Hamilton Dramaturgy's TheatreNow!

Now Playing – Podcast with Jennifer Tipton

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. Jennifer Tipton is the final guest in Season Two. You may listen to podcasts and read the transcripts at https://theatrenow.wordpress.com.

 Jennifer Tipton

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow!

Interview with Jennifer Tipton, Lighting Designer

(Season Two, Episode Five, Recorded October 29, 2011)

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! Podcast with Jennifer Tipton

Jennifer Tipton is well-known for her work in theatre, dance, and opera. In theatre, her recent work includes AUTUMN SONATA by Ingmar Bergman, directed by Robert Woodruff at Yale Repertory Theatre, and The Wooster Group’s version of Tennessee Williams’ VIEUX CARRÉ. Her recent work in dance includes Alexei Ratmansky’s THE NUTCRACKER for American Ballet Theater and Paul Taylor’s THE UNCOMMITTED. Her recent work in opera includes Gounod’s ROMEO ET JULIETTE directed by Bartlett Sher at La Scala and LA CLEMENZA DI TITO for the Festival in Aix-en-Provence directed by David McVicar. Ms. Tipton teaches lighting at the Yale School of Drama. She received The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2001, the Jerome Robbins Prize in 2003, and in April 2004, the Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture in New York City. In 2008, she was made a United States Artist “Gracie” Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow.

You may read the interview here: Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! Interview with Jennifer Tipton

This episode is dedicated to David Rogers.

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Jennifer Tipton Wins ALD Medal

Congratulations to Jennifer Tipton for winning the Association of Lighting Designers’ 50th Anniversary Medal for her outstanding achievement in Lighting Design. TheatreNow! interviewed Jennifer in October, where she was the final guest in Season Two of the podcast. Read the interview here: Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! Interview with Jennifer Tipton. The podcast is in post-production and will be released shortly.

Jennifer Tipton Wins ALD Medal

Here is the ALD announcement:

As part of their 50th Anniversary celebrations, The Association of Lighting Designers is proud to announce a new international award which honours practitioners who have made a sustained and significant contribution to the art and esteem of theatre and live performance lighting design.

The recipient of the Anniversary Medal for Sustained Excellence in Lighting Design for Live Performance is Jennifer Tipton, who has been at the top of her profession for a number of years and engenders a philosophy and practice which has inspired generations of theatre makers, especially in the world of contemporary dance.

Tipton’s distinguished career includes many Tony Awards for winning Broadway designs, as well as long term creative relationships with American Ballet Theatre, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and choreographers: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dana Rice and Shen Wei.

As Adjunct Professor of Design at the Yale School of Drama since 1981, Jennifer has trained many of the top lighting designers working around the world today, and continues to inspire respect and admiration amongst the emerging generation of theatre makers.


TheatreNow! Interview with Jennifer Tipton, 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. Jennifer Tipton is the final guest in Season Two. The podcast will be posted shortly. You may listen to  podcasts and read the transcripts at https://theatrenow.wordpress.com.

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow!

Interview with Jennifer Tipton, Lighting Designer

(Season Two, Episode Five, Recorded October 29, 2011)

AH: Welcome to Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! This is a podcast series featuring some of the most exciting woman artists working in the theatre today. I’m your host Anne Hamilton. Today our guest is Jennifer Tipton. Ms. Tipton is well-known for her work in theatre, dance, and opera. In theatre, her recent work includes AUTUMN SONATA by Ingmar Bergman, directed by Robert Woodruff at Yale Repertory Theatre, and The Wooster Group’s version of Tennessee Williams’ VIEUX CARRÉ. Her recent work in dance includes Alexei Ratmansky’s THE NUTCRACKER for American Ballet Theater and Paul Taylor’s THE UNCOMMITTED. Her recent work in opera includes Gounod’s ROMEO ET JULIETTE directed by Bartlett Sher at La Scala and LA CLEMENZA DI TITO for the Festival in Aix-en-Provence directed by David McVicar. Ms. Tipton teaches lighting at the Yale School of Drama. She received The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2001, the Jerome Robbins Prize in 2003, and in April 2004, the Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture in New York City. In 2008, she was made a United States Artist “Gracie” Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow. Welcome, Jennifer.

JT: Thank you, Anne. Glad to be here.

AH: Well, my first question is: What drew you to the light?

JT: I came to New York having graduated from college, to be a dancer. And I danced with the company called The Merry-Go-Rounders for a while. And, I think, about the third year, I became the rehearsal mistress, which meant that I didn’t dance, but I sat in the audience to observe the performances so that I was able to critique the dancers. And I looked at the bigger picture, and that was light, and I fell in love with it. I’ve been in love with it ever since.

AH: That’s wonderful. What kind of dance troupe was it?

