Management and Technical Arts at Rose Bruford College. Nick’s research interests include the performative nature of stage lighting, digital scenography and digital performance, the history of theatre lighting, and the roles and status of the various personnel involved in theatre-making.
My publications and papers include:
- “Absence and Unfolding: Approaching a new understanding of the lighting designer’s creative process”, a paper for the OISTAT Education Commission / History and Theory Commission conference in Helsinki, June 2008. Also presented at the TaPRA 2008 conference in Leeds, September 2008.
- “Pasteboard Temples and Liminal Spaces: Using new projection technologies to illuminate modernist and postmodernist theory in vocational undergraduate and postgraduate teaching”, a paper for the Second International Conference for Digital Technologies and Performance Arts, University Centre, Doncaster College, June 26th – 28th 2006.
- “Techne, Technology, Technician: The creative practices of the mastercraftsperson”, a paper for Performance Research.
- “A Play of Light”, a paper given at Showlight 2001 in Edinburgh, arguing that theatre lighting should be ‘performed’ live rather than pre-recorded.
- I was the editor of Focus, the magazine of the Association of Lighting Designers, from 1993 until 2000.
“Pasteboard Temples and Liminal Spaces: Using new projection technologies to illuminate modernist and postmodernist theory in vocational undergraduate and postgraduate teaching”
Abstract of a paper given at the Second International Conference for Digital Technologies and Performance Arts, University Centre, Doncaster College, June 26th – 28th 2006.
Students studying on vocational courses, such as the BA (Hons) Lighting Design and MA Theatre Practices programmes at Rose Bruford College, often focus on “doing”, and bring with them a perceived need to develop practical skills that will prepare them for professional practice. Engaging such students with the wider cultural, historical, aesthetic and theoretical context within which their practice exists can be difficult, not least because the academic “ways of thinking” that such knowledges have traditionally demanded seem to be at odds with the “ways of doing” of vocationally-oriented students.The paper describes two practical projects undertaken by Rose Bruford undergraduate and postgraduate students, through which they have successfully engaged with theories of modernism and postmodernism, and with the implications of those theories for scenographic design. Both projects began with the same observation: that certain uses of projection (exemplified by Bill Dudley’s digital scenery for The Woman in White, but also seen in the work of many experimental theatre artists) can be seen as a return to 18th and 19th Century scenic approaches in which live performers act “in front of” a painted/projected scenic environment. If Adolphe Appia’s rejection of such “pasteboard temple[s]” marks a modernist desire to integrate and unify all the elements of performance and place them at the service of the originating artist, then recent uses of digital media can be read as a (sometimes unconscious) postmodern embracing of fragmentation and dislocation.
Starting from this observation, both projects attempted to bridge the divide between projected scenery and live performer. The first did so by making both projection and performer equally responsible for expressing characterisation. The second used various staging, lighting and digital projection techniques to create an environment that the performer was “in”, not “in front of”. In the case of both projects, students used perspectives on modernism and postmodernism both to understand the project’s issues and to “read” their own work, as well as to stimulate new approaches and ideas.
The paper includes short video excerpts from the two performances.
[More information about the two performances, and some images, here]
This paper was presented at the Showlight 2001 conference in Edinburgh, on 23rd May 2001. In it I argue that theatre lighting should be ‘performed’ live rather than pre-recorded for automated replay in performance.
The Search for Inspiration
Lighting for the theatre is a comparatively young art, with lighting design only becoming a recognised, specialist discipline around fifty years ago. In particular, the control of light in performance has been limited in its sophistication by the technology available. The arrival (from the 1970’s onwards) of computerised systems means that rather than asking the question “how can we control our lighting?” we are now able to ask “how do we want to control our lighting?”.
However, looking at the current developments in lighting control suggests that change tends to be evolutionary not revolutionary, with many concepts rooted in a past when lighting controls were heavily constrained by technology. So where might we look for inspiration and guidance for such change? Comparison with other, older performance forms such as music may offer useful insights.
