Spotlight on Lighting Design // Technical Theatre 1

Welcome to our new series, Technical Theatre, where we speak to local experts about all things technical in the theatre. A closer look at lighting, sound, stage management, and costume design and more!

For our first edition, we sat down with Ben Hughes to chat about Lighting Design. Ben has worked in lighting design across theatre, ballet, contemporary dance, opera, concert and outdoor events. 

Image Credit: Morgan Roberts

Ben’s lighting designs have appeared on stages throughout Australia, and internationally in the United Kingdom, United States, China, India & New Zealand. He has designed for companies including: Queensland Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Malthouse, Belvoir, La Boite, Opera Queensland, Queensland Ballet, Australasian Dance Collective, The Danger Ensemble and Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Take a look at what Ben had to say!

What is lighting design and what does a lighting designer do?

The lighting designer is responsible for transforming a dark space into something that functions for performance. Not just giving illumination, the lighting designer can change and affect the audience’s interpretation of time, location, mood and atmosphere.

Why do we need lighting design? Why wouldn’t we just simply turn the stage lights on and the house lights off?

Just like a theatrical work needs to be directed, the lighting needs to be designed. You can’t just “turn on the stage lights”… someone needs to choose which way they point, how bright they are, what colour they are in, what part of the stage is lit, how quickly the light fades in.

When you begin a new project, where do you start?

The starting point is always understanding the material. For a play it’s the script – what is it trying to do? What is it saying, both literally and metaphorically? What’s the story being told?

From this point you can start to build an idea of how you think it will look, and this evolves at every stage when other design elements such as set and costume are added, and of course when rehearsals start and there are actors to work with. 

What does the work of a lighting designer look like over the course of a show? 

The early stages are learning the material, having conversations with the Director and other creatives as well as engaging with the producing company’s production department, looking at budgets and requirements.

Set and Costume designs will normally be finalised and presented a few months before rehearsals start, so you’re working collaboratively with the other designers leading up to this to make sure lighting is catered for in the overall scenic design of the work.

Rehearsals are an opportunity to hear the words, see the movement, and start to get a feel for how the show will be performed. As the show evolves in the rehearsal room the lighting concepts will start to solidify.

The first couple of days of the bump-in in the theatre will be scenic elements being installed, and all the required lighting being rigged in the specified positions. Following on from that, the lighting designer will “call the focus” – where they go through every lighting fixture in the rig and direct where they are pointed, any cuts to the beam, the sharpness of the edge etc. For a big show this could be several hundred lighting fixtures.

After this comes the plotting sessions, where the lighting designer and director sit together while the lighting designer creates all of the different lighting states (think each different lighting “look”) for the production. The timing of each transition is worked through, and it’s all carefully noted down by the stage manager. The lighting programmer/operator will record all of this into the lighting board as you go, and after the sometimes hundreds of states are plotted we are in a position to add cast. Then we commence technical rehearsals, where all the technical elements of the production (sound, light, automation, set movement, costume, video etc.) are rehearsed with the performers.

Once we get through that and hopefully get a few dress rehearsals in, it’s time for an audience. Sometimes you open straight away, but ideally you have preview performances, where it’s still work time, and the show may change day to day in response to those audiences.  By the time you get to opening night the show is locked, and should be able to run consistently and reliably without any input from the creative team.

This is when I finish up. The show is run by the stage manager and technical team, and I’m normally moving onto the next show.

Who does the lighting designer most closely collaborate with?

You’re always collaborating. Obviously there is a very close relationship with the Director, as they are driving the vision of the show overall. The other creatives are close collaborators as well – it very much is a team effort.

Having an excellent technical and production team is also essential to realising the vision on stage. I can have an idea, but achieving that idea within the budget and time constraints we are always working within takes an extremely hard-working, skillful and knowledgeable team around you. What might seem simple to do as a once off can become difficult and expensive when it has to be achieved safely and reliably eight times a week for many weeks.

Do you have a favourite project you’ve worked on and why?

It’s hard to find a favourite, but recently I was lucky enough to light Boy Swallows Universe for Queensland Theatre, QPAC and Brisbane Festival. Putting Trent Dalton’s incredible story on stage was an absolute highlight of the last few years. It was such a privilege to bring one of the great Australian novels to the stage.

Brisbane has a whole slew of fantastic theatres. As a lighting designer, which theatre/s have been your favourite to work in?

The QPAC Playhouse is one of the best theatres in the country to work in, and my personal favourite.

If I’m a newbie to lighting design in Brisbane, and I really want to get into it – what would be your advice?

I think before moving into design it’s incredibly important to have a good understanding of theatre-making, particularly of course the production side.

In terms of study, there are tertiary courses directly in lighting design at NIDA, VCA and WAAPA, but many have moved into lighting design after completing a more general technical production degree.

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