Hamilton Dramaturgy's TheatreNow!

Season Two to Conclude with Jennifer Tipton

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! is pleased to announce that Season Two will conclude with an interview with Jennifer Tipton. Miss Tipton is a preeminent lighting designer, and a MacArthur Fellow.

The interview will take place in late October. Stay tuned.

Interview with Fran Tarr, Playwright, Filmmaker and Educator
Hamilton Dramaturgy's TheatreNow! - Season Two, Episode Four

Fran Tarr, Playwright, Filmmaker and Educator

Anne Hamilton: Welcome to Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! This is a podcast series featuring some of the most exciting women artists working in the theatre today. I’m your host, Anne Hamilton. Today we are speaking with Fran Tarr. Fran is a writer, independent documentary filmmaker, and the Founder and Director of BREAKING WALLS. She was Education Director for the Women’s Project and Productions, and currently serves as the Education Coordinator at the Atlantic Theatre Company. Since 2006, she has volunteered leading play-making workshops in Israel, Liberia, and Palestine. She is based in New York City. Welcome, Fran.

Fran Tarr: Hello.

AH: Well, Fran, I’m very excited about your film, which is now completed. Can you tell us about it?

FT: Certainly. The title is BROOKLYN BRIDGES- TO BETHLEHEM AND BACK and it tells the story of three inner-city Brooklyn students who travel to Bethlehem to write and share life experiences with the teenagers in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem.

In the process of writing, they discover the things they all share in common, as well as the unique differences that each of the group and the individuals have. Once they finished the writing, they created a collage play script, and then the Brooklyn kids packed their bags, came back to Brooklyn, and a week later, the Bethlehem kids arrived. We spent a week rehearsing and having meetings here in New York at the State Department and with various other change advocacy organizations and individuals. And then we performed our play at the Atlantic Theatre Company Stage 2 for a live audience.

AH: What was the name of the play?


AH: And can you tell us what that play looked like and what the content was?

FT: I can indeed. Collage plays are constructed from poems, interviews, music, dance, monologue, anything that the young artists – in our case the kids in Brooklyn and Bethlehem – have created as a group. And then we select certain pieces and construct them into a performance piece. This particular piece, BRIDGES NOT WALLS, used several different writing themes. Here’s an example of three or four of the topics that were covered in the production:  “I want my words to…”, “I want my life to…”, and “How dare you say that to me?” And one of the most extraordinary triggers that was used in the writing was a quote that is as follows: “Some people put up walls, not to keep others out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”

And in the case of the Brooklyn and the Bethlehem kids, walls are particularly significant. Clearly, [there is] the wall of separation in Bethlehem, but even in Brooklyn, [there are] the walls that the young men and women feel from the police, and from racism. So we thought that those were particularly interesting. Several of the young men and women in the cast are very talented musicians, and they created music. And so it was very much a musical/movement/language-based performance.

We had another situation that developed while we were writing and sharing life experiences in Bethlehem, and that is, that two of our young men had problems getting their visas to the US from the US consulate. So, in the end, they couldn’t come. And so then we added another dimension to our performance, which included the words and faces of the two young men who couldn’t come. So when it would have been their turn to perform live, we switched to them on the screen. So it was a multimedia extravaganza.

AH: How imaginative. It sounds wonderful.

FT: Thank you.

AH: And how was it received?

FT: People really, really enjoyed themselves. They really did. And they respected the young men and women for being so honest and so brave to talk about their lives. But I think the thing that the audience and the young men and women involved discovered from the entire experience – and especially the performance – is just the amazing resilience that they are able to voice through their writing and their performing. And that, despite the challenges that they endure day to day, they are hopeful. They are proud. They’re wanting and eager to help others write and share these same kinds of experiences. They’re not defeated by the world around them. They are inspired by it. And that really came through in the writing and it really impressed the audience.

AH: Did you have some kind of audition process to include the individuals in the group?

FT: That is a question that I get asked all the time because the nine men and women are so amazing. Everyone wants to know how I found them.  I literally went into a high school in Manhattan, Independence High School, and just pitched the idea – Who feels their voice goes unheard? Who would like to be given the opportunity to discover their voice and a platform on which to use it? And I did the same thing in the Aida refugee camp and then I just took the kids that raised their hands, and ended up with nine really, really terrific young men and women.

AH: So they self-selected.

FT: Yes, they did. And they talk about the fact that part of what empowered them is the fact that when a positive situation is placed in front of them, they have the courage to step into it, not back away.

AH: That’s life, isn’t it? [Laughter] That’s a good way to live a successful life. I’ve just learned a lesson. [Laughter] What made you decide to travel abroad?

FT: That’s a very good question. Unfortunately, the answer’s going to be kind of long, so bear with me. In 2005, I had an extraordinary idea. I still believe it is an extraordinary idea. And that is to create a series of one-hour docudramas, so that there would be live action filming, and then it would be interspersed with interviews from the young men and women who have actually lived these experiences. And the experiences would be focused in seven countries where kids come of age in conflict: Palestine, Liberia, Columbia, Detroit, Iraq. So that was my plan. And I really didn’t know how one connected with those individuals.

So, I called their consulates at the UN. And of the countries that I contacted, six bent over backwards. They just couldn’t help me enough to locate recent immigrant communities. But I was having a more difficult time making a connection with the Palestinian mission to the UN. And while all this is happening, I just got this very random email that said, “Palestinian Kids Dance.” So I opened it, and they were going to perform in June of 2005 at the Barrow Street Theatre. So I went over, I watched the performance which was lovely, a lot of Dabka dancing and all of that. And I kept looking at the kids and thinking, “Wow! They look so much like the kids in Brooklyn”.

So, when it was over, the founder and the director of the Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center in the Aida refugee camp spoke to us, and he said, “We’re always looking for volunteers”. And I said to myself, “That’s how you get to know these kids. You go there as a volunteer for three weeks or a month or whatever”. And I actually had a skill to offer them, which was the writing, performing workshop that I was doing. So, I wrote him a letter and golly if he didn’t call me and say, “Will you come?” So I went, and it was the experience that I had expected it to be. These kids were really, really cool. They were honest, open writers.

So, when the workshop ended, Dr. AbdelFattah said to the kids, “I want you to tell Fran what you thought of it”. Never before have I instantaneously been given feedback like that. And they all really liked it and when we reached one of the young women named Islam, and she said, “Before you came, I always felt like a failure in writing”. And I couldn’t believe it, because I thought she was brilliant. And as she said that, out of the corner of my eye, I could see all the other young men and women at the table shaking their heads in agreement. They said that their teachers are just like, “Don’t be creative”. So, I was totally humbled by the whole experience, and they invited me to come back saying that it was the best collaboration they’d ever had. So that was great.

And I got back [to New York] and I was teaching one of my writing workshops for the Women’s Project, and the classroom teacher said to me, “Well, what did you do over mid-winter break?” And I told her about how wonderful the whole experience was. And she looked at me and she said, “You have a documentary there”. And I’d never thought about making the documentary. And I owe her a huge debt of gratitude because without that one sentence, I never would be where I am today.

So, I went ahead gung-ho, and when I got ready to make my first documentary, just as I was getting ready to go to Bethlehem to film, Nancy Abraham at HBO called and said she wanted to see it when it was done, so then I just went gung-ho forward to make that documentary. And then the logical step was then to make the new one where the kids actually worked together and got to know each other, which is a truly remarkable film, truly remarkable film.