JT: Modern dance. It was called The Merry-Go-Rounders. We danced for children, so we performed every weekend.

AH: And then, did you go on to train in a university, or did you just go into the field?

JT: I just went into the field. There were a couple of things I did before joining the Paul Taylor Company. But one of the first things is that I became the stage manager for the Paul Taylor Company, recreating the lighting of Thomas Skelton. And then there was a Broadway season. I loved it in those days. Four performances were called a season. And the producers somehow convinced Paul that it should not be Thomas Skelton who lit the four performances. And I, at the end of that, said to Paul, “I’m perfectly happy to do this other person’s lighting on our tours, but I’d love to do my own.” So he said, “Why don’t you do your own?” So I started lighting for Paul Taylor. And I am lighting for Paul Taylor right now.

AH: What a wonderful collaboration.

JT: Yes, it has been.

AH: I think as an audience member, I don’t necessarily perceive the light, or the way that light artists work.

JT: Yes. Well, I think that’s the way that it should be. I always hope that critics are knowledgeable and perceive what’s going on. But the audience in general — for some reason or another, human beings just don’t pay much attention to light. They expect it as if it’s somehow a birthright for it to be there so that they can see, but they don’t analyze it.

AH: But it can create such a wonderful atmosphere.

JT: Absolutely. I always say, or have said in the past, that ninety-nine and forty-four-hundredths of the audience does not pay any attention to the lighting, but one hundred percent is affected by it.

AH: Yes. That’s wonderful. And you have a marvelous project coming up at Lincoln Center.

JT: Well, Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival is going on right now. This week, we’re doing NECESSARY WEATHER.  I’m collaborating with Dana Reitz and Sara Rudner, who will dance in it. And Dana and I did the lighting for it. It’s about seventeen years old and it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. No music, just light. Interestingly, when it was originally done seventeen years ago, Adam Gopnick wrote a review, and the sentence that I remember is “I whistled the chiaroscuro all the way home.” I always thought that was just wonderful.

AH: Yes, it’s poetic.

JT: And then next week, I’m lighting SPECTRAL SCRIABIN, which is just the opposite.  It’s music and light, and no movement, no acting. Just the music and the light.

AH: What is it like to be in the rehearsal room with one other artist, or one or two other performers?

JT: It’s wonderful to be able to be so specific in collaboration. Usually, I have the set designer, the costume designer and, of course, the director or choreographer, and the sound designer and we’re all sort of trying to make it a piece. I call the art of theatre a “dirty art”, since there are so many people involved who have needs and whims to be satisfied. But when there’s only one other person, you can go quite deeply into the project.

AH: Do you ever consider your work a duet? Do you think of it in terms of musicality? Or how do you think of it?

JT: I’ve often called the lighting for the stage the “music for the eye”, because it has the same way of making an atmosphere, making a landscape, changing fluidly from one place to another without seeming effort. And I feel that the same rules apply as in music: variation, structure and form, and statement of theme, and development of theme, et cetera, et cetera. And I feel also that the rhythm of a production is made by the lighting. If it feels like it’s too long and too slow, it may well be because the light is changing in a way that makes the audience feel that way. Definitely I feel that light and music are very closely related.

AH: When a show is light and music, or light and dance, do you ever feel like you enter into the collaboration, in a duet, or a trio, or do you kind of distance yourself?

JT: No. I’m definitely involved.

AH: I mean in your mind?

JT: There is no difference between my mind and what’s actually happening. Yes, definitely I’m involved.

AH: Do you have a color palette that you like to use?

JT: Not really. It may seem that way in looking at it, because I work with light and shadow a lot, so that means source, and the shadow side, which is cool. [I work with the contrast between] warm and cool. I love painting with color, but that’s often not appropriate. So, yes, I love all colors.

AH: Do you have any thoughts about darkness?

JT: I once wrote to Robert Rauschenberg, who I had known when he lived in New York, asking him a question about light and he replied with a statement about darkness. It’s definitely always possible [to design with darkness], but I find most often on the stage that the darkness really is the shadow side and therefore there’s a little bit of light there. These days when there are exit signs, and aisle lights, and all of this sort of random light around, just as there is no true silence, there is no true darkness in the theatre, sadly.

AH: Do you feel that your eyes are able to perceive gradations of light in a particular way that may be different from the rest of us?

JT: No, not at all. I’m human and tend to ignore it on some occasions, but I am always very sensitive to it. It seems to me I’m much more sensitive to sunlight, moonlight, star light, natural light. I walk outside and am immediately aware of a full moon, and other people around me don’t seem to be aware of it at all. So, in some ways perhaps, but I’m mainly just human.

