Up in the gods - A Lighting Perspective

In this blog we take a look behind the scenes of our latest production, 'Snake in the Grass' (Ayckbourn) and concentrate on the more technical aspects of the role of lighting designer/operator, following in the 'foot lights' of the Highbury's newest lighting designer Marion Chittenden, who is being guided by lighting engineer Andy Wilkes.

Beyond the Proscenium Arch, the stage expands into a magnificent display of set designing artistry but when the lighting designer breathes life into it, that's when the magic happens. The stage itself becomes an ever-changing character, complete with light, shade and soul. The crew have been working busily on stage, behind stage (and even under the stage!) and during the run all eyes will be facing front, watching intently as the plot unfolds and daytime turns to night. Yet at the back of the main auditorium, 'up in the gods' between the two boxes, sits an almost invisible black box where the light and sound team command the very atmosphere of the production, shedding light - or darkness - on the comings and goings of the players. This is one instance when thinking 'inside the box' can be the make or break of a performance. Inside, alongside the sound desk, lies a lighting console with all manor of slides and switches and monitors, ready to be programmed at the lighting designer's command...

The sound desk

About eleven years ago Marion visited Highbury Theatre for the first time. She started off collecting tickets and selling programmes, until one day she said: "Do you have volunteers at your theatre?", and they said, "Oh yes!" She has been there ever since. During her time at Highbury, Marion has delved into almost every possible area of the Theatre, having acted on stage, helped backstage with props and continuity, as well as steering the ship as Stage Manager. We asked Marion how she went from selling tickets to designing the luminescent array of lights that creates a much needed aesthetic for any performance...

"I came up here into the lighting and sound box to operate the lighting for some of the shows that had already been designed, and basically pressed the GO button. Apart from a few manual things with faders, it's all programmed into the lighting desk. Then about two plays ago I decided that I wanted to start designing and programming lighting myself because I enjoyed it so much. I have a tutor here - Andy Wilkes - and he has very painstakingly and very patiently helped me learn how to rig and gel the lights, how to focus... I crawl along the gantries; I'm going up and down ladders and then I get to use the lighting desk, to programme it."

Marion and Andy discussing technical terms during the final dress rehearsal of Snake in the Grass

The last play performed at Highbury was Beryl, written by Maxine Peak. For the crew it was very heavy on the lighting and sound, with more cues than any play they had ever designed before. Normally there would be no more than 20 cues, but in Beryl there were over 120! That is a huge undertaking and of course with a 5 star review, you could say it was a success!

"I crawl along the gantries; I'm going up and down ladders' and then I get to use the lighting desk, to programme it."

Working alongside Director Rob Phillips, Marion developed her own vision for the lighting design in order to draw the audience into Ayckbourn's world; as the play touches on some very comedic but also some very dark themes. She ran all of her ideas by Rob and Andy, to, as she puts it, 'make sure the mad ideas I come up with will work, and that we're physically able to do it with the equipment we've got'. She explains about getting a 'cyc up' round the back - otherwise known as a cyclorama, which is a large curtain traditionally hung in a concave as a background-  that will be her sky, as well as batons at a the back, pat 1,2,3's and something about an automated sunset in Act 1, Scene 2. The challenge of Act 2, with the stage set at midnight, has taken a lot of thought and planning. She's working with LED's and has five bars all with lights on, a Juliet balcony and a balcony on the opposite side and they've rigged lights at the back as well. It all sounds pretty complicated, but Marion is confident in her approach on the journey to realising the Director's vision as well as her own.

Watching Marion work, it is clear that she loves her new role. She is a woman with great focus, passion and enthusiasm for theatre and being around her you sense her energy and drive. She's put many long hours in above and beyond the call of duty, often being the first one in and the last one out on rehearsal and non-rehearsal days. As she smiles she sums up her feelings perfectly;

"So all in all, I absolutely love it, can't wait to get here and don't want to leave. It's a lot of hard work, but well worth it. Absolutely love Highbury, we all do!"

Lights and sound at the ready

Snake in the Grass opens on Tuesday 3rd July and runs through to Saturday 14th July (no Sunday or Monday shows). Tickets are still available from our Box office online http://highburytheatre.co.uk/

Tickets also available on the door!


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