In fact, in my first film, which is called, BETHLEHEM TO BROOKLYN: BREAKING THE SURFACE, I did exactly the same writing workshop, and had the kids write their own collage play and perform it. The kids in Bethlehem did theirs, and then I came home and I found the Brooklyn kids, and they did it. And then we spliced it together, going back and forth. And interestingly enough, the first time I showed the film in the New York public schools, a young man raised his hand and just said, “I love it. But I have a question. Why didn’t they write and perform together?” And I was like, “Wow, really? That’s a great idea”. So that was why we ended up taking everybody to Bethlehem and then bringing the Bethlehem kids here, so that they could actually experience it together.

And I think that, not only is it a remarkable film – BROOKLYN BRIDGES- TO BETHLEHEM AND BACK – but it has inspired these nine young men and women as well as myself to go on to the next step, which is to introduce the writing and performing workshops that we’re doing internationally. And that’s breaking walls. Our first scheduled workshop is in Berlin in the summer of 2012. And the cast members from the film will now take my role as facilitator, and they’ll be deciding on the themes, deciding on the writing trigger, getting the kids to write, giving them positive feedback, making suggestions, selecting the best for the collage play, directing it. They’re going to take all that over. And then also become part of selecting the next location for our summer of 2013 workshop.

AH: How about China? The Great Wall.

FT: I’d love to go to China. I’d love to go to China. Just throw out those ideas, send us some cash, and we’re there. [Laughter]

AH: I love that the teens are teaching one another. That’s magnificent.

FT: Yes, they really are. The thing that was most fascinating to all of the kids was that we were sitting in the Aida refugee camp in the Al-Rowwad Center writing, and then I would give out the writing trigger and then we would all share, and they would say, “We’re so much alike. We all have these same feelings of, ‘I don’t want to be misrepresented, I don’t want to be disrespected, I have this hope and dream’”. And it was just amazing.

AH: What are their hopes and dreams?

FT: Their hopes and dreams, that’s an excellent question. They all want to get a good education. They all want to take care of their families and make their families’ lives better. Ryan from Bed-Stuy really wants to get his family out of Bed-Stuy, into a really safe suburban life. They all want to be seen as valuable members of their communities and a leader in their communities. Mohammed from Bethlehem talks extensively about how he wants to feel as every human feels, you know, just free and open to live his life any way he wants. And the Brooklyn kids feel the same way. They feel very restricted in their lives.

I’ve known those young men and women. I’ve worked in at-risk areas my entire teaching career. And yet, it took me all of those years and schools and programs to reach a point where I could be sitting with Ryan in Bethlehem late at night, one evening, and he turned to me and he said, “Do you have any idea what it feels like to be black?” And I, of course, don’t, and he started to tell me and the kids chimed in. There’s been a real education for me, a real depth of feeling of these young men and women about the things that we don’t necessarily want to look at. First of all, there are the political issues of racism and apartheid, but there are deeper issues of stereotyping and making quick judgments based on a quick assessment of how a kid looks or sounds, and I think [sharing their viewpoint on these issues is] the most beautiful part of the writing and the performing that these young men and women are doing. And also in the film, you see just how completely, completely engaging and disarming these young men and women are. I think that they are really great diplomats and ambassadors for their countries, their communities, and their cultures.

AH: How old are they?

FT: They are now, sixteen through twenty-one. They were fifteen through twenty when we were doing the film.

AH: Is there any chance that the students from abroad can come over here and study?

FT: That would be an extraordinary situation. That would be great, that would be great. Clearly, it would be something that I would love to help facilitate. There are cultural issues. A lot of the families do not want their daughters to travel alone to a foreign country, especially as freshmen in college. That would be one obstacle. It is difficult for the young men to get visas. As I mentioned, Mohammed and Mahmoud, could not join us in the summer of 2010, but since then, Mohammed has gotten his visa. I think that for the Arabic students, they are more comfortable going to Egypt, Lebanon, and those areas, or staying close to home. Staying close to home is really important, and they can work and be at home. I think there’re some financial considerations there as well.

AH: How about educational opportunities for the students who live in Bed-Stuy?

FT: Clearly they all want to get good educations. Fabie is going to Plattsburg State University and she’s doing beautifully, beautifully. She’s on the Dean’s list. She’s working hard to get a 4.0 this semester. I mean, she is a highly motivated young woman and student. Ryan, he’s hoping to go back to school in spring semester of 2012 to study sound engineering.

AH: Well it sounds like quite a bunch of responsible young adults to me.

FT: Yes, they are, they are. They’re great. You can tell. I feel very fortunate to know them. I feel blessed that they raised their hands to be a part of my film. I feel blessed that they were willing and able to do such great writing, and just really be troopers far, far, far from home, no matter what you threw at them. They were like “Okay, yeah, we’ll do it. We’ll taste it. We’ll do this, we’ll do that”. And they were willing to put together this extraordinary performance. I mean it was really, really professional. There’s a clip on my website. It really looks professional. They did a beautiful job and they’re not trained actors.

AH: What is your website?

FT: www.bbdocumentary.com.

AH: Very good. I hope our listeners get to visit the site and take a look at it.

FT: Me, too.
AH: Well Fran, I had an idea which is that perhaps you could do an online teaching workshop that would link into several countries at once, and see what you came up with in one day. [It would be interesting to] see what the students wrote. I think teleconferencing could be a very good way of spreading your program more.

FT: Well, that’s interesting to hear you say that and a lovely way to get the Bethlehem and Brooklyn kids involved at the same time. Also, Ryan, Shan and Fabie, the Brooklyn cast from Brooklyn Bridges, have been selected to represent the United States as the United Nations International Year of the Youth “Take the Leadership” Conference in Jerusalem in November. And so, it’s an extraordinary opportunity for them of course, but they’re also going to be connecting with kids from twenty different countries. So, that would be nice. We could build on that connection right away by having these teleconferencing-type workshops and see what happens.

When the Bethlehem students were here, we went up to the Bronx and did a writing workshop. We showed our first film and did a writing workshop and it was amazing. What the kids wrote like in fifteen minutes, [was a great accomplishment], so I can’t imagine if we were to do something for an hour, what we can actually come up with.

AH: Right. It sounds very exciting, very beautiful.

FT: Thank you.

AH: So, Fran, I just have to ask you, what drives you to do this kind of work?

FT: Well, I think I have two answers or perhaps it’s a two-part answer. Number one, I always loved school, and it was very clear to me that a big part of why I love school is that my teachers always looked [at me]  and found something in me that I didn’t know existed. Or, if I exhibited some sort of special trait, they really nurtured it. They really nurtured it from the time that I was very, very young until the time I left high school. So, I think that because that’s how I was treated as a student and it made me feel so special and so unique, and [it] really nurtured the artistic part of me, that I have always been really open to doing that for others no matter where I find them.

The second part would be that the first job that I ever had as an educator was teaching elementary school art on the south side of Chicago, and that really opened my eyes to the world. I’ve always been really open and really curious about the world. But there was something about stepping into that environment and meeting 900 kids a week, and guiding them through the series of art experiences, and taking them on field trips and everything. I realized how truly, truly brilliant and bright and articulate and funny and passionate these children were. And yet so many assumptions were placed on them that were inaccurate, and that has always been a driving force behind what I do. One of the kids summed it up the best: “If you don’t talk to us, you assume the worst”. And so, my teaching, my own writing, the documentaries, the BREAKING WALLS writing performance/social activism program that we’re initiating – they’re all for the same reason. [The kids are saying,] “Get to know us. Before you make any kind of decision about who I am, get to know me. See who I am on the inside.”