Visit the lighting control room of a theatre during a performance of a musical, opera or ballet, and watch the lighting operator at work. For the most part, he or she will be cued by the stage manager either by cue-light or verbally via headsets, or both. In response to the cue, the lighting operator presses the “go” button – and that’s it. Meanwhile in the orchestra pit, things are very different: whenever music is being played, the musicians are either watching the performers on stage, looking at the other musicians or conductor, or following the score. Why are the musicians so much more engaged with the live performance compared to the lighting operator? Could the musicians’ approach have something to offer the performance of lighting? Might it be useful to compare light and music?
Light & Music
That there should be a relationship between light and music seems natural, almost instinctive. It is built into our language: words such as colour, brilliance, tone, and chromatic are used in relation to both music and light. Considering light as part of a stage performance, and comparing it with music, we can see strong similarities.
Both exist in time
Theatrical performance (and hence stage lighting) and music both have a time dimension; unlike, say, painting or sculpture. Furthermore, they are both defined in time; that is, they have a limited duration. This leads them both to have the potential for narrative structure or the development of themes and ideas, since they can present their material in a predetermined order. This contrasts with arts such as painting where the artist has little control over the order in which the elements of the work are experienced. For music and lighting, then, dynamics are important; that is, the relationship between what the audience is experiencing now and what it experienced before and what it will experience next.
Lighting designers will be familiar with the experience of watching a rehearsal and knowing that a lighting cue is needed, without necessarily knowing what the cue should do. The nature of the change is less important than the fact of change.
Both are live
Richard Eyre has described theatre as the “art of the present tense”. Stage lighting, like the performance that it is a part of, is live, created afresh in front of the audience each time. This “liveness” is the feature of theatre that distinguishes it from drama on film or television. So what is so special about a live performance?
Responding to other performers
Firstly, if all the performance elements are live, then they are free to interact. The members of a band or orchestra may be lead by a conductor, but they listen to each other, responding to the music as it is being made. It is hard to say exactly what effect this has, but that it has an effect is undeniable. Once the technology allowed it, classical music went through a phase of recording large orchestral works in many takes, editing and reconstructing the performance afterwards. This allows errors to be eliminated, creating the “perfect” performance, but the result has a clinical, manufactured quality. The tendency now is to record in as few takes as possible, and to leave in minor errors for the sake of continuity and a sense of real musicians making music together.
The same is true of other music forms; in rock, jazz, pop, etc., live albums are still enthusiastically bought even though they rarely equal the studio equivalents for technical quality. To the listener it is more important to feel the atmosphere of the live event than it is to avoid every little slip or glitch.
If this is true in music, why in the theatre do we insist on adding pre-recorded lighting to the live performance of the actors?
There is a second aspect to the question of what is special about live performance: chance. When we create something live, there is always the possibility that it will go wrong, that disaster can strike at any moment. The theatre audience knows this, and I believe relishes it. Part of the pleasure in watching a performance is enjoying the skill with which it is done: we enjoy good acting or good musicianship as much as we enjoy the performance that is given. Part of the skill is in taking risks and, despite them, succeeding.
And not just succeeding: there is the possibility that the performance will go beyond success; that the elements of the performance will sometimes come together and “click”, with all the pieces combining to form a transcendent whole. If we insist on our lighting being pre-recorded, then we cut ourselves of from this happy chance, from serendipity.
How lighting controls must change
If we accept, as I believe we must, that lighting operation should return to being more “live”, then how can our lighting controls allow this?
It is interesting to compare a typical musical instrument and a typical lighting playback system.
The keyboard has been a common interface for musical instruments for centuries. With eighty plus keys and two pedals, a piano keeps ten fingers and two feet fully occupied, and an organ may offer substantially more controls all of which are available simultaneously. And of course, a band or orchestra may contain many musicians, each with their instrument.
