'You have to be proactive' West End lighting designer Charlie Morgan Jones talks designing theatre

Charlie Morgan Jones is a British lighting designer who wows crowds with spectacular musical, operatic and theatrical productions internationally. Charlie has designed Alexandra Spencer-Jones's US tour of acapella and beatboxing musical Gobsmacked!, the UK tour of risqué puppet musical Avenue Q, a string of large-scale, lush operas and Derren Brown's Underground show which started its UK tour this week after a successful West End run. Here he talks to Mandy News about how he got to where he is today, what an average year looks like and what aspiring theatre lighting designers can do to get noticed.

6th April 2018
/ By Andrew Wooding

Theatre lighting designer Charlie Morgan Jones HYWELJONES

Charlie, tell us who you are, how you became interested in lighting design and how you went about pursuing it?
I am a theatrical, opera and immersive lighting designer originally from Barry in South Wales - of Gavin and Stacey fame. When I was young, my parents used to take me to the theatre every week. Whatever was at the New Theatre in Cardiff, we went to see. Whether it was panto, am dram or opera, we saw it without fail. My parents loved the theatre and wanted to give me that background which meant I saw a whole variety of things from the great to the terrible and everything in between. At that age, I loved it all! 

While I was at the Cathedral School in Llandaff, they built a new drama studio and, as it happens, the same year, my parents had bought me a smoke machine which I used to put on productions in my home. I asked whether my drama teacher wanted to borrow it for Stars in their Eyes, a show they were producing for the opening of the venue. She then offered the lighting to me and I thought I’d give it a whirl despite being only 12 or 13 years old at the time. I fell absolutely head over heels in love with it.

I didn’t want to be a lighting designer at that point, it was just a hobby. I actually wanted to be a pilot for a long while. However, when I was 15 years old, they decommissioned Concorde and with that, the end goal of me pursuing a career in the air ended. Almost by accident, I found myself focusing on lighting design more and more and lit every school production. I wasn’t particularly great and they had a pretty primitive setup but it made me learn and play around with new things.

When I reached 16, my mum happened to teach the daughter of the technical director of the Welsh National Opera. They were doing a youth opera production of Candide and Mum put me in touch with Perryn Leech. We met up and got along well. He told me to come along and be the technical assistant.

I carried on pursuing my love of lighting and, at 17, did some work experience at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. I had such a good time that I wanted a job there and cheekily asked for one. As I was only 17, I wasn’t old enough, but they told me to get in contact when I was. They came good on their word and I had the most incredible time as a followspot operator. We opened some huge shows including the 25th Anniversary Tour of Les Miserables and I got to work closely with incredibly lighting designers like Paule Constable.

My first show there, which I followspotted, was White Christmas. Ken Billington was the lighting designer - the huge Broadway don. He came to the followspot box and I explained to him nervously that I wanted to be an LD, and he gave me a cracking piece of advice: “If they walk and talk, they get a light”. To this day, whatever show I’m doing, I still repeat that line to myself. I sometimes don’t agree and disobey but it was definitely good advice.

Did you formally study lighting design at all?
I did. When I was 18, I applied, in secret, to Rose Bruford. I was offered a place and studied lighting design for three years which was a tremendous experience and I met many incredible people who became mentors and lifelong friends.

I was there under Hansjorg Schmidt who was the programme director. He really helped me to learn by questioning myself. We all make mistakes in this industry and we hide them all really well 99% of the time. It was good at that level, to not worry and know that any mistake wasn’t going to end your career. It gave me the freedom to experiment and find myself.

The Polish National Opera's Tristan i Izolda NC
Tristan i Izolda at the Polish National Opera

When did you make that transition to lighting designer and how did you go about doing that?
It was very recently actually. In 2010, in between the second and third year at uni, I did my very first paid lighting design job at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Along with that, I was lighting every show that came my way - often for expenses, lunch, or the promise of another show. 

In 2011, I then got a job at the Vaudeville Theatre as their lighting board operator, a position I adored - every three months a new show would come in, with top LDs and Programmers - I got to see how it all worked. I was wildly lucky to have the boss that I had, as he gave me almost carte blanche on whether I was there board operating or away doing lighting design. The deal basically involved me sorting a very good deputy to cover the desk.

All the design credits I have between 2011-2017, I got whilst also working at the Vaudeville. It was sometimes really hard work because I’d do eight shows a week of board operating/rig checking/maintenance and then head off to Hong Kong or Doha to light a show and then two weeks later return back to the board op life, often stepping off the plane and heading straight into the Vaudeville. I left the Vaudeville last June after seven years. The guys were like family. I guess it was at that point, maybe a little before, I really considered myself a lighting designer.

For those who might not know, what is the job of a lighting designer? What does it entail?
It’s such a broad range of things. It depends. It’s on a show by show basis. My job is basically to enhance the theatrical environment for the direction, the choreography and the piece to stand within. The kind of lighting I tend to enjoy is ‘heightened reality’. I like to create a feeling. You can see it in shows all over the world. There’ll be a lighting cue and the crowd suddenly feel macabre or sad and they don’t know why. We know it’s down to the lighting (as well as the piece!).

Along with other members of the creative team, you get to create this ‘world’…how does an emotion look?! I love that.