AH: That’s both a very wise and a very intelligent statement to make for ones so young.

FT: Yes, yes. I think that when people see the film – and at some point, hopefully, we’ll be able to get the writing published – they will see how truly, truly bright and inspiring these young men and women are. They truly are. And how universal what they’re saying is. It’s not just representative of this or representative of that. It’s so universal. The lovely Sofia Ramadan, from Bethlehem, summed it up at the performance in August of 2010, when someone asked how big did the kids want to see the bridge that they were creating grow, and she said, “We want everyone, no matter your race or your culture or your community and your religion, to join us on this bridge.”

AH: That’s beautiful.

FT: Yeah.

AH: I can’t help but think of the Brooklyn Bridge. Did they take a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge when they were there?

FT: No, they didn’t. We should have done that.  Next time, when they come for the film festival, we’ll take them to the Brooklyn Bridge and have them walk across.

AH: Yes, it sounds wonderful. So, I want to talk for a moment about Speak, Reach, Peace Out. Can you tell us about that?

FT: Yes, I’d love to tell you about that. Speak, Reach, Peace Out is our online teen literary, visual art, photography and music magazine. You can go to the website www.srpoutmag.com, or go to the BB documentary site and find it on there as well. You can submit your writing to us and it will be published. So we’ve got that going on too. We’re really hoping to get a big impact from that because it really is a wonderful opportunity for young men and women to get their work published and to have it read internationally.

AH: Who are your editors?

FT: My editor is an amazing young artist and literacy educator named Rebecca Masback, and she is the project manager and editor for that. She has done a brilliant job.

AH: How did that come into being?

FT: [Laughter.] Well, you know how these things go. When you start these processes, you meet people and when I talk to people they’re so funny. They’re like, “Are you listening?” Especially if we’re on the phone, they’re like, “Are you there?” And I’ll say, “Yes, I’m listening and I’m taking notes”. And someone said to me, “You know, you really have a unique opportunity to draw in more and more kids to be a part of what you’re doing by having an online outlet for them and resource for them as well”. It has a little book nook. Right now we’re accepting quite a bit of poetry, and so you can go to the book nook and it tells you how to order books on how to write poetry. So, we’re trying to make it sort of an interesting resource as well as a platform for kids to get their voice out there.

AH: That’s marvelous.
FT: Thank you.

AH: Fran, let’s talk about your own writing. I’ve been privileged to read and dramaturg some of your plays and screenplays. Can you tell us about the story that grew out of your meeting with Salomea Kape?

FT: Oh, of course I can. I think that one of the things that I hope that this interview has highlighted or underscored is the theme that runs through my life: How important it is to connect to people that you wouldn’t normally connect with. How life is really about what you make it, and what an important role we really can play in an individual’s life. So, when I had the privilege of meeting Salomea Kape, I was just blown away by her story. Not only her story about surviving and coming of age in the Lodz ghetto during World War II, but the fact that she really didn’t want it to be like, “This is Sally’s story. This is who I am. This is what I did”. She really wanted it to be about all the children who had gone through that same experience. And with her guidance and support and love, I was able to create what I believe to be a truly, truly brilliant and under- recognized story.

When you’re talking about the rebels in Libya or what is happening here in some hotspots, you see pictures of the wise older people and their beautiful weathered faces. You see the little children nibbling on a little cookie. So, it’s about the young and old, or maybe the tough fighter, but there isn’t any imagery of the young men and women that are struggling to come of age, who are the high school kids in those environments. Now maybe [we see] some are the child soldiers, but that’s really negative. There’s still a ton of kids out there that are just trying to be like Mohammad and Ryan and the Brooklyn and the Bethlehem kids, and that is to stay on course. To [not only] take advantage of the positive opportunities that are placed in front of them [but also to] seek those out.

So when I met Sally and I could tell a story of these two young women, and because they’re characters that I created, they’re composite characters based on real kids in the ghetto, real young people who were twelve when they were sealed inside the ghetto in 1940 and seventeen when the Russians liberated them in 1945. What is it like to become a teenager and experience first love and poetry writing, and fights with your girlfriends, and trouble with your parents when you’re trapped inside a Nazi death camp? You know, I mean I think that’s an important story to be told, and I’m privileged that Sally let me tell it. And I think it has a lot of relevance today still, even though people aren’t really locked inside of ghettos, but they are locked inside of small worlds that sometimes appear that there is no way out of.

AH: Right. I have this thing which I do periodically. I try to walk through walls that I construct myself, whether I’m afraid of something, or I feel like I’ve been barred from some experience or some opportunity. I try to perceive the walls and purposely walk through them simply to prove to myself that I can do it. And I think it’s a really good practice. It’s the practice of walking through walls. I think that’s what you’re doing for these young adults because you’re helping them walk through walls, which metaphysically is not possible, yet metaphysically is possible because you’re doing it. I think that’s a great lesson. So Fran, how do you think that theatre helps build resiliency?

FT: On a multitude of levels. First of all, theatre, especially if you’re doing the writing, allows you to reach inside and tap into your own personal void, which is hugely important for everyone. Dr. Martin Luther King told us, “Violence is the cry of the unheard”. So we need to have more opportunities for the voices of the underrepresented to be heard. So that’s the writing piece.

But from an acting pov or the directing pov, [theatre] allows an individual not only to get their voice heard through the character, but it allows them in many ways to escape the reality of their situations, either because the character is so unusual and so different from the way they live, or because the characters are handling the challenge in a way that the individual wouldn’t, or in a way that they wish they themselves would. So the theater experience is on a bigger, broader and more pronounced stage or platform.

So, I think, it offers these young men and women – all young men and women, anyone who participates in theatre, and the audience – the opportunity to get a view of the world that they wouldn’t normally take in. That’s the beauty of theatre, that fourth wall experience where you are drawn into a world that you wouldn’t normally experience, in a very intimate way that a film can’t really duplicate.

AH: Fran, I want to talk about your early artistic influences. Where did you grow up and what kind of artistic endeavors did you take part in when you were kid?

FT: Oh, my golly. I was born and raised in Omaha in a really large family – a really large family. And the emphasis in my family was sports. I was just this absolutely happy-as-a-camper tomboy. Any kind of sport you named, I was there; baseball, football, hockey, bicycle riding, tree climbing. We even created a game, my brothers and I. We called it polo, and we rode our bicycles and we used a soccer ball and hockey stick. Yeah. So, that was sort of the environment that I was raised in, and yet I had, from very young age, this sort of interest in using my hands. My father owned a shop in downtown Omaha called ‘Ted’s Pen Shop.” And so I had access to all these pens, and these different nibs and all of this, and I started writing.

When I was in kindergarten, I could print sentences, and then my brothers were learning how to write cursive, so then I started learning cursive, and the next thing I knew I found a book on calligraphy, and I was experimenting with all these different writing styles. And then, a girl moved into our parish, our Catholic parish, named Susan Richardson, and I went over to her house one day and we were drawing. That’s what we were doing, we were drawing. And I just started drawing, from that experience. I mean that’s what her family did. My family beat each other up with hockey sticks or chased each other, which was just great. It was a very beautiful way to grow up.