AH: [Laughter] You’re not superhuman? Oh, gee. But all women in theatre wish that you are and we are. Well, has your life changed very much since you won the MacArthur Award?

JT: Not really. I mean it’s been great. I’ve been very comfortable in these financially fragile times, which is a lovely gift from them, but I’m still overworked and loving every minute of it. So, it has not really changed things much for me.

AH: In your last piece that you designed, the piece about Scriabin, how did you develop as an artist? Did any new ideas present themselves to you?

JT: I don’t know that it’s really new, but I had to find the form of rendering what we were thinking and talking about, the pianist and I. But that’s the process that really I go about every time I do something. And you know, I certainly got to know Scriabin a lot better than I had before that. He’s a kooky guy. That was a pleasure.

AH: Do you keep a studio here in New York other than what you have here [in your home]?

JT: No, I have over there in the corner a drafting board. So, now everything is stuffed into a rather small loft.

AH: I see.

JT: It’s large in New York standards [Laughter] with everything. After years and years of accumulating papers, I keep feeling that I should give them to the library or something because they are beginning to overwhelm me.

AH: And when you were young, when you were growing up, what kind of artistic activities did you take part in?

JT: I call myself a university brat. I was born in Columbus, Ohio. My father taught at Ohio State at the time and he was a zoologist. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to teach in medical school or in a university. So, he taught at Ohio State and then decided he wanted to go to the Wayne State Medical School in Detroit. So, we moved there when I was about two and a half. And my parents were not very happy in Detroit during World War II, so they decided to go back South. They were both Georgian by birth. And so, they ended up at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where my father was in their Zoology Department. Then, he decided he wanted to teach in med school, so we moved to Birmingham. So, we were moving around quite a bit every couple of years, actually, in those days. Finally, at the age of twelve, we moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where my mother went to work as well. She was a physicist, so they were both teaching at the University there. And the wife of a man in my father’s department had been interested in dance, and was taking her daughter to Oak Ridge, which was nearby. So, I tagged along and really came to adore dance. In my junior year in high school – the summer after my junior year in high school – I went to the American Dance Festival, which was in New London, Connecticut, at Connecticut College in those days.

I spent the summer there, and my parents, they were fantastic. They allowed me to come to New York by myself the winter of my senior year in high school. Yeah, I was sixteen, I guess. And I had two weeks with the Martha Graham Christmas course all by myself in New York City. So, I was madly in love with dance. As a matter of fact, I went to Cornell University and my mother said that my application letter sounded like Cornell was a dance school. And dance was only part of the Physical Education department in those days. Oh, it was not prominent on Cornell’s radar but it definitely was in mine. Anyway, so I got there. But I went majoring in Physics because I wanted to be the first person on the moon, an astrophysicist. But I soon decided that I wanted to dance. But coming from an academic background, I knew that I could not leave college. I had to finish. So, I finished college and came to New York to be a dancer.

AH: You could have danced on the moon.

JT: Yes, I guess. It would have been great.

AH: I have a question about your artistic process. Do you have one method by which you approach a new project or do you have different approaches?

JT: Probably, I have just one approach. Because I do feel that light is the same for everything; for opera, for theatre, for dance. It varies because of the particular situation. The scale of opera, of course, is much bigger, though the time is just about the same. They give you very little time in opera. They give you very little time in dance. In theatre there’s more time. There are previews which you don’t have in dance and in opera. First performance is the world premiere and the work is over. But anyway, the process begins by working on the plot, what I call “the light landscape” of the production. I put it on the stage and then use that landscape — use the vocabulary, use the light language, if you would to make sentences, paragraphs, whatever, in making cues on stage, and that’s true. Of course, it’s channeled by different circumstances, but that’s true of everything that I do.

AH: How do you notate lighting designs?

JT: Well, you have plots, and you have hook-ups. You have a record of what light was plugged into what channel, so you have numbers attached to every light. You have colors attached to every light, you have a focus note. Hopefully, there is time to get good notes on the focus, but I’ve generally developed a good way to record it and to remember it. The Royal Ballet in London decided fifteen years after it was done originally, to bring back a production of GISELLE, and the house did not have a good record of what the cues had been, but I did.

AH: Oh, very good.

JT: So they were able to recreate it.

AH: Do you work with a computer?

JT: Of course, I have a computer, but I guess I use it for email mostly. [Chuckle] I’m quite an old fogey. [Chuckle] I like to do my drawings by hand, my plots by hand. I will then give it to an assistant to draft it on a computer.  I use a computer but not for my work.

AH: Well, there’s a certain amount of excitement and pleasure [to be experienced] from writing.

JT: I believe in the hand-brain, pencil-to-paper-brain connection. In fact, I teach and I have the first year students do all of their drafting by hand to remind them that there is this physical connection between the two.

