LET THERE BE LIGHT: Lucy Carter On Dance, Multimedia and Expressing Ideas

By: Nov. 14, 2016
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Lucy Carter

The latest instalment of LET THERE BE LIGHT, our series showcasing some of Britain's best theatrical lighting designers, focuses on Lucy Carter. A regular collaborator with Wayne McGregor, as well as numerous other leading choreographers and dance companies, she's also worked on operas and plays, including Husbands & Sons at the National Theatre and Oil, currently playing at the Almeida.

How did you discover lighting?

I did amateur dramatics and dance lessons as a kid, and when I did drama at university, I picked dance as my second subject. But when I was choreographing, all my ideas started with visuals, and the only way to make those a reality - because we didn't have any money for elaborate sets or costumes - was to use the lighting equipment in the studio space. I started to think "This is really interesting, and it might be something I have a talent for." All the other students started asking me to do the lights for their projects, so lighting kind of found me. I then did a year at Central specifically in lighting design.

Did you know it was a career option?

I never realised it could be a job while I was uni. Then two guys came in and lit our end-of-year exam projects. I started chatting to them and working with them, and it suddenly clicked.

What was your first professional job?

My big break was going with a lighting friend to contemporary dance venue The Place in London, where I hung out with the crew. They asked me to work with them on a casual basis; six months later, I was chief technician.

Woolf Works, Royal Ballet, 2015

Was it a conscious choice to focus initially on dance shows?

It's more that that's where I got my first job, and I got a lot of contacts from it - plus contemporary dance was an area where lighting design was growing really rapidly. If you spoke to the choreographers I work with, they'd probably say my training in dance has given me a different eye - I'm really intuitive about reading choreography.

Lighting movement is a skill in its own right, and not all dance has a story, like in theatre and opera. There are story ballets, but often it's quite abstract and non-linear, so being able to read the structure of a dance piece and figure out how to complement it is something I can do from both my dance training and the experience I've built up.

When do you enter the process?

Often I go into dance rehearsals early on - so you're watching the work develop before anything's emerged about the final piece. Work usually isn't made beginning to end - it's more material generated around the ideas. So having sensitivity to that is important.

I've collaborated with Wayne McGregor for nearly 25 years, and we'll normally meet long before the show is due to open - sometimes two years before. He'll talk to us about the umbrella theme or idea he wants to explore, we'll all go off and do our own research, and then come back together to share and discuss it. By then, Wayne might have developed a stronger idea of what he wants to do, but we're all inputting.

In rehearsal, those discussions are like a memory bank for all of us, and you'll start to see in movement things you talked about long ago - always in a very abstract form. I've since developed my lighting thoughts, so we feed those in. Some fall by the wayside, others make it into the final piece. Lighting can influence some of the dance, but it's never about one person's ideas - the end piece is the product of all our work.

Carbon Life, Royal Ballet, 2012

Do you have to be particularly flexible?

A good thing about doing all that research and the constant flow of ideas is that when you're in that pressured technical process, trying to make the lighting design a reality in the theatre, you've got all these things you can draw on. So if something doesn't work, you can go back to an idea that might be more relevant now, or layer on something else through light. It's problematic at times, but it's also interesting, challenging and really exciting.

How has technology fed into that?

It hasn't affected the early part of my design process, but once I've developed some of those thoughts, I'll start looking to technology to realise the ideas. So I never start with the technology in mind. The development of LED has made it a much more usable tool in theatre - it's more subtle now and allows for smaller shifts, plus the colours give you flexibility. We get much less time than other members of the creative team to try things out, so having quickly adaptable technology is invaluable.

How important is lighting to the audience's engagement with a piece?

With Wayne's work, we do use light sometimes to create dramaturgy and direct the audience's attention. Like in Carbon Life, we knew we wanted blurred and mysterious body forms, so we used the halos to ensure that section was seen in the right way. Lighting can also move the eye around the space, but with someone like Wayne, it's less about the mechanics of it and more about expressing ideas. My responsibility is to set the tone so the audience can respond to the movement.

Have you ever been tempted to do more story ballets?

I've done some shorter ones, and Woolf Works was a story ballet in a way, though definitely non-linear. And then working in theatre and opera means having a script or a libretto.

Oil, Almeida Theatre, 2016

It must have been exciting working on Oil, where the lighting is so key to the narrative

Ella Hickson's script talked about just using the light sources available in the time period of each scene, really reinforcing those power struggles. So the first scene is just candlelight, it's cold, cooking is tough, you can hardly see in the evenings so you just go to bed. It's hard for the audience to watch, but that's the whole idea - it puts you in that time period and that experience.