So I learned this from Susan and then I started drawing and the next thing I knew, again coming back to the teachers, I was recognized as a school artist and whenever they needed anything in my elementary school, I was called down to the office.  [They said,] “We need this and we need that. Will you draw it, will you paint it, will you do this?” And [my reputation] just sort of grew from there until I became sort of this renowned drawer. And it continued during high school, same thing. And then, I was known as visual artist in school and at home. My parents were like, “Oh, look at her”.

And then, when I was a freshman in high school, the principal called our home on a Saturday and said to my mother that she believed that I had an extraordinary speaking voice and she wanted me to join the speech team. I had to memorize these speeches and deliver them in competition and I loved it, and I did really well at it. So here was, again, educators spotting me out of a crowd of kids and really opening doors for me. So now I’m a visual artist. I’m a thespian and speech team member in this all-girls catholic high school. Even starting as young as ninth grade, we would have this big assignment coming up, and the teachers handed out the sheet to everyone, and at the end of class they said, “Frances, I need to talk to you”. I go over and they’d take the sheet out of my hand and they’d say, “Do whatever you want. Just create whatever you want”. I was always just given this free reign to create whatever I wanted as my Latin project, as my language arts projects – not math – but social studies, anything.

I could dream of anything I wanted to do and I just went nuts. I was just allowed to be as creative as I wanted and clearly, because I worked so successfully from the initial time that I was asked to do whatever I wanted, they continued. I graduated from high school just making things up. [It was like,] “Okay Frances. Everybody is going to do this and this, and what’s Fran doing?” and stuff like that. [Often I’d say,] “I haven’t decided yet.” [Chuckle] So clearly that had huge influence on my life and how I perceived the world – I wasn’t judged like everyone else. I was treated uniquely and because I followed through, I didn’t slack off, it only built my reputation.

So I left high school as a visual artist, a speech team girl, a poet, and editor of the high school yearbook. None of those things would ever have popped into my mind to do, although by the time I left high school, I knew that I wanted to tell stories that could change people’s lives. I knew that, whether that it was as newspaper editor [or in another position]. Once I got my job teaching, then I knew that was where I needed to be. That was how you told stories to change people’s lives. You are an arts teacher.

AH: Well, it occurs to me that you have quite an old soul, and also another layer that most people don’t have, which is that you seem to be able to experience what you’re going through and also kind of look at it from above. You’re able to look at the situation and figure out how to make connections – how to draw meaning out of whatever you’re experiencing or whatever your opportunities are. And I love that about you and I love that you’re endlessly inventive. You make the opportunities for other people and you also teach them, by example and by deliberate instruction, how to do the same for themselves. So I feel like you’re replicating your artistic spirit, and I really respect that.

FT: Thank you. Thank you.

AH: I think you also have another layer of maturity in that it doesn’t seem to me like you try to control the teens. You let them speak, and I respect that very much, because you’re providing an opening in which they can grow instead of providing a slot, which to your teens, frankly, would cause them to feel like they’re in another set of walls.
FT: Very perceptive, yes. And also it makes it so much more interesting and fun for me. And again I will quote of the Bethlehem kids, Fida. After we finished our first film, she and Sophia and Rowa made a little two-minute movie saying how much being in the film BETHLEHEM TO BROOKLYN: BREAKING THE SURFACE meant to them and Fida said, “Fran really let us be ourselves and she really listens to us. She really listens to what we’re saying. She’s not like, ‘Oh yeah, just give me the check marks’”. I’m not expecting them to say what I want. So, that of course is empowering for me, and it keeps me on my toes to always be open, and really listening to what’s being said. And encouraging them to be honest, and providing them a safe environment in which they can be honest.

So when I say safe environment, I don’t mean physically safe. I mean emotionally safe. So that you know if you say something, nobody’s going to give you any grief or if you share something, it stays where it stays. You’re not going to hear it come back to you from somebody that wasn’t in our group.

AH: I think that if one adult gives one teen that opportunity [to speak freely], that’s imprinted on the teen and it gives him or her confidence to be able to find other people like that. It’s patterning that you’re providing, which I really appreciate.

FT: Thank you. It is my dream that that is true. It is my dream that that is true. And I hear Ryan say it all the time. He says that, he said he [has loved others] a lot, but through these experiences he just loves more. And his friends tell me that they can’t put their finger on it, but he’s so different since he came back from Bethlehem.

He’s so different. And he’s still the cool Ryan, the rapper, sitting on the stoop with his friends, but he’s a different young man and he’s so responsible. Oh my gosh.

AH: That’s wonderful. Well Fran, I have to say it’s been marvelous to speak with you today. Thank you.

FT: Thank you so much for the opportunity.
AH: You have been listening to Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! We have been speaking today with Fran Tarr and you may follow her career through www.frantarrpro.com. You may read a transcript of this interview and download this podcast at my blog, which is theatrenow.wordpress.com. This is Anne Hamilton. Thank you for listening.

TheatreNow!’s Sound Editor is Otto Bost (http://www.folkdude.com) and our Program Assistant is Cate Cammarata. Nancy Ford composed our theme. Visit https://theatrenow.wordpress.com to subscribe to our blog and be notified when new podcasts are released. Hamilton Dramaturgy is an international script development consultancy located on the east coast of the United States. You may contact Anne Hamilton at hamiltonlit@hotmail.com. © 2011 Hamilton Dramaturgy.

 Download a copy of the inteview here: Hamiton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! – Interview with Fran Tarr

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! – Season Two

(Episode One)  Kamilah Forbes – Artistic Director, Hip Hop Theatre Festival

(Episode Two)  Laura Maria Censabella – Playwright

(Episode Three)  Paule Constable – Lighting Designer

(Episode Four)  Fran Tarr – Playwright, Filmmaker and Educator

(Episode Five)  Jennifer Tipton – Lighting Designer and MacArthur Fellow

Contact Us
September 28, 2011, 11:53 pm
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Hamilton Dramaturgy is a New York City-based, international consultancy located in Ithaca, New York  on the east coast of the United States.

We have over twenty-five years of experience serving playwrights, directors, librettists, lyricists, performers and theatres in the areas of script development, career development, and workshops and master classes.

Please  email hamiltonlit@hotmail.com.

We will be happy to hear from you!

Why I Created TheatreNow!

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! is an oral history series of the contemporary practice and artistic development of women theatre artists. I created it to offer the public information on significant women theatre artists so that they can take their rightful place as experts in their fields.  As host and producer of the podcast series, I record interviews and offer them free to the public to create an equal presence of female experts that can be used for any journalist, historian, or documentarian in films, in print, and online.

My ultimate goal is to provide information so that anyone wishing to consult or interview a theatrical expert can find qualified women and include them in their projects. I would like to be able to look at a documentary or a news show someday and see at least as many female experts being consulted as male. This is a huge goal, but I think that it can be achieved with some deliberate effort. The series can be accessed through my blog at http://hamiltondramaturgystheatrenow.com. The subscription option allows you to follow news about the podcast series.

The root impulse for my action was indignation. Indignation at qualified women being ignored and undervalued by the mainstream media. The logical thought upon which I base all my action is this: Even with the inequality that still exists in the workplace, it is impossible that qualified female experts do not exist. On the contrary, I thought think that they must necessarily exist. They are out there and I have to find them and bring them to the attention of the public. I can do that. And I can urge others to do that as well, in their own fields and in their own way. And together we can create an equal presence.

