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LET THERE BE LIGHT: Paule Constable On Risks, Sexism and Having Opinions

The latest instalment in our series showcasing Britain's best lighting designers focuses on the four-time Olivier and two-time Tony Award winner Paule Constable. She's worked on numerous landmark theatrical productions, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse and Waves at the National Theatre and the RSC's Wolf Hall, as well as with leading opera and dance companies.

What was your first theatre experience?

As a kid, I wasn't particularly interested. I do remember two trips where the production values excited me: Cats, which mum and dad took me to see soon after it opened, and the Barbican's Henrys trilogy, with Timothy Dalton playing Hotspur. I volunteered at a local theatre, but mainly so I could smoke and escape the tyranny of my posh English public school.

Then, when I was studying English at Goldsmiths, I had this moment that could be out of a play. My flatmate was a stage manager - she fell madly in love, went off to Spain and forgot she had a job booked as a followspot operator at Hackney Empire. They phoned up asking for her, and instead of saying "Jackie's not here", I just turned up and pretended to be her.

I didn't have the faintest clue, but luckily Fiona, the other operator, explained everything. I had a brilliant time - I loved climbing and just hanging out. I learned everything on the job; I've got absolutely no formal training.

What was your first production as a lighting designer?

I did a lot of music early on. If you were in the venue and young, you got to light the support band. But my first big proper design job was probably with 7:48 in Glasgow - they did a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and the designer Rae Smith, is someone I've been working with ever since. That production was great - it had David Tennant, Ashley Jensen, all these people just out of college.

My first one in London was Complicite's The Street of Crocodiles at the National - I was only about 24. I'd been working with the company, and I went to see Simon McBurney and said "You have to let me light it", with the hubris of the young.

Working with Complicite was a really formative experience. It was a total ensemble - those formal structures weren't really there, so I was lighting designer and production manager and ASM. We did whatever it took to make a show.

Waves, National Theatre

Are collaborators a deciding factor for you?

Definitely, I've got long relationships with directors and designers. It's about people I love, people I'm interested in, people who want to have a conversation. Some directors just want you to come in and turn the lights on and off. I have lots of opinions, not just about lighting, so I'm looking for artists who are open to that exchange of ideas.

It's all about casting, from the stage manager to the actors, lighting designer, set designer - acknowledging in ourselves what we offer, and directors figuring out what they want. If I'm working with someone new, I find out quickly what their process is - if you're not the right person for them, it's miserable. In lighting, you're dealing with everyone at their most stressed, as it's a late production step. Some appreciate the fact that I want to get involved to help solve problems, others just say shut up and go away.

It's an amazing privilege when you do have someone's trust and get asked back, though as with any long-term relationship, you have to keep it alive and open to possibility. Sometimes we move on, very amicably - I'm a huge admirer of Katie Mitchell, but that came to a natural end. You have to allow it to happen, otherwise that shorthand becomes laziness.

What are your main criteria for taking on a project?

It tends to be five questions: what the piece is and if it's interesting, who's it with, do I have enough time to do it (new devised pieces are more time-intensive), where is it (I have kids, so do I want to travel?), and can I afford to do it - for what they're offering, am I happy with the amount of work?

I don't really think about a balance of projects, more making that decision on a case-by-case basis. I do a lot of opera, but they book you so far in advance that I could end up doing nothing but. It's a lengthier production process than theatre, so I can spend more time at home while I'm working on an opera, but I try to keep it about 70% theatre, 30% opera and other projects. Really, my main thought is "Please, don't let my life be boring."

War Horse, National Theatre

What's the major difference between lighting opera and theatre?

It's fairly similar - whether it's words on a page or music on a score, you're still devising. Opera was brilliant early on in my career, as it's more open to young artists - weirdly, for a hierarchical world, they're less scared of what a 26-year-old woman is going to do than the big theatres are. There are also more women around, as opera's so international.

It's creatively exciting too: opera has a heightened landscape and extreme expression, so it encourages you to find a bold, clear vision. Dance can be abstract, but you're still supporting narrative - they want the quality of light of Chekhov, with the speed of musical theatre.

Are you encouraged to take more risks in theatre now?

