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Lighting Kursk: Creating Immersive Environments, and the Politics of the Real

Hansjörg Schmidt is the Programme Director for Lighting Design at Rose Bruford College. Before joining the College in 2008, he worked as a freelance lighting designer. He graduated with a BA (First Class Honours) in Theatre Arts from Goldsmiths College, University of London and an MSc Built Environment: Light and Lighting from the Bartlett School, UCL.

The following article is a version of a presentation that Hansjörg gave at the symposium “Monitoring Scenography 3: Space and Desire“, at Hochschule der Künste, Zürich, on 10 October 2009; it was also published in The Society of British Theatre Designers’ Blue Pages journal. Hansjörg had been invited to talk about his lighting design for Kursk, a theatre production based on the Russian submarine disaster of August 2000 and staged by Sound & Fury Theatre in collaboration with Fuel and the Young Vic Theatre, London. Kursk was written by Bryony Lavery, directed by Mark Espiner and Dan Jones. The set was designed by Jon Bausor, sound by Dan Jones and lighting by Hansjörg Schmidt.


This article will discuss my lighting design for Kursk, an immersive theatre show by the theatre company Sound & Fury and playwright Bryony Lavery. I will outline the collaborative process the creative team went through, and within that will try and explain the way I, as a lighting designer, approached the project: what I found along the way and what, in retrospect, made the lighting and the show tick.

The title of the plenary session in Zurich was Politics of Desire, and at the outset I wasn’t quite sure how, in terms of what Kursk is doing, this would fit with the remit of the session. However, it provided me with a useful alternative look at my own design process: if we look at politics as something that aims to shape our perception of reality to further an agenda or a particular view of what that reality is, or should be, then I suppose for me these politics are that desire is an essential component of making theatre, in any space. This, of course is not a new concept. Peter Brook’s Holy Theatre is driven by desire, and the careful construction of moments when this desire may be fulfilled. More importantly, Brook argues that the Holy Theatre essentially is driven by not fulfilling an audience’s (or an artist’s) desire. Beckett’s work, of course, is quoted as a prime example. So what interests me is in how far one might argue that there can be a Holy Theatre that relies largely, if not exclusively, on scenography rather than text.

When I arrived at Zürich airport, I was struck at how different the airport’s architecture is from the architecture at Heathrow. Heathrow is a mess, a jumble of huts, low corridors, terrible carpets, and no discernable attempt at designing a coherent visual environment. There doesn’t appear to be a system, a matrix that tells you what to do. Zürich has a systematic airport and I wondered, on the way here, about systems of space: what differences are there, and how does a system impact on space and desire? Does a system generate a desire for more systems?

Kursk, as you will see, had a strong conceptual system with powerful roles. But in its senographic presentation these were hard to see: there was no symmetry, no apparent rules to govern the organization of space. Jon Bausor called it an “exploded set”. There seemed to be, however, a desire for simple objects, moments, a last breath of fresh air before the vents are sealed. So we, the company, very early on decided that we would have strict rules: there would be no strong narrative but a chain of routines and observations. There would be a skeletal, suggestive set, with actors and audience numbering the size of the Kursk’s crew (118). The audience would move among the set and actors to give a sense of a crowded space. The lighting was to be simple and contained, suggesting bits of space rather than defining one large environment. The politics of our desire for Kursk were to make it real.

This was the state of our conceptual planning following the research and development phase of the project, before the main block of rehearsals started, and before we went on board HMS Trenchant. We were granted exceptional access to this nuclear hunter killer submarine, and spent a day in Plymouth visiting the boat and the submariners’ training facilities, as well as being able to talk to the boat’s crew.

Following the visit, Jon and I started to panic. We seriously doubted whether we could even remotely do justice to the mess and crazy logic of the space we had just visited. After a while, though, together with Bryony and the company, Jon and I developed a desire to make action, the process of doing things – small, detailed things -, the core of the scenography. So, for me as lighting designer, it started to feel that hanging a theatre spotlight onto a piece of truss in the Young Vic’s concrete ceiling was wrong. Each detail started to acquire huge significance. And, importantly, this did not apply to just the object itself, but also to the process of how it got there. So Jon’s exploded set of small islands connected by corridors was to be lit by lighting objects that had a logical reason to be there.

I need to explain here that a “conventional” theatre light is designed to throw light onto another space, usually far away from where the light has been positioned. For this reason we need the optical system and control of the light beam to be as precise and sophisticated as possible. We also usually are not particularly concerned by the appearance of the light source. We do not necessarily want to see where the light comes from, but what it does at the other end. So, aesthetically, the lighting instrument itself carries no meaning. The space between the source and the surface is interesting, and what happens to that surface. In Kursk, on the other hand, the lights themselves became objects of meaning and importance.