I first began to compare the representation of women artists in published documents and other media when I was an English literature undergraduate at Drew University. My advisor, Janet Burstein, pointed out that only about 10% of the entries in standard literature anthologies were written by women. She expressed a hope that the number would continue to increase as time passed. I was intrigued by this notion of representation of women in private and published sources, and I began back then to count the numbers of men and women listed on credits in books, on TV programs, in Playbills, faculty lists, and any other sources I can find. Over three decades, I’ve watched and compared the numbers. In some fields, there is barely a woman’s name listed. But my field is theatre, and I am going to do as much as I can to change the numbers in my field.

Thankfully, it seems that women’s pieces in anthologies have increased. I have found that the numbers are almost equal in literary magazines, which publish current writing, of course. However, the anthologies still lag behind in including literature written by women, which means that history is not remembering or recording their accomplishment. .

In 2009, I began the oral history series by recording my inaugural interview with Quiara Alegria Hudes, funding it myself. I wanted to interview a woman as a man interviews a man – with the focus on artistic content, with no mention of marriages or children. I also knew that biographical information is readily available on the internet, so I did not want to cover that information in the interviews.

I felt that I could get to the essence of the artist’s life with two simple questions: What were your early artistic influences, and what is your artistic process? I think hearing answers to those questions allows the audience to gain insights into the woman’s core artistry. And of course, hearing the artist speak in a free-flowing way is always instructive.

I specifically curate the series to include artists who are doing interesting work and are rising in their fields. I use my instincts to choose the artists whom I want to interview, and the results have been quite interesting and informative. My original idea was to do a second round of interviews five years after the first one, to discover how the artist has grown. One of my jobs as a dramaturg is to find talent and champion it. This is what I have set out to do with TheatreNow!

With an eye toward presenting theatre artists in every discipline, I then interviewed Claire Lautier, a leading actress at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, then Ruth Margraff, who is a musician, composer and playwright now based in Chicago. Season One rounded out with Kristin Marting, the Artistic Director at Here in NYC; Catherine Filloux, a playwright who writes about human rights; Valentina Fratti, A director and producer; and Yvette Heyliger and Yvonne Farrow (Twinbiz), who are masters of artists in several disciplines.

The scope is international; Beside Claire Lautier, who is based in Canada, and Paule Constable, who works mostly in London, I will soon interview Liesl Tommy, a director from South Africa who has had much success in the US and internationally.

Season Two started off with an interview with Kamilah Forbes, who is the Artistic Director of the Hip Hop Theatre Festival. I followed that with the Emmy-winner Laura Maria Censabella, a playwright based in New York. Episode Three features a fascinating discussion of Paule Constable’s design process for WAR HORSE, which will soon embark on a world tour. Upcoming interviews include Playwright and Educator Fran Tarr, who created the film brooklyn  to bethlehem & back, and the lighting designer and MacArthur Fellow Jennifer Tipton.

I plan to continue the series, and over the years, to build up a library of interviews, and distribute them to all interested parties.

Please inquire about TheatreNow! by emailing hamiltondramaturgystheatrenow@gmail.com.

Anne Hamilton is the Founder of Hamilton Dramaturgy, an international script consultancy based on the New York City professional world, and is the Host and Producer of TheatreNow!

Interview with Paule Constable, Lighting Designer

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! is a podcast series featuring some of the most exciting women artists working in the theatre today. Anne Hamilton is the producer and host. Click here to listen to  Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! Podcast with Paule Constable

The Award-winning Lighting Designer

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow!

Interview with Paule Constable, Lighting Designer

(Season Two, Episode Three, Recorded August 6, 2011)

Anne Hamilton: Welcome to TheatreNow!, a production of Hamilton Dramaturgy. This is a podcast series featuring some of the most exciting women artists working in the theatre today. I’m your host, Anne Hamilton. Today we are speaking with Paule Constable, who is a UK-based lighting designer. She won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Design for A Play for her design work on WAR HORSE. In 2005, she became the first woman to win an Olivier Award for Best Lighting Design, which she followed shortly with two more wins. This season, her designs will appear in three Metropolitan Opera Productions: DON GIOVANNI, ANNA BOLENA, and SATYAGRAHA. Welcome, Paule.

Paule Constable: Thank you.

AH: Well, you’ve got some very exciting things coming up this season. How do you feel about your Metropolitan Opera work?

PC: It’s amazing. The Met is someplace you always imagined you might work one day or you hope you might work one day, particularly when you work a lot in grand opera as I do. But to be here is phenomenal. It’s an extraordinary building – quite big and brutal. And one of the things about working on opera on that scale is that you actually get very, very little time to do anything. You need a master’s degree in pre-thinking and organization to make a show work here; there is no time to develop or nurture ideas. It’s really hard, but cracking that, trying to find ways to be creative in it, in an environment which is so tough, is a challenge I enjoy. I wouldn’t like my work to be in that environment all the time. I would like it to be in a nurturing environment more often, but now I’m looking forward to it. It’s tough.

AH: How much of your design had you completed before you came here?

PC: You have to have prepared everything, really. So I spent a lot of time with both directors. Let me explain. DON GIOVANNI and ANNA BOLENA are both new productions. SATYAGRAHA is a revival of an English National Opera Production of a Philip Glass piece, so that’s different – that’s the question of realizing a design you’ve already made. The other two pieces, we spent a lot of time talking through, working them out in principle, talking about what we want.

I mean, one of the weird things about lighting is that you can plan everything to within an inch of its life, but actually how surfaces and space are going to really to respond to light – you don’t really know that until you’re in the space. But my argument is always that the more you plan and organize – your thinking, your cuing, the way you’re going to work – then the more room you have to be intuitive and responsive in the moment. It’s that kind of constant contradiction of lighting – that it’s very, very organized and yet completely abstract.  It’s all about technology and it’s all about ideas. It’s kind of this weird hybrid in the middle. So yeah, I’ve been spending weeks planning both these shows. So let’s hope the planning pays off. [Laughter]

AH: Yes, I’m sure it will.

PC: I hope so.

AH: Well, let’s talk about WAR HORSE. Congratulations on your Tony Award. It’s very exciting. How do you feel?

PC: I’m staying in the Beacon Hotel at the moment, and the last time I was here was the night we came for the Tony Awards because the Tony’s were held at the Beacon next door this year. So it was very weird arriving here on Thursday. The day that we came out for Tony’s, I arrived in Manhattan at five o’clock in the afternoon and I left at six o’clock the next morning. So it almost felt as I arrived [this time] that I had a moment to kind of suddenly enjoy it. I sort of went, “Oh wow! This is where I won a Tony Award!”.

It’s been incredible; the journey of that show, and bringing it to Broadway. It’s a hard show. As an idea, it shouldn’t work. It’s a show which is about the imagination. It’s about taking the audience on a journey. We don’t make all the things happen. We didn’t create the show using scenery and using kind of heavy-handed theatre or spectacle. We absolutely created it using the simplest of means. We have no idea whether that would stand up on Broadway. We have no idea if the Broadway audiences were going to be willing to go on a journey like that. We try and appeal to people’s kind of childlike love of storytelling. That’s the principle the show works on. It’s very high risk doing that here and we really didn’t want to compromise that about it.

