LET THERE BE LIGHT: Lighting Designer Neil Austin On Collaboration, Storytelling and CURSED CHILD

By: Aug. 28, 2016
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The second instalment of LET THERE BE LIGHT, our new series showcasing some of Britain's best theatrical lighting designers, focuses on Neil Austin. His diverse body of work ranges from productions at National Theatre and collaborations with directors like Howard Davies and Michael Grandage to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

What was your first theatre experience?

My dad is a massive musical theatre fan and Mum's a fan of ballet. So my early experiences were sitting on booster cushions in the balconies of West End theatres. Of course, it was a magical experience and had a great influence on me. I'd sit there, firstly thinking I'm not doing homework, great, but then realising that I'm in this extraordinary environment, having this fantastic shared experience.

What sparked your interest in lighting?

I didn't like being on stage in school plays - the idea filled me with dread. But then, when I was 15, my school built a new theatre. Not a single teacher had any interest in the technical side, so backstage became this boy-led fiefdom where you got to try stuff. That was far more fun, because you're right at the core of the show, making exciting decisions, and you have more control.

Did you train or learn on the job?

When I left school, I was the only one in my year not to go to university (I definitely dragged their averages down!). I did a technical theatre course at Guildhall instead - at that stage, the only lighting courses were in America and I didn't have the grades or cash for that. But it was the best thing I could have done. I didn't know how to get into the industry - I had no familial links - but Guildhall gave me a grounding in all technical disciplines, allowing me an insight into what everyone else was doing. That overview of the industry was wonderful.

I graduated and became resident lighting designer and deputy electrician at the Redgrave Theatre in Farnham, one of the last reps. Unfortunately, it lost its funding within a fortnight of me taking the job, so I was only there for four months before it closed. After that, I had to work for free on the fringe. I subsidised all my early design work in theatre by working as an electrician on industrial trade shows - a week of work on one of them could sustain me for three weeks in fringe theatre.

I really think the business has become much less fair. What used to be a system of paid apprenticeships through rep theatre has gone, and you now need to have another source of income. You're effectively paying for your own apprenticeship.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,
Palace Theatre, 2016

How did you get your break?

Becoming Mark Henderson's assistant was a major break, working with him on Peter Hall's season at the Old Vic back in 1997. The other big break came from Mick Gordon, a director I had worked with at Battersea Arts Centre in 1995. He later became Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill and brought in all his previous collaborators. We continued to work together as his career burgeoned - all the way to the National Theatre. Often directors get a leg up to the next level in the industry but don't take others with them - Mick was exceptionally generous and loyal, and took us all the way.

Did you know where you wanted to work?

The National Theatre for sure - that was the goal. I used to go after school, standing at the back to watch the shows. I fell in love with the place and everything it stood for. One of my proudest achievements is knowing that, on two separate occasions, I've had shows running in all three theatres at the National on the same night.

How do you choose the shows you want to work on?

It's a combination of the people involved and the piece. Generally a lot of the choices are based on trusting your regular collaborators to choose interesting projects.

Actually, on Cursed Child I'm with a team I've never worked with before; it came about from John Tiffany and Sonia Friedman kindly suggesting me. It's so extraordinary to be involved with this project - I never imagined I would be.

And Sonia and Colin Callender have been brilliantly nurturing. They knew from the very start what their vision was, chose people they thought could deliver it, gave them the financial and creative facilities, and let them get on with it. In the subsidised sector there's very little interference, but in commercial often the producer is standing behind you saying "No no no, I want it pink here!" and you think "What are you talking about?" But they're bankrolling, so it's difficult. Cursed Child has been the complete opposite - just an utter delight.

At what stage are you brought in?

Often right at the beginning. Sometimes a director will say "I'm thinking of doing this show, but I don't have a theatre yet. Can you keep those two months free just in case?" Then you draw up a plan based on the model well before rehearsals, pull away for a bit, and come back for an intense block of work at the end.

Unusually for Cursed Child I was in the rehearsal room for the whole period. It was revelatory, watching what everyone else did. I hadn't realised how much time they have to experiment - like the actor trying things out 100 different ways, or the writer redrafting. I did sit on my hands sometimes, desperate to jump in, but it was definitely worthwhile being able to point out a few bits, knowing if you do X on that part of the stage it might not work, but here it will.

The biggest challenge we have in Cursed Child is what you don't light or can't light, because you'll reveal too much. We call it facilitators versus ninjas - facilitators can be seen, like the actors pushing the staircases, versus everything you're hopefully unaware of in the shadows.

Photograph 51, Noel Coward Theatre, 2015

Do you think people understand the role of lighting?

No, I'm not sure they completely understand how much their perceptions, emotions and understanding of a piece are being manipulated by the lighting. It's the hidden hand guiding your attention. I compare it to the film roles of director of photography, focus-puller, editor and colourist all combined into one.

