'It’s hard work' Stage lighting designer Declan Randall on his process and working internationally
Declan Randall is a lighting designer from South Africa, based in London, UK, and working internationally. He has designed a UK tour of Hamlet, The Missing Light at The Old Vic, David Baddiel's hour-long stand up show My Family: Not the Sitcom at the Playhouse Theatre as well as a string of productions at the Ivy Arts Centre and more. Here he talks to Mandy News about his work to date, the differences in work methods between the UK and South Africa and what aspiring light designers can do to get noticed.
Declan, tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you ended up in lighting design?
I’m originally from South Africa and I’ve been doing lighting design for 23 years now. When I started out, I thought I was going to be an actor. I was acting at school and thought I was going to study drama. My folks probably had visions of me being starving, unemployed and still living at home into my 40s as an actor (not sure what that says about my acting abilities), so I thought I’d study something technical and see what happens.
From the first lighting class, that was me done and dusted. I fell in love with it. I’ve been very lucky in my career. I’ve had some great opportunities, met some amazing people and been all over the world.
How did you go from studying lighting design to getting a full-time job in it?
When I studied it, the course was called theatre craft and in your first year you did everything from props to costume to decor. At the time, you could only do sound and light as a combination or you could do two of the others and of course I did sound and lighting. As a student, I used to work at the local theatres and spent a lot of time followspotting for the National Ballet Company.
When I graduated, I joined Johannesburg Theatre as a lighting technician and worked my way up. I spent a year and a half there and then moved to the well-known Market Theatre in Johannesburg. I was with them for three years as the Head of Lighting and also unofficially, as resident designer. I left The Market to start my freelance career and have been ever since 2000.
How did working internationally happen? Was that something you were aiming for?
No, it sort of just happened. A couple of shows that I did at the Market Theatre toured and I got to go along with them. Once I went freelance, I started doing a lot of work in contemporary dance. There are some really strong contemporary dance companies in South Africa that tour all over the world and I toured with them.
There was a big show called African Footprint which ran for 12 years. I think it was South Africa’s longest-running show. I wasn’t the original lighting designer but took over about four years into its life. That took me all over the world to some really bizarre places including Beirut and Tasmania. We spent 10 weeks touring China, and there were subsequent tours to India, America, Canada and most of Europe. It was an amazing experience.
What’s the theatre scene like in Johannesburg? Have you noticed any changes in the way people approach theatre in the countries and cities you’ve worked in?
I’m a little out of touch with what’s going on in Johannesburg as I’ve been in the UK for almost nine years but I pop back occasionally. It went through quite a big change a few years ago. In the years of the old government and under apartheid, there were four funded Arts Councils and almost everything was run under them. They all had resident drama, ballet and opera companies and they would tour their shows all over the country. They were the core group and, of course, were very well-funded by the state. There were a few smaller peripheral theatres doing bits and pieces but most of them were receiving houses for arts council shows.
In that time, with the equity bans in place, we weren’t getting access to all the big musicals. We couldn’t get the rights to them and they weren’t touring so we were really quite insular. That meant it ended up with us developing a high standard of performance and style of theatre.
When the government changed and they disbanded all the individual Arts Councils, there was a big shift and all the big shows started to come back into the country. I remember one of the first really big show to come was The Lion King. They built a theatre in Johannesburg to specifically host it. I went and sat there for 18 months which was a long run for one show in one venue for us. It did two things: it opened up the doors for big international shows and exposed us to new technologies and new ways of staging things.
It also introduced a ticket price structure that was harmful. All of a sudden, people are paying 500 Rand which, at the time, is the equivalent of spending roughly £100 a ticket. The smaller venues started to suffer as families wanted to see The Lion King and for a family of four that ends up costing them 2000 Rand. That’s an entertainment budget for the next six months! As a consequence, the smaller venues really felt the pinch on that and started to struggle.
It has balanced out over the years but that was the initial big knock. In more recent times, there has been a huge number of young, black technicians and designers come into the industry which is so exciting to see as in years past that was never a thing. The industry is thriving, all the theatres are busy and, for the most part, there is still a reasonably high standard.
Bizarrely, opera and contemporary dance are hugely popular in Johannesburg at the moment, which is strange as they are the two most Euro-centric art forms but Johannesburg has just taken them on board and there are two opera companies that are almost entirely black. The quality of the voices and the power of the singing is just spectacular and they’re doing such good work and touring all over the world.