Because if you start to change that, then even the horses won’t work anymore. Because the horses are only bits of bamboo and metal and nets, and yet within two minutes, the audience is just loving them and responding to them as real horses. So, we didn’t how that would work. We did a huge amount of work on the writing, on the structure of the piece.

We wanted to make it more dynamic for Broadway. We wanted to make it more rigorous, in a sense. The writing is strong though, it withstands. It’s not necessarily only for a family audience, but it would withstand a kind of a wider audience. And also we decided when we brought it here that it was an opportunity to kind of re-engage as a team on the show. So, to do all that was amazing.

To do all that and for New York to fall in love with the show had been beyond anything we ever imagined. So [for the show to win] five Tony Awards was exceptional, absolutely exceptional. I think it’s also brilliant for all the people who have supported us through the project and believed in us, because it’s a huge act of faith, almost. There’s no reason it should make sense.

AH: And how did you become involved in the project?

PC: It’s a strange contradiction again really, the show. The show is built on an absolute belief in the power of collaboration. So Tom Morris, who was the original producer at the National Theatre, had the idea. What happened is he’d seen Handspring [Puppet Company]. He saw the South African puppet makers. They brought the show to London, which involved them creating a giraffe on stage, and he was completely taken aback by this show, and sort of felt determined that he would find a book or a piece that would be appropriate for their work.

I think he famously said that it was his mother who sent him Michael [Morpurgo’s] book. It was Michael’s first book. He wrote it in an attempt to try and articulate something really awful in a way that children could understand it, which is why he used an animal. And it’s a very emotive piece. Tom read it and immediately thought it was a great idea, and also realized very quickly that he was going to want a very specific group of people in the room to tell that story and bring it to life.

So, about three years before the show appeared on stage I met with the other creators.  It was myself; the designer, Rae Smith; the director, Marianne Elliott (three women); the Handspring boys, who are Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler; the writer of the original novel, Michael Morpurgo; the writer who initially did the adaptation, Nick Stafford; and Sound Designer Chris Shutt.  We all found ourselves in a room talking about the possibilities of the show.

So it was a very, very slow burn. We literally started in a room with a bucket and a piece of string, talking about how and what we believe stories could be, and how we could tell a story. And we ended up on WAR HORSE with a creative team of about fourteen people. So it’s an amazing exercise in passing the baton, and you can’t have an ego in a team that big. I think it’s very interesting that three of the key players in that room are women as well. And it is never easy, it wasn’t easy for any of us, but I think nobody could ever want to be top dog. So, it’s tricky. It’s tricky also because what we all see is slightly different, but what every single member of the audience sees is slightly different as well. So it’s a constant question.

But the other thing that I think is really key about it is a lot of those relationships within that team. I mean the Handspring boys had never worked with us before, but Rae Smith, the designer, she and I have worked together for 22 years. Marianne and I, the director, she and I have been working together for fifteen years, since my daughter was first born. Chris Shutt, the sound designer, he and I first worked together in ’92. There are many relationships and they are all built on huge amounts of trust and shared belief in what we could achieve.

Because, I don’t think on the scale of this show, that there’s ever been anything like it. I think it’s quite unique. So yeah, it’s been quite a journey. [Laughter] And you know as I said before, we never in our wildest dreams imagined we’d be here with it. So it’s been incredible.

AH: Is this your first show that was transferred to New York?

PC: I did a production of Tom Stoppard’s JUMPERS that was from the National Theatre that came here for a brief season. THE WEIR – which is a Conor McPherson play – I did the original production of that when that came to Broadway. What’s interesting about WAR HORSE is that it feels like it’s come very much under its own terms. I mean if I think about something like THE WEIR, [it shows the different choices involved in moving a show]. When we originally did that show, we did it in a tiny, tiny theatre which was part of the Royal Court in London. And the audience, well, we sat it in a room which was a bar, but a makeshift bar, basically someone’s front room in a farm in Ireland, based on a lot of observation. And the audience came in and sat in the room. So we had 22 people in the audience.

And so the journey to make that into something that kind of sat in a proscenium-arched Broadway house, it was a testament to how good the play was. But actually the production, that was this beautiful little jewel of a thing, could have become this kind of much bigger thing. So it didn’t kind of stay itself, in a way, whereas I think our show [WAR HORSE] at the moment definitely has stayed itself. In fact, it’s growing more into itself bringing it here.

AH: Are there plans to move it somewhere else?

PC: It’s going to Toronto in January. So it’s a new production going on to Toronto. And it’s going to start touring the U.S. in the Spring of next year and it’s going to Australia as well. But I think what we’re learning about it is that, potentially, it has quite a universal appeal. So, we shall see.

AH: Yes. Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic process? Specifically, how you lit the horses as puppets?

PC: There’s a very clear language of ideas in WAR HORSE. The First World War sort of ripped the heart out of Britain and Europe in a very extraordinary way. When the war started, the British government sent artists to go and work in front lines, which they’ve done with other wars – World Wars, the Crimea. But they sent these artists to somehow to try and record what was going on. We didn’t have film, and we didn’t have photography to the same extent that we’ve got now. They also felt that paintings and sketches could interpret things for the public, whereas photographs were too literal. [The public] was quite frightened by photographs.

And actually, what happened is that the First World War was unlike any other war that happened. And these young men who went somehow had to express something that nobody had ever seen before, and they expressed it in an incredible way with this whole vorticist, expressionist, extremist form of painting and drawing. And Rae Smith and I were very interested in this whole language, and how art had told the story of what was happening to this whole generation of young men, and how it’s very easy to share that. Now you can go to the Imperial War Museum in London, although actually it should really be called Imperial Peace Museum, it’s kind of such an extraordinary place. But you can go and see all the paintings, and they are beautiful, and harrowing, and upsetting, but they tell a very, very real story. So what we keyed into, and Rae started to develop, was the idea of an artist’s response to the situation.

So before the First World War, lots of art that you saw in the U.K. was Edwardian, pastoral, beautiful. So we created the world that you lose in war – the world of the death of Devon, where the horse comes from. In very similar terms, she draws it. You see it drawn on a screen and it’s all very simple pastoral scenes. And for me, it’s all about warm tones and sunlight. All the light comes in from very, very high up. And it passes past the big cloud which sits above the stage, so we light the whole stage like a landscape.

The idea is, it should make you feel nostalgic. And also it shares the space; it’s very open. You know, you see everything. And it also means that we’re free to light the puppets in a very solid way. We’ve got lots of light coming from very high up. We can light the puppets and light their front surfaces so they feel quite solid. And so, one, you’re aware of the puppeteers. You also see the puppets very, very clearly, and you see their skin and their surface, and you feel they’re quite solid and see their breathing really clearly. When we go into the First World War, we move from that kind of Edwardian, pastoral, idyllic, warm, nostalgic world. We suddenly go into a much more chemical world.

The colors that the war artists used were very chemical; sort of acid greens, blues, harsh colors, and very dynamic angles of lights and line in their pictures. And we recreated that using very, very low angles of light and, rather than warm color, with everything cold and very edgy and quite aggressive. And what that also does is it means that all the lights come from very, very low down and behind the puppets. So suddenly, from being sort of three-dimensional beings, you start to see the line of them, and they start to become skeletal and vulnerable. You see them in a world full of machines, and you see the vulnerability within that. So we are sort of taking two very clear ideas from the art world and we’ve sort of created a version for ourselves in the WAR HORSE world.

