It is often said that the lighting designer is doing their job well when the lighting is not noticed at all! At least not for the wrong reasons!

It is good practice, however, to always critique one’s own work. I am forever taking pencil scribbled unintelligible notes in the dark aplenty. Whereas on many occasions our lovely director Rachael is often not making many notes for lighting, phew!

Lighting is often misunderstood, but then why should it be understood? It is my job to understand it, and use it in a way so that you believe you are there – the Magic of Theatre. From now on I will refer to non-lighting people as Muggles, given the magical nature of the craft!

For Finding Joy I wanted to create naturalistic lighting. However this means that you can then cleverly punctuate a scene or specific moment with a more abstract look and colour.

Lighting begins with a conversation with the rest of the creative team as well as watching multiple full rehearsal runs of the piece. This gives me an opportunity to sketch out performance areas, working out where “general cover” is required (a generally lit space) as well as what we call “specials” (basically a smaller defined area of light that may pick out just one or two characters) sometimes known to Muggles as spotlights… Never say “spotlight” in the industry.

We often create our lighting with multiple angles in mind, and there are many to choose from – front light, backlight, sidelight, top light, up light, phew!

As well as making sure the masks are well lit (which involves a lot of angles) I am trying to paint a picture with light. I need to use specific colours and focus, to shift the viewer’s attention and perceptions of space. One also has to think about timings. In today’s modern age, we can dim (fade) the lights at any given speed and record this for posterity for when we next play the cue. The correct term is pressing the ‘Go’ button, to advance to the next lighting “state” - a finished painting.

Our cues are effectively many paintings made with light, though one doesn’t feel quite ready to pick up a real paintbrush and challenge Picasso to a paint off, though I think I would win, given his current condition.

Once I have seen some runs of the piece, I need to start interpreting my notes into a lighting plan. This is effectively a large schematic of where the lights need to be rigged in the theatre space, so that the crew can put up the rig to your specifications. And there are a lot of things to specify. The lighting bar you wish to hang the light on? Where on the bar? What kind of light? What colour gel does it? What socket number does it plug into? Where does it need to point? Phew, I need a drink.

If all this information is provided correctly, the lighting designer can be quite happily enjoying a caramel slice and coffee, having escaped from the dark theatre abyss. But then I am next needed at the “focusing” session. The crew may have pointed the lights in their approximate orientation whilst rigging, but now I must have each light turned on individually, whilst I stand with my back to, and in the shadow of the light to direct the crew member on the exact focus of the light. Big beam, small beam? Stage left or stage right? Barn doors in or out? Soft edge or hard edge? All communicated with an industry standard lingo that would make no sense to Muggles!

After focussing, we start creating the lighting states. The lights will never all be on at the same time. They have specific functions for key moments in the piece, and sometimes are on at the same time in order to create a new colour by mixing two.

Rachael is a very patient and understanding director. With others, sometimes you might turn on one light and be asked, “What is this rubbish?” But much like a painter, you would not present a bare canvas with one brush stroke as the finished article (actually many do!). Instead I have to “build” the states bit by bit, and only when I am happy with the finished article, do I hit “record”.

The technical, dress rehearsal and preview allow a little more tweaking time, and then it is up to the touring technician to ensure venues rig the lights in advance of the tours arrival, so that they can then replicate the focus of the lighting (we actually take photos of each lights focus) and plug in the lighting desk computer and hope for the best, no pressure!

Chris Barham