In terms of how we do things, we do them slightly differently. When I first moved to the UK, I found, and still do although to a lesser extent, the concept of a ‘tech’ very strange. Here, you have the actors on stage and you work through it section by section, moment by moment. You light and you build it up like that. That is very foreign to someone like me. In South Africa, we’ll have a dedicated lighting session where we light the whole show, and any other tech that needs to happen, then you bring the company on stage and you run it.
We generally don’t do the whole stop-start routine at all. At first, the stop-start tech process really threw me and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I’ve gotten used to it of course but that was a big shift along with learning all the different terminology over here. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same. I think the key when you are a touring designer is to try and learn about the different ways that people work in advance and try to re-structure your methods accordingly. That way, you can focus on the business and craft of lighting and not be thrown by the different methods and systems.
From a lighting design perspective, it’s quite interesting. There was a time when I was the technical director for the Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg and I could normally tell which country a company had come from based on their lighting. We tend to light things differently. For instance, people from Scandinavia tended to have a much softer, colder light and much lower lighting angles as that’s the light they’re generally exposed to and that’s what they know and replicate. In contrast, a lot of people find my lighting to be quite bright and stark with vivid colours because that’s the light I grew up being exposed to. It’s really interesting to see how we apply the light we know into the work we do.
You’ve been in the UK for nearly 10 years now and worked for many prestigious companies. Was it like starting your career again when you first moved here or did you have contacts from touring? How was that transition?
It has been a little like starting over again. I knew there would be a little bit of that but I didn’t think it would quite be as tough as it is. Obviously, I was doing it for 15-odd years before I came over and I was working at a certain level. I was very much a big fish in a small pond. I knew that moving to the UK would mean it being the other way round and I was OK with that. The more established directors, who I wanted to be working with, have their own teams who they’ve been working with for years. I knew I wasn’t going to get a look in there and I respected that. So I thought I’d approach the younger directors who might be looking for someone a little more experienced on the creative team but they’ve all paired up with the guys they were at college with.
Suddenly, I’m thinking “who’s left?” There has been a very narrow band of people who’ve been looking for someone and it’s been a little bit of a mission tapping into that. I’ve had some great opportunities though, met some great people and onwards and upwards! It is an ongoing job to keep marketing and promoting yourself.
I’ve found help from the strangest of places. I was at the airport once flying back from Johannesburg and I got chatting to the lady in front of me and she told me her son was the production manager at the Chichester Festival and straight away I got that contact. We’ve stayed in touch and I still do some stuff for them occasionally. You’ve got to keep plugging away. Update your website, email out your CV and you hope for the best.
What’s the process like from starting a show all the way to closing one? Also, describe a typical day/week/month in the life of Declan Randall?
Nine times out of ten the lighting designer gets brought in too late in the process but ideally you’re brought in early and are part of the original design discussions. You normally start with the script, a chat with the director and you get a sense of what the play’s about. The set designer goes off and creates their magic and then we all get back together to look at the finished model and the drawings and map out how we’re going to do it all.
In an ideal world, you would like to see some rehearsals before you draw a lighting plan but these days that’s becoming a rarity. You end up consequently drawing a lighting plan that covers all events rather than show-specific, which is a pity. The more specific you are about something the better it ends up being with fewer compromises. I’ll take a couple of days to come up with a lighting plan and rent some equipment if the venue doesn’t own any. I generally don’t get involved in the fit-up itself but I’ll be around in case there are questions or I’ve done something silly on the plan that doesn’t make sense.
We get into the theatre and do a focus session depending on the size of the rig as these days there is so much automation and intelligent lighting that the number of actual fittings you need to focus are fewer and fewer. That time is then translated back into the lighting console though because you still need to do that for every single moving light that’s on the rig. So there’s usually a good couple of sessions of pre-programming to get you ready for the tech.
The company comes in for however long the tech is. They’re usually dependent on the size of the show, the venue, etc. You start running notes, previews and then it’s press. My job normally ends on press night. If it’s a long run then I will occasionally pop back. For instance, I was the associate for 42nd Street and I pop back every now and then to make sure it’s all looking the way it should. There have never been any issues of shows not being looked after so it’s really just a courtesy call.
A typical day/week/month for me would consist of hitting the emails first thing in the morning. I am a big fan of keeping on top of emails – if someone sends me an email I will try to respond as quickly as I can. Then the day ahead will depend on what is going on, but it could be anywhere from doing pre-production work at my home office, heading out for meetings with directors, creative teams and technical teams, to seeing new equipment demos.
I am not very good at sitting still – I like to be busy. There may be some teaching slotted in, so that is often a part of my month and, of course, when I am in production, then my days are filled with the thing I love most – spending time at the theatre!
What has been one of your most challenging productions or scenes so far?