So you hope that the audience feels comfortable and warm and welcome at the beginning, and nostalgic, and it should make them subliminally think of summer days and beautiful landscapes, and clouds moving across the landscape. And then you put them somewhere where that will always be something they’ll miss. So when the boy is away looking for his horse, and trying to get himself and his horse home, that home has a value to you. You’ve already envisioned and kind of invested in it.

AH: Who was the protagonist in WAR HORSE?

PC:  Protagonist? I mean, that’s an interesting question because we had quite a wrestle with that. Because certainly, in terms of the audience’s journey, it’s the horse.  And in the second half, the horse meets another human who really helps him, and that’s a German. That’s one of the lucky things about Michael’s books – he doesn’t demonize people. So there’s a German officer who meets the horse and protects him and helps him through the war. So it’s sort of a triangle – the horse and the English boy and the German officer. Ultimately, it’s a love story between the horse and the boy. But the key person, the key character you follow all the way through, who’s consistent, is Joey. So yes, [the protagonist is] a character that doesn’t say a word.
AH: Take note, playwrights. [Laughter]  Let’s back up a little bit. I usually ask this question first, but I’ll ask it now. Can you tell us about your early artistic influences?

PC: My route to lighting design was quite circuitous. I didn’t study it academically. I had no idea I wanted to be a lighting designer. Lighting design discovered me. I read English literature at a degree level at the University of London and eventually swapped and did an English and drama degree, but it was completely academic. It wasn’t a practical degree of any sort. I think that’s a very key point in the way that I work, because I’m really interested in text and analysis, and I’m obsessed with light, telling the right story and telling the same story [as the playwright].

I feel that there’s very strong dramaturgy with light. And I feel that that’s key to my work. I can’t do ‘arbitrary’.  I get lost very, very quickly if I don’t have something strong to hang my ideas on. And I think that comes from the influences of my interest in literature, essentially, and all those kind of Geoffrey Hill characters, and all those people whose essays I read, kind of forever. I thought I wanted to be an English academic.

In terms of actual lighting, I started lighting working in the music industry. There were a couple designers that I met very early on who kind of met me and said, “You need to push for this”, and also sort of advised me that the music industry wasn’t the most creative place to do lighting. I think that was very, very great advice that I received.

I quite early on saw a lot of work by the brilliant Jennifer Tipton, who’s an American lighting designer, who I think is one of the most brilliant artists living. I think she’s amazing. And it was while I was working in the music industry and I saw her work that I realized that light could do so much more, and it had an active part to play without being dominant for its own sake, but somehow it could do more. So she was hugely influential.

An American lighting designer called Stevie Whitson, who worked at La MaMa kind of in the early days, came over to London in the 70s. He was absolutely brilliant and anarchic in a way that we just never used to see in the UK. I met him very early on and worked with him for a couple of years. And then he basically told me to go away and do my own work: “I’m not employing you anymore. You’ve got to do your own shit”. [Laughter]

I said, “Okay, okay”. And then, as I kind of developed as an artist, meeting Rae was hugely important to me. She had traveled a lot, as I had. She’d worked in Japan, and then Slovenia. I’ve done work in Russia and I traveled a lot in Lithuania, Georgia, places like that, and have done quite a lot of international festival work. And when we came together, I think we found a mutual voice together. And suddenly I felt, I didn’t need to keep a lid on all those things that I was thinking about [regarding] how to make theatre. And also, [I was] kind of realizing slowly – through meeting Rae, and valuing her company, and looking at the way other artists worked – [that] my voice was different. And I think it’s partly because I’m me, and it’s partly because I’m a woman as well. I think, you know, we do have a very different voice. And that was one [way I started to develop].

In the U.S., you have quite a lot of very senior lighting designers who are women. We don’t have that at all in the UK. There were some who have come through who are older than me who have sort of, in a way, given up because they’ve just stopped banging on the door, because the door just wasn’t going to be opened for them. And it’s changing, but painfully slowly. So meeting other women who could empower me to keep going [was important]. And [it was] seeing people like Jennifer, Mimi Jordan Sheridan and Heather Carson, and Pat Collins, who were amazing American lighting designers, who were scary and brilliant, you know, that you kind of went, “Okay, it’s possible. It really is”.

AH: Do you have any dream projects that you’re thinking about?

PC: Do I have any dream projects? There are a couple of operas I’d really like to do, that I haven’t have a chance to. I mean, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve done lots of things that I wanted to do. I love Benjamin Britten and I’ve never have an opportunity to do THE TURN OF THE SCREW, and I’d love to. I’ve done a lot of his other pieces. The decision-making for me about whether I do a project involves quite a lot of criteria, and one of them is the piece. But that’s only one of them. The other one that’s key for me is who it’s with. I grew up with Théâtre de Complicité, and I grew up in a world of collaboration and devised theatre, and I’m not good at working in an environment where they just want me to come in and turn the lights on. I’ve got more opinions than that. And I don’t feel like I’m bringing this to the room when it’s not necessary, and I’m not just going to do as someone’s going to ask me. I feel I work best when we’re working as a team. So I can talk to you about a lot of things I don’t want to do. [Laughter]

AH: That would be great.

PC: I don’t want to work with people who just want me to turn lights on and off. I don’t want to work with people who want to tell me what to do. I want it to be a conversation. I don’t want to work with people who have really fixed ideas about what they want. So in a way, when I think about what do I want to do in the future [the collaborative process is very important].  I’ve been really fortunate to stay challenged and I really enjoy working with collaborators who not only really work altogether, but who question you in a way that can make you re-look at what you’re doing, and can make you move it on more.

It’s rare, I think, [for me] to ever walk away from a piece of work and think it’s good. I think ninety percent of the time you walk away, and [you feel] it’s okay. And then there’s a tiny bit of the time when you kind of walk away for a moment, you go, “Actually that moment was quite [good]. I’ll keep that one”. And it’s only a moment. It’s never a whole show. So, in the future it would be great to do a whole show [that I felt was really good]. [Laughter] Well, that would be one thing to aspire to. So for me it’s about my body of work as opposed to just one particular piece.

Because also, the thing about lighting design is [that] my function is entirely reactive. So if I’m being asked to do a show, generally I’ll let the director and designer work together [first], to sort of have a sense of how they want to do that show before I get too involved. Because I think it’s not for me to arrive and go, “Oh, I’ve decided it should all be purple”. You know, it’s like they come up with what they want to do, and then I bring that to life. It’s not for me to kind of interpret that separately. Everything that I do in terms of design has to fit in with the storytelling, and the way they’ve decided to tell the story. So, yes, [I want to] just keep working with good collaborators.

AH: And do you have a set process by which you would approach a script?

PC: It slightly varies. I mean, it’s interesting with shows. There are shows that you know – perhaps because of the way you’re going to tell the story, or the work you’re going to do – are going to be very demanding and they’re going to require a huge amount of time from you in rehearsal and a big input, and that lighting is going to be quite a strong part of the muscle of how the show moves.

There are other shows where the light is very much about the architecture of the space, and then the play will play out – or the opera will play out – within that. And quite soon after something’s been designed, you can get a sense of which sort of show it is, how much time they’re going to need you for. Whichever kind of show it is, I do spend a lot of time in rehearsals.