Compare this with a theatre lighting desk; while a large number of controls are available in theory, in practice the number used is one – the “Go” button.
We must develop lighting controls that can use the full capabilities of the operator to manipulate the lighting in complex and subtle ways in real time.
Automatic and manual
Of course, some lighting changes clearly benefit from fully automated operation; a fifteen-minute sunset cue for example. Lighting controls must allow both manual and a range of “computer assisted” modes. For example, we might have several playbacks, each of which can be run in full manual mode or automatic with various types of override.
These facilities are available on existing lighting desks, but they are often so poorly implemented that it is clear that the designers do not really expect anyone to run cues in anything other than “Go Button” mode. Manual faders are positioned such that the operator cannot get their hands to them without the risk of pressing various other buttons. Cheap faders are not smooth or provide insufficient resistance to movement, making jerky fades inevitable. Some desks even require you to press the “Go” button to load a manual cue onto the faders.
What we need is a desk with multiple playbacks of different kinds. Nearest to what we are familiar with would be the “Go Button” playback, but with an override available for the cue time in the form of a centre-sprung lever, similar to the pitch-bend controls found on electronic keyboards.
Next might be a classic manual cross fade playback, with two faders of the quadrant pattern that used to be found on Strand desks such as MMS. Micro switches at the start and end of the fader’s travel tell the desk when the cue starts and ends, but just as importantly, they give audible feedback to the operator. Remember that the operator will not be looking at the position of the faders, but at the light on stage. The faders must be smooth, and with an adjustable action so that they can be kept that way. Some resistance to movement is desirable, and this should be adjustable. Ideally this adjustment can be set on a cue by cue basis, so that slow cues can be operated against a greater resistance.
Finally a series of piano style keys could allow the various elements of a multi-part cue sequence to be triggered. Appropriately weighted or sprung keys could be velocity sensitive so that the harder the key is played the faster the cue runs. This would be ideal for the rapid cuing sequences often found in musicals.
The desk would automatically handle the loading of cues onto the desired playback, and cues could be switched from one playback to another at any time, even in mid cue.
The limitations of the state/cue model
Earlier I mentioned how important dynamics are in the live performing arts. So far the things I have suggested have been based on our existing ideas of how lighting should be structured. This is a model that is based on states – static stage lighting pictures. As lighting designers, we tend to focus on the creation of these states, and once they are decided upon we work out how we are going to get from one to another. Inexperienced lighting designers often have problems because they create a lighting state without giving enough thought to how they will get into it and out of it to the next state. This is hardly surprising, when the state/cue model enshrined in every lighting control positively discourages it. The emphasis then is on the static pictures, not the dynamics of change. Is there perhaps a lighting model that promotes the dynamics above the pictures?
The lighting score
One possible approach is to think of the lighting as a series of elements, such as the back light, a colour wash, the face light, and perhaps cyclorama colours. Each element would be plotted along a timeline, representing the duration of the performance – the lighting equivalent of a musical score. Obviously, a live performance by its very nature varies in its timing, so a series of cues would be given to the control desk at critical points during the stage action. Some of these would trigger lighting events just as cues do now, but others would simply be used to keep the lighting and the rest of the performance synchronised. The desk would speed up or slow down the flow along the timeline as required.
In this way, the point at which lighting changes finish, as well as when they start, could be controlled accurately. For example, the fifteen minute sunset would be adjusted as it runs to make it complete at exactly the dramatically correct moment, something that is hit-and-miss with our current theatre desks running a timed cross fade.
With moving lights included in the rig, the timeline approach could be applied to all the various parameters available, with different “staves” of the score showing, and allowing the manipulation of, intensity, colour, direction, etc. How much easier it would be to tell the control desk “here the intensity should increase, and there the colour should become warmer”, rather than having to chop the lighting into static snapshots all the time.