Then the second scene is lit with oil lamps, the third is electric light - it's the early Seventies, and we wanted to dazzle the audience with the hum of electricity. By the last futuristic scene, there's blackouts and a precious battery-powered emergency light. And you see how much that affects all these relationships: how you're forced together as human beings when you can't see or get warm.

That was very exciting to work on, as lighting was a big part of illustrating those themes. We had to hold our nerve in that first scene, which is really dark! The audience can see, if you try. We did place extra lighting sources in some scenes - still of the period, but just enough so that it doesn't become a distraction and all you're thinking is "Where have the actors gone?".

Was Husbands & Sons at the National a challenge too?

Yes, again we used period oil lamps and supplemented them slightly. It was all about the visual perception of what lighting would have been like in those houses in 19th-century mining towns, and then pushing it a bit more pictorially - almost chiaroscuro.

It was incredibly challenging being in the round, where you have to light the actor from all sides without over-lighting, and also keeping the lighting tight on each marked-out room, plus focussing the attention in the right place at the right time, because a room would become inactive in terms of text but not physically. So you wanted the audience to be able to see faces still, but not have their attention divided too much.

Medea, National Theatre, 2014

Did you always want to light plays as well as dance shows?

Definitely, I went to uni to do theatre. In terms of my lighting career, it took a bit longer to develop, and sometimes I wonder, looking back, if the abstract dance work I did made theatre directors a bit wary of asking me to do naturalistic stuff.

Is British theatre is becoming more open to experimentation?

I'm very lucky - I seem to have always worked with choreographers and directors who love pushing boundaries and trying new things, rather than sitting back and thinking "Well, we already know how to make these ballets or these plays". I've had a great time with people like Carrie Cracknell, Katie Mitchell, Matthew Dunster. It's much more fun for me, and with my aesthetic, I don't think I'm the best person to create something very, very naturalistic - I'll always strive for something more stylised and expressionistic.

What about working abroad?

It's very exciting to travel and see how other people do it. It's sometimes frustrating to have to adapt to different ways of working - I do prefer going back the second time, once I've understood their quirky ways and vice versa.

Anyone you'd like to work with in future?

The Metropolitan Opera in New York would be fantastic. Generally I want to keep trying new things, finding new audiences - I'm not interested in just making the same type of theatre. In the past few years I've also been developing my own installation work - that's been really exhilarating.

Do you think people have a better understanding of the role of lighting?

We could definitely do more to help. There's a school of thought that if you notice lighting, it's bad - it should invisibly reinforce work. My school of thought is that it can actively communicate themes and meta ideas - you're meant to notice it, so you can engage with those. It's definitely good when critics talk more about it and the industry acknowledges it.

But I think the general public is becoming much more lighting-savvy. Everywhere we go now, all these public spaces and buildings are lit up, or you present your home in a certain way with lighting. So we know it's not just a standard bulb - lighting affects your mood and how you feel.

Emil and the Detectives,
National Theatre, 2013

What do you think of the Globe furore over lighting?

Having never been, I wouldn't like to pass comment. More generally, I do sense a fear of technology and new design, but as times are changing and our lives become more multimedia, theatre has to keep pace. People are used to seeing more than one image - my daughter's never happy unless she has both her iPad and her iPhone in front of her. Five years ago we were fearful of LED, and now it's a big part of our industry. If the Globe wants to remain more historical attraction, that's fine, but most of us in theatre want to push forward.

What are some of your career highlights?

Definitely Chroma with the Royal Ballet, which is on again now. Woolf Works too. A lot of Wayne's company work, because we spend two years making each piece together and it's properly collaborative - I've been able to fully realise my ideas. I loved doing Emil and the Detectives at the National Theatre, which was a great merging of lighting and 59 Productions' video design to bring the set to life in a really moving way. And Oil was fantastic for using lighting to show the bigger picture. I'm proud of how we, as a team, stuck to our guns on that one.

Paule Constable recently spoke to us about opposition she'd encountered as a female lighting designer - have you had similar experiences?

Having come a few years after Paule, she definitely paved the way. The more female designers we have coming through, the more normal it becomes. But as women in society we meet sexism all the time, and it's just the same in my job. This is still a male-dominated industry - it's getting diluted, but we're not there yet. The difference now is I don't care, or I'm able to ignore it and crack on.

Any advice to young female lighting designers?

If it's really bad, like if it's affecting your health or the way you operate, pull someone up over it, otherwise just let it fuel your desire to do great work. That's the best way to prove people wrong and show you're passionate, you know what you're doing and you're an asset to the project.

Chroma is at the Royal Opera House until 19 November. Oil is at the Almeida Theatre until 26 November

Photo credit: Richard H Smith, Tristram Kenton, Bill Cooper/ROH


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