Tim Mitchell on lighting design

Tim Mitchell on lighting design

By Jo Caird 15/08/14

The veteran lighting designer talks to Jo Caird about his process, explains why he’s a craftsman not an artist, and spells out the financial side of the lighting design business...

Tell us about your process when lighting a show

Lighting is reactive not proactive. We’re not generally in the vanguard of things. We tend to be one pace removed, so we work on the general look and the feel of things with the set designer. A designer tends to come up with a concept for the show and we bolt onto that concept to enhance it.

You draw a lighting plan for the electricians to rig, to cut the colours [gels for the lamps] or to purchase, rent or move lights. That’s generally done before you’ve even seen any rehearsals. You may see a run-through a week before the show goes on stage, by which time you’ve already done the rig plan and you make adjustments to it. So a lot of it is educated guesswork.

The set designer has made a three-dimensional model and you work from that. Then you work out what the scene changes are and you work out where things are physically, set-wise, on stage. But you don’t know exactly where the actors are going to stand until you watch a run-through in the rehearsal room.

The first time you get onstage is probably 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning when the actors all turn up and off you go. And your first show is Thursday night. 


Lighting plan for the Barbican - proscenium arch.


Could you give us an example of that process in action?

The set designer on the RSC Richard II with David Tennant was Stephen Brimson Lewis. He and I do a lot of shows together – he knows how I like to help tell a story.

Stephen came up with an idea that he wanted it to be quite light and floaty and changeable – a lot of Shakespeare is multi-locational, so that generally throws the emphasis on the lighting. 

Stephen came up with the idea that maybe we could use chain and then project onto that. We ended up working on it months and months beforehand, just experimenting on how this chain would light. 



How much changes when you got into technical rehearsals? 

Oh, a lot. Whatever you plan, changes. The great thing is responding to the emotion of doing it; the actors saying the words, the music, or how you’re feeling. Decisions are made instantaneously, then you modify throughout the preview period until the press night.

On Richard II, it was things like the underfloor lighting. The stage floor was Perspex and painted - we underlit it, but where we planned to put lights there ended up being big chunks of metal and steel I-beams, so we had to move things around. Things change, but we’re not talking, “Oh my god, this scene is green and I thought it was going to be pink”. It develops. 


Lighting plan for the Royal Shakespeare Company - thrust


It sounds like you have to be very pragmatic in this role.

Lighting is not a pure artform; it’s a craft. It’s an amalgamation of art and technology. 

You quite often have time restrictions – you have to tech and open a show in a certain time period – and you’ve got budgetary constraints on top of that.

You have to take the designer’s ideas and the director’s ideas and turn those into light. It’s a collaborative artform. We work in a communication industry: actors have to put their story over on stage and we have to help them do that.

You’ve described how time limitations impact on your work on a show – perhaps you could touch upon the financial challenges too?

You can have all the ideas in the world, but a lot of the time it’ll come down to what the lighting rental company have on their shelves; if they have to buy a new light your weekly rental price goes through the roof. 

Lighting design is also lighting management: you manage a budget, staff and communicate with people. It’s not just about turning the lights on and making a nice picture. You need programmers and electricians, staff to put the show on, but you have to then temper your lighting rig to fit within those constraints.

It comes down to the weekly rental. You can do your lighting rig and then you go, “Okay, I’ve got to cut this in half.” 

But actually it’s quite fun. As much fun as lighting it.


Follow Jo Caird at @JoCaird 

Photos of Richard II by Kwame Lestrade, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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