I am not suggesting that the above ideas are the only way to go; they are just a few possible approaches to restoring to our lighting controls what the late Fred Bentham called “playability”. And it is time for lighting to regain its place with the other live elements of theatrical performance, to join the actors, dancers and musicians in performing. It is time for lighting designers and operators to risk failure in order to chance success, as all performers do.
Nick Hunt, © 2001
“Techne, Technology, Technician: The creative practices of the mastercraftsperson”
A paper for Performance Research, co-authored with Professor Susan Melrose. The paper attempts a theoretical approach to the creative practices of the theatre technician, in order to see beyond the ‘procedural’ model by which such practices are usually understood. See Performance Research 10(4), pp.70–82.
“Absence and Unfolding: Approaching a new understanding of the lighting designer’s creative process”
Abstract of a paper given at the OISTAT Education Commission / History and Theory Commission meeting, Helsinki, June 2008
In the UK, theatre lighting designers are employed under contracts that centre on the notion of intellectual property: the lighting designer is paid a fee to create a conceptual object – the design – which is the intellectual property that is then made available to the management for use in the production. Lighting textbooks generally imply a two-part process in which the design is firstly researched and imagined, and secondly realised and deployed. It is this widely-held model, which separates the creative but abstract act of imagining from the procedural and physical act of realisation, that I challenge in the paper.
Drawing on the experience of practising lighting designers (including professionals, my own experience, and that of lighting design students at Rose Bruford College) together with theoretical approaches to creative practices in the arts and sciences, I argue for a model of lighting design as a process of unfolding. If the design is an object, then it is characteristically a dynamic one that unfolds over time, elusive and never fully present, having many partial instantiations: sketches, plans, conversations, configurations of equipment, computer data, light on stage. Borrowing from Gilles Deleuze’s account of the creative process of the painter Francis Bacon, I argue that the accidental has an essential role to play in lighting designers’ processes, as they seek to avoid cliché and bring the lighting forth into the performance.
As well as offering an alternative account of the process of lighting design, my paper brings together academic theory and professional practice so that each can illuminate the other, and so that lighting designers – student and professional – can develop a richer self-understanding.
My research projects are in the areas of:
- Lighting Control and the Role of the Lighting Artist in Performance
- Digital Scenography and Digital Performance
I am currently researching towards my doctoral thesis, provisionally entitled Repositioning the Role of the Lighting Artist in Live Theatre Performance Using Digital Technology. You can find more information on my personal website here.
As part of my research, I have been investigating early electric lighting controls, in particular the Grand Master and the Light Console; more information on my website here.
Manufacturer’s publicity picture of the 1950 Light Console for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. From the collection of Adam Grater.
I have lead several investigations into the use of digital technologies in performance, centering on the relationships between light, space, image and performer:
Pygmalion, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, direction and music by Stephen Baystead. Music Theatre Symposium, Rose Bruford College, May 2003.
Rousseau’s 1770 work was arguably the first melodrama, alternating spoken text that moved the action forward with musical interludes that established the emotional tone of the next scene. I designed lighting and video projection, together with a show control system to synchronise the lighting and video with pre-recorded music and monologues.
Her Superior Exterior, based on a song from Sondheim’s musical Follies. Many Voices Symposium, Rose Bruford College, May 2004.
This project brought together under- and post-graduate lighting design students with a range of digital technologies (video, LED lighting, computerised show control) to explore how a character might be primarily expressed through visual media. The project also engaged modernist and postmodernist theories to inform the practice. I devised and tutored the project.
[I presented this project as part of my paper “Pasteboard Temples and Liminal Spaces“]
Patterns of Chaos, a contemporary dance piece directed and designed by Rachel Nicholson, Studio Theatre, Rose Bruford College, June 2005.
This MA final project sought to develop video projection techniques that would place the dancers within, rather than in front of, the projected images. I tutored the project.
[I presented this project as part of my paper “Pasteboard Temples and Liminal Spaces“]