AH: Yes, and so that it’s not a lost art; so that this hand-work, hand-drafting is not a lost art. I asked Paule Constable a question about theatre criticism and lighting design, and I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on it. I was trained as a theatre critic at Columbia, and we were taught to comment on the lighting design without ever having been taught by a lighting designer. So, I just wondered, do you have any thoughts on how theatre critics can better interpret or perceive lighting design?

JT: Well, I feel that they should really take it upon themselves to learn a bit about it, just like they learn a bit about everything else that has to do with the theatre. It isn’t just by the seat of your pants. I feel it’s unfair, but then I’m not sure that the critics writing today are trained in any sort of way. There is a way to support the art and to allow and encourage the art to flourish while being critical. In fact, I find in teaching that self-critique is one of the best ways to have your art grow, but if you start tearing yourself down then, it’s not going to go anywhere. I feel the same about critics. I feel that’s happening all too often. They point out the flaws rather than the positive sides of things. And it’s true with lighting as well as the other aspects of theatre.

AH: Yeah, I think an acknowledgement of what is working and what is great is important. It’s important to start with that, because often that’s the foundation upon which the one little thing rests. The one little thing that may be a little off can sit on top of a ninety-five percent success, and that should be acknowledged.

JT: Yeah. I know too many playwrights, or would-be playwrights, or would-have-been playwrights, that are around my age, who were bitter or have gone to something else because they got such a raw deal from critics, and some are quite wonderful writers. So, I find criticism here in this country sad, particularly in this city, I might say.

AH: We talked in graduate school about theatre criticism now becoming a consumer journalist job rather than a job as an artist, and it didn’t use to be that way. And I think theatre critics are very, very important, they’re making a public statement.

JT: And they should be a guide for the audience rather than telling the audience, “You’re going to like this,” or “You’re not going like it, so don’t go.”

AH: Yes.

JT: They should be the guide about the ideas that are talked about or explored in the production, and it should stimulate the audience to be curious about how they personally might interact with those ideas and feel about those ideas, rather than just putting them down.

AH: Do you have any young lighting designers coming up who you think are wonderful?

JT: Well, I teach at Yale School of Drama and we take two lighting designers into the program every year. I started teaching there in 1981, and at this point I have a very good track record. There are many, many, many of them out there working, doing wonderful work. So, I don’t want to point out one over the other because they’re all I think terrific. And one of the things I pride myself on is that they’re each different. I really encourage them to find their own voice rather than just copy me.

AH: That’s the mark of a master artist. An artist can respect another artist. Do you have any words of advice for young theatre artists coming up now?

JT: Always. Only come into theatre if there’s nothing else that you can possibly do. If you are totally hooked [Laugher] and crazy about the art, yes, come on in. But, otherwise, it will not treat you very well. [Laughter]

AH: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

JT: No. I’ve had a lovely time talking to you, and I think we’ve covered just about everything.

AH: Good. Thank you.

JT: Thank you.

AH: You have been listening to Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! We have been speaking today with Jennifer Tipton. You may read more about her on the MacArthur Foundation website, which is www.macfound.org. You may read a transcript of this interview and download this podcast on my blog, which is https://theatrenow.wordpress.com. Our theme was composed by Nancy Ford. Otto Bost is the sound designer, and Cate Cammarata is the program assistant. I am Anne Hamilton, your producer and host. Thank you for listening.

TheatreNow!’s Sound Editor is Otto Bost (http://www.folkdude.com) and our Program Assistant is Cate Cammarata. Visit https://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.

Download the interview here:

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! Interview with Jennifer Tipton

Now Playing – TheatreNow! Podcast with Paule Constable

Paule Constable 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.

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

Hamilton Dramaturgy’s TheatreNow! with Paule Constable

Please enjoy the interview!

The Award-winning Lighting Designer

Read the transcript from the interview here.

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 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)

Episode Three with Paule Constable Recorded – Stay Tuned!

On Saturday, I recorded a wonderful TheatreNow! segment with Paule Constable, a lighting designer whose interview will comprise Episode Three of Season Two.

Paule is now lighting three shows at the Metropolitan Opera – new productions of DON GIOVANNI and ANNA BOLENA, and a revivial of Philip Glass’s SATYAGRAHA. She discusses her experience working at the Met, her preparation for her collaboration on WAR HORSE, for which she won the 2011 Tony (R) Award for Best Lighting for a Play, and she gives us a primer on the properties and creative uses of light.

I am now preparing the transcript and will post it shortly. After editing, the podcast will follow.

Please check back shortly to hear this wonderful interview, or subscribe to my blog and the podcast and transcript will come to your inbox!

All the Best!

The Award-winning Lighting Designer will Appear on TheatreNow! Soon.