Burt Lancaster in The Killers

As mentioned earlier, apart from an increasing desire to enable the submarine to feel right, rather than to look right, there was a parallel strand to define the boat through action. During the research and development phase for Kursk, I watched Robert Siodmak’s The Killers to further understand a narrative that is driven exclusively by action. Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse discusses the Siodmak film as an example for what the author calls focalization, the process of focusing a narrative through a specific mode of telling. Genette argues that there are two types of focalization: internal and external. In internal focalization, the narrative is focused through the consciousness of a character. In external focalization, the narrative is focused on a character, not through him (such as onto Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers).

In Kursk we have both: there are characters that are externally focused (the “ordinary” sailors), and there are two characters that are internally focussed: the Captain, and the Coxswain. This is purely retrospective, but a visual language emerged that allowed us to use lighting to switch the focus of the narrative: external focus (the routines experienced by the rank and file) usually meant that the boat was alive with the specs and dots of the lighting objects. Internal focus (moments of reflection or inner monologue experienced by the Captain and Coxswain) usually meant that we ended up using lighting more “conventionally” by allowing the light to travel and to light elsewhere.

Kursk - External focalization

External focalization: we observe the routines carried out on the boat. The lighting is object based and there is no specific focus to the lighting language: the whole space is lit. Photo by Keith Pattison.

Kursk - Internal focalization

Internal focalization: a moment of reflection and inner monologue. The light has a specific purpose, which is to focus attention and to condense space. Photo by Keith Pattison.

Finally, I want to briefly look at Kursk in performance, at our treatment of the designed and realized space as a place of theatre, and how we use this space to communicate meaning. As pointed out at the beginning of this paper, one of the driving factors in the genesis of the design was the perception of a need, and the desire to address this urge to create a real environment. So in order to assess in how far we succeeded in filling this void, it is worth going on a brief detour and looking at this image of an installation by Anthony McCall, The Vertical Works 2.

Anthony McCall: The Vertical Works 2

Anthony McCall: The Vertical Works 2.

McCall says that, in his work, he is interested in combining three forms of visual communication: Cinema, Sculpture, and Drawing. Simon McBurney, in a discussion of projection in performance, states that for him Cinema is about the future, Photography about the past, and Theatre about the present. What interests me in both artist’s work is the way they generate meaning by creating a powerful sense of sharing an immediate presence, a moment of truth. To inhabit and celebrate, thereby, a shared space with their audience and to use this space to generate that same sense of desire in an audience that motivated the process of the creative team. It is important to remember this if we think about the immersive space we set out to create for Kursk. The sense of the present that makes theatre such a powerful form of communication became a driving force in the show, and in Bryony’s script. So, time became our other, second factor alongside the importance of the object. As a lighting designer, the management of time is a big responsibility. Put very crudely, I create a series of images that are connected by transitions, called cues. If the image changes, someone somewhere hits a button on a lighting console. I need to decide when that happens, and how quickly it happens.

Schnick Schnack LED battens

Schnick Schnack LED battens, used to light the ship corridors.

In Kursk, for the reasons outlined above, virtually all the lights used are not lights designed for use in theatre. So, apart from not being very good with optical control and light flow, these lights are not using tungsten lamps as they are designed with other factors in mind: smooth dimming curves and short life span are not amongst them. The lamps we used were either discharge or LED. And these do not do slow cross fades, they snap on or off. As a result of this choice, time in Kursk is coarse, is all-action, is not subtle. The lighting fits the brief of Bryony’s script, and works well with the possibilities in Jon’s set.

So, in conclusion, what fascinated me about the process I went through on this extraordinary project was the way it allowed me to create a lighting language that had a depth and functionality that was surprisingly simple, and had been developed through a powerful sense of collaboration. I would like to advocate here the importance of the creative team being able to allow a project to freely inform their process of creating a space, and for this process of creation to be informed by light as a factor equal to scenographic factors used by the set designer. And the other important lesson I learned from doing this was that it is ok, and often essential, to share insecurities with your collaborator. What made my collaboration with Jon Bausor work well was the fact that we would tell each other if we weren’t sure if something would work, or indeed if we thought (as we did following the visit to HMS Trenchant) our carefully thought out design concept would sink without trace. I don’t think it did – make up your mind if you can.

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