There's also confusion about roles within the creative team. People imagine that the person credited as designer is the head designer at the top of a pyramid structure. It's actually linear - the set designer, costume designer, lighting designer and sound designer are all of equal weight within the team, and we come together with different skillsets and ideas for how our discipline can contribute.

Would you like lighting to be recognised more?

Well, when it works perfectly the audience shouldn't be aware of it. If you notice it, it's drawing you out of the piece - sometimes it's supposed to be, but normally it should be invisible. Part of what drew me to lighting design in the first place was not being noticed, but having a massive effect on the storytelling.

Being noticed more is not necessarily a good thing. I remember redesigning a Frederick Ashton piece from the 1980s at the Royal Ballet. As Ashton was long dead, the design team were on our own - it was my first ballet and so naturally I approached it like a play and went for a dark and atmospheric look. On opening night the designers took our curtain call and we were booed. I'll never forget the headlines of the reviews the next day - "Dancing in the dark" from the Independent and "Lovely dancing, shame about the lighting" from the Guardian. I'm very glad there are usually lots more people ahead of me in the firing line!

Are directors good at communicating what they want from lighting?

There's usually a clear central vision for the entire piece, but many directors and designers understand how much lighting designers can bring to it and leave you free to interpret. Some try to micromanage everything - you don't want to work with those ones again.

Howard Davies is terrifically lighting savvy; he really knows what he wants. He prefers it a touch more colourful than I do, so I try to persuade him into a more muted palette, but we work very well together.

With Michael Grandage, like with any director, when we first worked together, we had long chats about lighting, but now, it's this wonderful relationship where it's obvious to me what's needed, so we hardly say a word to each other and he leaves me to just get on with it.

The Dazzle, Found111, 2015

How many projects do you tend to take on?

Sometimes 12, sometimes 20. Last year I worked like a dog, and I thought "Why did I say yes to all of these?". Right at the end, when I was ready to break, I had one more show to do before Christmas - The Dazzle at Found111 - but that ended up being one of the most rewarding jobs of the year. I got to rig lights myself, standing on a chair to focus them, remembering that a single light can create a scene.

It's lovely to get back in touch with that simplicity. The Donmar is probably the perfect size in that sense, where one light at 20% can do the job. It's harder to get the purity of a single shadow in bigger venues.

How have technical innovations affected your work?

It's made so many more things possible, and that has allowed us to push ourselves as creatives. Moving lights allow lighting to achieve more looks in a show and for decisions to be possible later in the process.

LED is another great innovation. Lighting designers were worried about the introduction of LED - to start with it didn't dim well - but now it's much better and it releases us from the terror of choosing colours in advance, as they can create (nearly) every colour in the spectrum. So, again, you can make last-minute colour decisions and changes.

But all of this technology is at the behest of one thing: telling the story. Our work should always be aiding the playwright to do that. I'm so proud of Harry Potter, because it's a love letter to theatre. We've got people coming who've never been to the theatre before, and as a creative, you can really say "Yes, this is the one to come to - if you're not dying to come back to the theatre at the end of this, it might not be something you're going to love."

Sometimes you see school kids trooping into a mediocre show and you think "We've lost them." I was lucky enough to be taken to the theatre as a kid and discover it's a magical place. It's so rewarding to be able to pass that on.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,
Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York, 2013

What are the big differences between the UK and US?

The US is very commercial. It's a great working environment - the strong unions ensure you have a career and can support a family. But the cost of that is passed onto the public through ticket prices.

Also, because of the pressures of commerce, people's careers get started much later - in the UK's subsidised sector there is an inherent responsibility, with public money invested in the industry, to find new talent and support the next generation. It's harder to persuade someone to take that chance when their aim is to turn a profit - they naturally want the most experienced people, to protect their investment.

Who inspires you as a designer?

Often things outside the industry inspire me most - painters, photographers, artists, lights artists and, of course, the natural world.

Any advice for budding lighting designers?

Go and see as much theatre as you can, but also art and photography. Respond to the other creative disciplines around you. Don't be too rigid. It's all about people bringing ideas to the table and something wonderful coming from that messy collaboration of artists.

My very first show with Michael Grandage at the Donmar was Caligula. He showed me Christopher Oram's set (a beautiful silver-leafed brick wall and stone floor) and said, very specifically, that he wanted monochromatic lighting. But when I heard Adam Cork's extraordinary music I had all these ideas for the opening cue: for the wall to be lit with deep hues of colour - oranges, yellows, golds with highlights of deep blues and greens, silhouetting the first entrance of the actors.

Adam and I ran the cue, then Michael came over and said: "Do you remember the conversation about black and white?" I thought, "Oh bugger. He hates it." But before I could apologise, he said: "I'm very glad you're deaf. Carry on."

Photo credit: Johan Persson, Manuel Harlan, Marc Brenner, Neil Austin