I don't think so. I'm 50 this year, so I've been doing this a long time. I grew up with Lumière & Son, the extraordinary LIFT festival, Mayfest in Scotland and Peter Brook in Glasgow - all these amazing international exchanges of work. Now, there's less funding for risk-taking work. It's a scary time to be a young emerging artist.

Pieces like Curious Incident or War Horse were the result of a very particular director bringing physical storytelling into a venue like the National, but then Street of Crocodiles was a co-production with the National back in 1993, so it's not new and there's less of it. Theatre's being forced more towards the mainstream.

Was it a surprise when those two pieces became such huge hits?

The level of success was just astounding. I went to see the final performance of Curious Incident on Broadway, and it was incredible to see how people had taken it to their hearts. War Horse maybe even more so, as it's essentially a bucket, a piece of string and your imagination, beautifully crafted by Marianne [Ellliott].

It's brilliant that even on Broadway people want that childlike excitement and engagement, rather than just glitz. More usually, experimental projects that are critically successful don't have commercial legs. To have done it twice feels ridiculous!

Herons, Lyric Hammersmith

Does that success, and the awards that come with it, give you confidence?

It definitely encourages you to keep taking risks. The best show I did this year by a long shot was Herons at the Lyric. I have an amazing relationship with Sean Holmes - he was the first person to ask me to get involved with a building beyond just lighting, inviting me to become an associate. That's an amazing vote of confidence. He said "I've never run a building, so we're all learning together", and he's become this extraordinary director and leader.

Working at the Lyric is liberating - you feel under less scrutiny, and Sean encourages you not to be boring in your decisions. With Herons, I walked away thinking "I actually really enjoyed the work I did on that - the risks I took felt right for the piece, and I feel like it landed." So being considered good or successful can actually give you the freedom to play and go back to basics, and venues like the Lyric really support that.

One great example is the Manchester International Festival. The producers there, I don't know how they do it, but they entirely support the nature of risk - every single show is a world premiere, which is terrifying in itself, but you never question whether they've got your back.

You've been doing some fantastic work with Tonic Theatre on gender parity, though it's depressing that we're still having these conversations...

It has to be an active choice. There aren't many more senior women than when I entered theatre decades ago, so trying to do it gently hasn't changed the landscape. We need to encourage young women and find out what's standing in their way. There's far less overt sexism, but what's more frightening is the subconscious sexism, which we're all part of, even if we're not aware of it. Lucy Kerbel and Tonic are very smart at addressing that instinctive behaviour.

I'm definitely aware of being resented, as a woman in this position - by other designers or management. Sometimes being the exception is problematic - you have to put your head above the parapet. And it's frustrating when you do and then people focus on something else. Like we had this Tonic evening, an extraordinary celebration of senior women discussing their journeys, which you'd hope would be really empowering, and the story that got reported is me having a bad time on Love Never Dies. That's maddening.

War Horse, National Theatre

Which other designers inspire you?

The person I hold up as the greatest lighting designer is the brilliant American Jennifer Tipton - she's the benchmark for me. Wolfgang Goebel and Jean Kalman are hugely influential. I was mentored by Steve Whitson, who took me from someone who did lighting to becoming a lighting designer - really finding my vision.

What would you like to do in the future?

There are lots of operas I haven't done - like The Turn of the Screw, which is a great piece with an extraordinary score, and it's all about darkness and light. It might be interesting to go back into the music world with the design eye I have now. Chekhov, Beckett. There are so many stories to tell.

What advice would you give to aspiring designers?

Don't be frightened to be a designer. That's what you're there to do. People see light in functional terms, but it's a vital creative muscle. I get cross when I see lighting that lacks the rigour of other elements of a production. Have opinions, get involved - it makes your work better and it's much more fun. Get underneath the skin of something and find that hook to hang your ideas on. I'm not interested in lighting looking pretty - it should mean something and say something.

It can be hard to find the language for lighting - it's almost something you can smell. And it's so many things: it's pictorial, it's emotional. Often I meet young directors who say "I know nothing about lighting". That's fine - most people don't. I only know a bit about lighting; I know more about storytelling. Those are your points of reference: what the scene needs, how it feels. Don't be scared to explore out loud. That's the best way to create.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tours the UK January-September 2017. War Horse tours the UK September 2017-April 2018.

Picture credit: Tristram Kenton, Brinkhoff Mogenburg, Stephen Cummiskey



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