There have been two. One at either end of the spectrum. A couple of years ago in Johannesburg, I designed an original production of Sister Act. I was set, light and projection designer for it. It was a really nice, big show with a huge stage and wonderful team, cast and crew. The end result was fantastic but getting there was an absolute nightmare. It was such a struggle! Everything I do tends to be around light so my starting point for Sister Act was the rose window in the church. I designed the rose window out of 87 LED moving lights and it was this completely dynamic light structure which could change colours patterns and I designed the set all around that.
One of the most unpleasant experiences was actually a new musical I did in London last year. It was just one of those unhappy shows. The creative team didn’t get on with the producers who didn’t get on with anyone else and it made for a really stressful and unpleasant pre-production and tech period. I’ve just logged my 500th show now and out of all of them, that is the only one that has really stood out as being terrible. After 23 years and 500 shows there is only one dud, that’s actually pretty good!
You freelance for ETC and work as a sessional lecturer at several colleges around the UK, how does that feed into your lighting design?
I teach console training at ETC so I teach people how to use lighting desks. The big advantage of that is it keeps me on top of the platform and it’s always nice to see youngsters come in. That’s why I do teaching at colleges as well. It’s fun working with people who are full of excitement and enthusiasm about the industry they are going to enter.
I actually love to teach and share my knowledge. I’ve been lucky and the industry has been kind to me so it’s nice to pass some stuff on.
When you’re sitting down to do a lighting plan, is it a purely cerebral, imaginative experience or do you look for inspiration from somewhere?
It’s a little bit of both. Someone asked me the same thing the other day and I told them that I can sum up lighting design in three words: tell the story. Generally speaking, that’s what it’s all about for me and that’s always my approach. There are five key objectives that I always try to hit: visibility, revelation of form, mood, composition and information. As long as you’re ticking those five boxes then you’re on the right track. So there is a little bit of it being in my head but a lot of it is a response to the play, the set and the environment.
There was a lighting designer called Jean Rosenthal and she has a quote, which is one of those quotes that I wish I came up with. It’s: “Lighting designers create the air that actors breathe.” I think that’s such a really lovely expression and it’s very true. That’s, broad strokes, the approach but sometimes there will be an instant gut response to something. Again, as long as it tells the story then that’s fine.
The one thing I teach lighting students is something I was taught when I was doing acting classes called OAMA which stands for Observe, Analyse, Memorise and Apply. It also applies to lighting. When you’re walking down the street, whether its day or night, look at the quality of the light, what’s creating the light, what’s it doing to your costume and just file that away in the memory banks as you never know when you’re going to need it.
If you can create something that people have an instant connection with then half of your job is already done.
What advice would you give to any aspiring lighting designers out there and what do you look for in a team member when you’re hiring?
My advice to young designers is don’t do it!
Joking aside, it’s an incredibly rewarding career but you’ve got to want to do it. It’s long hours, it’s hard work and it’s completely anti-social hours so you’re never going to get to see your friends. When they have their evenings off, that’s when we’re in previews and in tech and things like that. It can be fairly isolated and I think you need to be prepared for that.
Stay on top of technologies, trends and the like, because stuff is changing all the time, but also keep an eye on how we used to do things. Sometimes, the old-school stuff is still relevant, and better and arguably cheaper in some cases. I always say one light in the right place is worth a 100 lights anywhere else. If you want something specific then do that specific thing and don’t rely on something that might do the trick. Try to avoid compromise. Whatever you do, any decision you make must be based on the artistic integrity of that piece.
Work hard, keep plugging at it and get out there and network as that’s actually what it’s all about. It’s a people business at the end of the day. In terms of a team, it’s about who you get on with because when working on a show you’re going to be spending anything from a week to three months with the same bunch of people. So you really want them to be people you want to spend time with. It’s not always going to be a winning combination but that’s why, when people find their right teams, they stick with them because it can be such an isolated, lonely and hard process.
By the time a lighting designer starts dong their job, everybody else has done theirs. The show has been directed, the set has been designed, the costumes are finished and now they’re all waiting for you. So everyone has their eyes on you and you have to deliver in a really pressurised environment. That’s why having people who get you and understand you is so important. I had a programmer who I worked with back home for years and we worked together so much that I would turn to tell him something and he’d already be typing or fixing the notes. That kind of relationship is not only hugely helpful but invaluable. It is all about the relationships and everybody working towards the same goal.
For me, theatre is about two things – story telling and collaboration. When those two elements come together in perfect harmony, that’s when you are making theatre.
Check out Declan Randall's work at this link.Tags: