LET THERE BE LIGHT: Lighting Designer James Farncombe Talks Opera, LED and Experimentation
Our new series, LET THERE BE LIGHT, focuses on some of Britain's best theatrical lightning designers. First up is James Farncombe, whose projects range from plays at venues like the Royal Court, Young Vic and Donmar Warehouse to a variety of opera and dance productions. He received an Olivier Award nomination earlier this year for his work on the National Theatre's smash hit People, Places and Things.
What was your first theatre experience?
The thing I always consider my seminal moment was being taken to see an opera at Glyndebourne when I was about 10. It sounds very grand, but actually my uncle was in the lighting department, so I got to go up to the lighting box and wander round backstage. I found that world very exciting - exploring all these corridors and strange places.
What sparked your interest in lighting?
It was something about making the picture, and having control of how things look - I was also keen on painting and drawing as a kid. Lighting suits my character, as I didn't want to be on stage, in the spotlight, but I wanted to be a significant part of the process. Because of my uncle, I was always aware of it as a career in a way other people may not have been. I knew he went to all these different places - it seemed very glamorous.
Where did you train?
I studied contemporary performance at university, but at that stage I was more interested in being a rock star! I tried to get a band off the ground, but I needed something to fall back on, so I carried on lighting shows.
A friend got a job in stage management at a local theatre and they happened to be looking for someone to help with striking the panto and setting up the next show. Because I knew a bit about lighting and wasn't scared of heights, I started there as an electrician, then did another show at Nottingham Playhouse, recreated that lighting on tour, and lit my own show for a local dance company. Little by little, I built up experience.
Was your broader training helpful?
Yes, I'm a firm believer in having a knowledge of theatre in that broader sense - understanding other departments, costume, set construction, management, and what it means to put a show together. If you go train in specific area, you don't see what other people do. The same is true of directors - those I like working with best have been involved in other aspects of theatre.
How do you select projects?
Now that I'm in the lucky position to get offered things, I try to choose shows that interest me. For a long time, maybe 15 years, I just took everything that came my way to make ends meet. It has to be something that's got a bit of grit to it - an element of experimentation or pushing boundaries. I love when music's involved, as that's my other love, so opera is fantastic. I like working on a large scale - that's always exciting. But I'm not a big fan of commercial theatre.
Really, it's all to do with the people involved, the personalities. I've been fortunate to work with some of the best designers in the world, and I quite like when set design imposes some challenges I have to solve. It's also great to have a director with a really interesting vision that makes you wonder all the time "How are we going to achieve this?" It's fun to go on that journey together.
At what point are you normally brought in?
The timescale varies enormously. Some directors and designers like the lighting designer there from the outset - that's nice, as you have influence on some early decisions. There's a convention in this country where the director and designer have a close working relationship and they develop the concept - sometimes that still happens and I wind up working from a finished model. Then you have a few weeks of rehearsal, back into it for a tech period of 7-10 days and sometimes tinkering in previews. Altogether it's about 6-7 weeks, but not fulltime, so I juggle a few at the same time.
I've just done an opera with Katie Mitchell in the south of France [Pelléas et Mélisande at the Aix-en-Provence Festival], and I was solidly in rehearsal for seven weeks. That was huge, so we really needed the time, and it was a fantastic experience - I wish it was like that more often. Sometimes I get parachuted in right at the end and that's frustrating, because you can see where things might have been better.
Though I have a lot to learn too. I've been guilty in the past of thinking I know more, but you can learn from people every day. I definitely learned from Katie.
Is it hard to be the one saying "That won't work"?
It's always a bit of a balancing act - sometimes it's difficult not to sound too negative. I try to answer with another proposition, rather than just no, but there's definitely an element of diplomacy. People sometimes have these crazy ideas, and you think "On what planet is that possible?" But that's part of the fun too, pushing the envelope.
How have technical innovations affected your work?
It's been a massive shift, colossal. LED is a game-changer. It's starting to become really useful - there was a phase when it wasn't pleasant and didn't look good on skin tones, but they've really cracked that now. There's so much flexibility, from squeezing it into tiny spaces to vast screens, and you can change colour endlessly. We have had to advocate for theatre, as we're a small section of the industry and lots of this is being developed with rock n roll stadium tours in mind. We need something subtler and more versatile.
The disadvantage is that designers are now a step away from technology. You used to be able to climb a ladder and change a lamp - now you rely on specialists. It's probably a generational frustration - the next ones coming up won't have that problem, because they won't know any other way.
Do you have any favourite venues to work in?
I love the Young Vic. It's such an interesting space, and it encourages you to be ingenious. There's almost too many options at some places - the best theatre comes from being forced into a corner and having to solve problems. That's why the flash bang wallop West End shows can lack heart and individuality.
How much does lighting play a part in storytelling?
I got the chance to do a lot of interesting things in People, Places and Things, although that's always something that's a bit of a dilemma for me. I contribute to atmosphere and emotional impact, but I never want to be overly didactic. Like in musical theatre, too often whenever the tune turns melancholy, the lighting goes blue. I always just want to just jump in there and go bright white!
Part of me is a rebel and enjoys that juxtaposition - like there's a terrible murder and it's a sunny day. In the opera I did with Katie, there's a death placed against a beautiful sunset - that's such wonderful unexpected melancholy.
With People, Places and Things, it had to be a clinical environment almost devoid of emotion, and then we found a way into illustrating her experience while still being subtle and restrained - you could have gone to town on lighting and projection, but that would have crowded out that phenomenal central performance, which communicated so much in itself.
Is some of it trial and error?
Definitely. Lighting is hypothetical until you're on the stage. That's part of the excitement - the surprises and the unexpected. It's my job to react to things you can't anticipate, and that's a fast process. Then, when a show transfers, you can go and see if there's something that doesn't land as well it might, and tinker a bit.
People, Places and Things was a bit sketchy in rehearsal, we went into tech thinking it'll probably be all right, there was a lukewarm reaction in some previews, and then something happened. We made a few changes, and suddenly the audience was on their feet at the end - and that's the way it stayed.
Wyndham's, where we transferred, had a different atmosphere, so it was trying to recreate that magic. There's a line in Richard Eyre's National Theatre diaries, about that transfer from rehearsal into the theatre - it's like carrying a handful of water down a corridor without spilling anything. You don't know what you've got in your hand, and if you start changing too much, you might lose it.
That's one of my favourite moments in any show I've done - when the character dares to feel those sensations and the colour kicks in. We spent money on all that neon, so there was a temptation to use it all the time, with different colours for different locations, but we were brave enough to hold off and not use it in the first half at all. Once we'd done it, it was obvious, but sometimes it's hard to see that pulling back is the best thing for the show.
Who are your lighting inspirations?
Paule Constable for sure - I owe her my career, as lots of my big breaks came from jobs she was offered and was too busy to take, so she recommended me! She inspires me all the time. Paul Pyant, who did Lord of the Rings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and lots of operas - just beautiful work. Jon Clark and Neil Austin do so many shows and always produce such high quality.
Finally, any dream projects for the future?
My opera career is relatively young - I've done about 10 and I'd love to do more. I worked with Michael Levine on one opera and he's extraordinary - very exacting, but in a lovely way. I really want to do more with him. Other than that, I'd be happy just to keep doing stuff that's interesting and makes me keen to get back in the theatre.
Photo credit: Johan Persson, Stephen Cummiskey