I think again, because I can come from a devised theatre background, I’m very bad at making things up without seeing them. I also really enjoy watching the rehearsals. I really enjoy that part of the process. It seems to me lighting is so difficult to pin down because you never get a chance to do it until you’re in the theatre. You don’t get to make a model like a set designer. You don’t get to do drawings like a costume designer and [have] fittings, and try things. So in a way, being in rehearsals, for me, is part of me just imagining, sort of smelling, kind of feeling, what something will be like under light. Getting a sense of it, being alive in three dimensions, just to try and help it be less of a highjack when I find myself in the theatre, really. So it’s just more a chance to kind of apply, and see, and think, and feel it. So, I spend quite a long time doing that.

I often describe my process as being a time of orbiting a piece. So, you know, you make a decision to do a show, and then you get involved with the whole process of how lights are going to function within that show and what the design is, and what my input to that is and very boring things like where I can put lights, and the technical problems. And then [you approach] all sorts of ideas that the designer and the director had been working with in terms of reference material and periods. You are just grabbing at any useful information you can, anything that can make the choices you make as a designer informed.

So then I just keep circling, like an aircraft in a holding pattern, until I come in to land. So, you’re kind of just closing in and closing in on that through rehearsals. And the interesting thing is, you put the lights up and you point it in the right place when you do the tech, but you can still change things. You’ve still got to keep feeling like you’re circling, not that you’ve stopped. You’ve got to keep looking and keep trying to think if something is right, or if it can be better, in terms of pictures and rhythm.

I remember when I very, very first went off to Goldsmiths, I thought I might want to direct. And the more I saw theatre, the more I thought, “How on earth do you direct?” Because even just one tiny bit of this picture is so complex and a lifetime’s work. How do ever finally go, “I want to do it all”? I mean, I can think about great directors, and they’re great collaborators, aren’t they? That’s what makes them brilliant.  It’s the ability to put the right people in a room. It’s about casting, not only of actors, but of the creative team.

AH: Yes. Could you explain to us the basic properties of light?

PC: It’s quite an interesting question. When I think about light coming into a space and activating the dark space, the first thing I tend to think about is where that light is going to be. So I determine where it’s coming from, and how it hits the space, how it hits the performer, how it hits the architecture.  I’d like, in my work, for there to be a sense of the lights coming from a certain place for a reason.  So that thing about angle, I think, is really critical.

I think in that way because the majority of my ideas come from something that I’ve seen. So a lot of my ideas come from what are essentially naturalistic images to start with: daylight and how and where we see it; the sense of dawn and dusk; and lowlight and highlight and how that shifting angle just absolutely changes the landscape of the world we live within.  I find that fascinating.

And it’s fascinating that in fact, we can feel those long, low shadows – those shifts of dawn and dusk.  That’s the reason Chekhov wrote all his plays with those amazing scenes, which are descents into darkness and revelations into dawn. It’s about moments of change, and the angle of light in those moments is really critical, and we’re very aware of it as humans. So I love playing with that. I love angles.

With color, color is a weird one for me in that I know that I don’t naturally think in terms of saturated color, because again my palette tends to come from a heightened naturalism. I tend to think of the light as being warm or cold. I don’t think of it as being red or blue.

I might get to something that’s kind of blue-er when I’m thinking about the light before dawn when it’s all very gray and you can’t quite see to define things properly. Or sometimes I’ll accept that I need to heighten it more and make the audience more conscious of what’s going on. I tend to start from a very stripped-back palette, but the gradations within that approach are enormous. Even if you’re thinking warm and cool, the separation between red and blue is vast and huge. So that’s color.

There’s intensity, which has to do with darkness, and that’s a very interesting area because I think it’s a very active area to do with how an audience perceives things. You can actually get away with very, very low levels of light in theatre, if you take the audience on a journey where they feel safe enough to go there. If they start [watching] and everything feels opaque, and they can’t see it, then everyone tends to get frustrated. But actually, you can really lead people to looking at very dark images, and I love playing with that, partly because darkness is our friend, and it also makes the lighting look better, right?

So angle, intensity, and color, they are the three basics really. It sounds very simple, doesn’t it? And then how [it’s about how] we put all those things together.  But yes, that’s it really.

AH: And I have one question about theatre criticism of a production. I was trained as a theatre critic when I went to Columbia, and one of the things we were responsible for critiquing, of course, is lighting design, as well as the other design elements. Obviously, it’s very difficult to do that, and you have to be trained, but we were not trained to perceive lighting design by a lighting designer. We were trained to do that by theatre critics. So do you have anything to say about how theatre critics could better interpret lighting design?

PC: I think it’s very difficult to separate disciplines out.  You sort of hope, like an audience member, that the critic is looking at and experiencing the whole. And the golden rule for me is I think good lighting tells a story and bad lighting doesn’t. I mean, we know those moments when every element in a production is absolutely driving towards the same [place]. Even if it’s a kind of contrary juxtaposition or whatever, it’s driving to the same place, and that’s what I think we should be trying to achieve. We should be trying to achieve work where we are greater than sum of our parts. I think you can say, [for instance], “The light of that moment really made the end of that Ibsen play happen because the dramatist is demanding that of us. He has thrown down a gauntlet where a sunset, a physical change in the space, becomes a character in the story”. But I don’t necessary think it’s healthy for a critic to separate out [the lighting elements from the rest of the production] completely. So I think it needs to be seen in terms of the play, doesn’t it?

So that’s my feeling. I get very cross when I go and see shows and they’re lit for the sake of being lit. You’re just kind of, “Lights go on here, lights go on there”, and it’s kind of nothing to do with the kind of the world we’re in, or [with] trying to make something sort of feasible or credible for an audience. In a way, it should feel seamless, and that’s what I think good lighting should be.

Not invisible. Invisible, if that’s what the play or the production demands.  But sometimes the play or production demands something that’s very dynamic, like with WAR HORSE. But I hope that it feels like [the lighting is] right within the context of the whole, even though it’s very “front foot” in that particular show.

Whereas I’ve I just done a production of DIE MEISTERSINGER, which is five-and-a-half hours of Wagner, and there are probably only about forty cues in the whole thing, because it’s absolutely about: “You make the space. You tell the story of the light that comes into the space. And they play within it”. You don’t need to do any more than that. You trust the music in the space, and the light is basically just telling you more about the quality of space that they’re in.

AH: So I hear a lot of themes: unity, trust, seamlessness, depth, understanding of the text. It’s wonderful insight that you’ve given us, and I thank you so much for sharing it.

PC: It’s been an absolute pleasure.

AH: Thank you. You have been listening to TheatreNow!, a production of Hamilton Dramaturgy. We have been speaking today with Paule Constable. You may follow her career through her website at http://www.PauleConstable.com. You can download these podcasts at my blog which is http:// theatrenow.wordpress.com. Our theme was composed by Nancy Ford, and Otto Bost is the sound designer. I am Anne Hamilton, your producer and host. Thank you for listening to “TheatreNow!”

TheatreNow!’s Sound Editor is Otto Bost (http://www.folkdude.com) and our Program Assistant is Cate Cammarata.  Visit http://theatrenow.wordpress. com to subscribe to our blog and get notifications when new podcasts are released. Hamilton Dramaturgy is an international script development consultancy located on the east coast of the United States. You may contact Anne Hamilton at hamiltonlit@hotmail.com. © 2011 Hamilton Dramaturgy.

 Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! Interview with Paule Constable (Season Two, Episode Three)