Who do you collaborate with the most from the creative team? How long before a show’s performance do you get together and brainstorm?
On some operas I have worked on I have been brought on a year in advance. Other shows it is only three weeks before. On average, four or five months I would guess. I get involved with the director almost straight away to try to envisage how the show will look and go. We tend to sit down as a trio: set designer, lighting designer and director. They’ll tell me their concepts for the show and I’ll try to help that idea and enhance it. From that point on, you see set models and lighting plans; which I am forever changing.

It’s a very lengthy and full-on process. Unlike a 9-5 job, you can’t turn your monitor off at the end of the day as it’s such an intensely creative job. I simply can’t finish work at 5pm. Not that I would want to because I love it. I love waking up at 3am and getting my laptop out to jot down ideas. Last year, I did 22 shows! They do overlap massively sometimes and ideas from one feed into another.

Whether it’s regional or larger-scale projects, do you supply your own equipment or have your own team? Are you in complete control of the budget for lighting design?
I tend to work with the same people over and over. Be it Jack Ramplin, who’s been a production electrician on several of my shows. Tom Davis, who’s programmed all of my immersive gigs. Or George Smith who was my Associate on three ‘breakthrough’ shows in 2014 - we even formed a company “Smith and Jones LX”…!

I suppose my most regular collaborator is a chap called Paul Walmsley. He’s been my right hand man on a tonne of shows and he just gets me. If I’m waving my hands erratically at the stage asking to put the blues on, he will know exactly which blues I mean. We’re doing Derren Brown in April and it’ll be our 28th tech together!

In terms of budget and rigs, it depends where you’re going. With Underground, we tour everything. From the power to the cable to every single lantern. It can be different with other shows. For instance, I’m currently drawing an opera for the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham for the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. This is actually my 10th show with them. We’re using an in-house rig and whatever they have there. It’s par cans, profiles and fresnels and we’ll no doubt do something really beautiful with that. So many people get carried away nowadays and think they need a hundred moving lights but it’s often great to get back to the basics.

Is there a different approach to doing shows overseas, such as in Hong Kong, as opposed to here in the UK? How do they develop and what are the differences culturally?
First of all, I went to Hong Kong with Avenue Q and Seussical. I went over with the DSM and the sound operator and that’s all. Paul Walmsley programmed it all offline in the UK, put it on a memory stick and I took it over and plugged it into the desk and hoped for the best! We had a great production team over there with a brilliant programmer - Billy Wong - and two local followspotters. The key thing is everybody wants to get the show on. They want to see this piece of theatre and everyone works towards that.

In Hong Kong, they had this bizarre rule where they would turn the power off during all breaks and you weren’t allowed to work through it. That was really interesting and hard to get my head around. What has always been tricky for me is followspot operators when working abroad - and it is literally just a translation issue. In Shanghai on The Producers, they just wanted to pick up whoever they thought was important which looked great, but wasn’t quite right...

Little Shop of Horrors musical on London's West End MATTMARTIN
The Little Shop of Horrors on the West End

What have been your most challenging productions so far?
Goosebumps Alive, probably. It was challenging in so many ways. It was my first immersive show so I was terrified. I had a cracking team around me who I was grateful for. For me, the worry wasn’t necessarily lighting as it was all timecoded (so a clock runs everything). However, there was one particular scene with 15 deliberate blackouts so the cast could get into different positions three feet from the audience. 

Obviously, this meant the cast had to start the scene on time, do their lines in time and get their moments for the blackouts spot on. I was on the edge of my seat almost every night because of that one scene.

What would you advise to any up-and-coming lighting designers or somebody who wants to get into your line of work?
Get in touch with every lighting designer you know. Ask if you can shadow them and be their unpaid assistant on shows. I did.

Get in touch with every small producing house and ask to light their shows. You have to be proactive. You’ve got to really go for it.

However, it’s also important not to be taken advantage of and, luckily, I have a fantastic agent to make sure that doesn’t happen. At the end of the day, what we do is a job and you have to pay rent and to live from it. It’s not a case of not wanting to do smaller unpaid shows but a case of not being able to afford to do it. There are little gems out there though that don’t take too much of your time and are extremely valuable to your career.

When did you get your agent and how does the relationship work?
I got an agent in 2014 just before I went to Hong Kong with Avenue Q. It was a case of someone recommending me to them and they were a very good agency to start my career with, however I have since moved and Michael and Simon at Loesje Sanders are incredible. I have been with them for a year and a half now and they are supportive, contactable and personal. They know where I want to go with my career and how to make that happen.

Do you have anything you’re doing soon that you want people to check out?
Derren Brown goes on a UK tour this month (April 2018). Paul and I are spending a week in Liverpool setting it up, then the fabulous relighter takes it around the country on our behalf. Although, I am with it in Cardiff as it’s at the Millennium Centre where it all began for me, which is very exciting.

I am also doing an opera called Street Scene at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The set is beautiful and it’s a lighting designer’s dream. Another opera in June and back to the Far East in the Autumn…let’s see what the rest of the year brings!

Enjoyed our interview with Charlie? Then check out our chat with the Royal Opera House's Chris Wilkinson. We regularly post lighting designer jobs on Mandy Theatre Professionals. Sign up for a FREE Mandy Theatre profile now and start applying.