Prema Mehta, Freelance Lighting Designer, tells us about a day in her life.
It’s Sunday morning, and on this rare day off, I find myself reflecting back over the last few weeks. It’s true of any freelancer that a skill that can only be acquired through doing, is the art of juggling. Over the last few weeks, we’ve opened Chicken Soup at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, A Passage to India at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton has since toured the UK, and now transferred to London, we’ve begun rehearsals for Holes opening in Nottingham Playhouse, initial design conversations for Fame opening in July at Manchester Palace Theatre have started, and we are opening an opera of Giulio Cesare in four days time.
I use the term ‘we’ because aside from the actors, singers, and the orchestra, these productions are all heavily reliant on people from different roles collaborating together. I think the most exciting part of my job is developing and practising art in collaboration with others. I was captivated during the Stage and Orchestra rehearsals yesterday as I watched Conductor Dane Lam direct the orchestra. I wondered if what Conductors do to make music, is what Lighting Designers do with their teams to create lighting? The Conductor reads a score and brings this to life, in a similar way to a Lighting Designer who reads a script/ score and brings this to life on stage.
The process is one where Lighting Designers visualise images, and then work backwards in our minds to break down the components of the imagery into the tools (lighting fixtures) required. The Lighting Designer will draw this onto a computer aided drawing which forms the lighting plan, and this will detail the angle, height and colour of each lighting fixture as we select the correct tools to transfer the pictures in our minds onto stage. We almost conduct our teams and work with collaborators from early script and design conversations where we discuss the practicalities in terms of what the production needs for visual content as well as ensuring we work within the resources of time, equipment, money and staffing.
East is East, Northern Stage and Nottingham Playhouse. Lighting Designed by Prema Mehta. Photo: Pamela Raith
Most often Lighting Designers work on numerous productions at one time. For example, we are currently in pre-production for Fame, so I am having conversations with Director Nick Winston and Set Designer Morgan Large about conceptual ideas, and beginning discussions around budgets and staffing with the Producers and the Production Manager. If a production is at the beginning of rehearsals, as is Adam Penford’s production of Holes, I attend the first day of rehearsals to listen to the play as it is read out loud by the actors around the table. Simply hearing the characters aloud brings the story alive in your mind which helps the creative process. If the production is open to the public, I will read the show reports written after each performance informing me of how each show went, how the audience reacted, and if there were any technical issues that need solving. If we are in production week, as is the case in Giulio Cesare, I work with many skilled technicians who physically hang up and power up the lighting fixtures working from my lighting plan. I then work with the lighting programmer to mix these instruments (lighting fixtures) together and record them into a computerised lighting desk to develop lighting states to support the location, create atmosphere and support the visibility of the performers on stage, ensuring this also serves the vision of Director Greg Eldridge to ensure he is happy the lighting states best support the production. Often the audience are unaware that lighting states can change over a hundred times during a performance.
Alongside my work as a Lighting Designer, I’ve often felt we in theatre could do more to reach out to larger pools of our society to widen our workforce. Whether it’s gender, race or class, we need to bring in new faces and personalities. Fourteen years on, and I’m still on a journey, but I’m beginning to feel it is entirely possible to carve a career in this brilliant industry. I’m currently working closely with the Association of Lighting Designers, The Young Vic, Sheffield Theatres, UK Theatre and Arts Council England on a project called Stage Sight to explore how best we can open our theatre doors, and make the workforce of our industry as diverse as our tube journeys into work.
www.premamehta.com | Twitter: @Prema_Mehta
York Theatre Royal (Suffragettes). Lighting by Prema Mehta. Credit: Chris Mackins, David Williamson, Simon Boyle and Shaun Conway