A Post by Rick Fisher, Lighting Designer on Great Expectations

Rick Fisher is originally from Philadelphia, and has been working in British theatre for over twenty years. During which time he’s worked many shows on both sides of the Atlantic, including Billy Elliott: The Musical. Here he writes a little about how he works and his design for Great Expectations.

On a production such as this, my job is to provide the director and cast with as many different lighting opportunities as possible, so that when they come to work on the stage during the technical rehearsals we can be as flexible as possible and responsive to what has been created in the rehearsal room. In a sense I am preparing a palette of light for the creative team to work with, much as a painter would prepare a palette before beginning to work. This means providing as many different qualities of light in as many different areas of the stage as possible: light from different angles; light from different heights; different colours of light; different shapes as it hits the stage; a range of soft and hard beams; a variety of warm and cool states; different intensities. Once the palette has been prepared the creative team and I are ready to carve the actors out of darkness to support them in telling the story.

Great Expectations will be performed on a bare stage. Here the lighting becomes a character just as much as those portrayed by the actors. Rather than merely illuminating a scene portrayed by a set, the lighting must create those scenes in space and time.

Light is about so much more than mere visibility – although it is, of course, essential that we can see the actors. Light provides atmosphere. It can create time, and show the passage of time. It can create specific an non-specific places. It is dramatic in itself, and tells the story as much as the actors’ movement, interactions and dialogue. And it is part of the very structure of the show, providing punctuation – think of the difference between a scene that ends with a sudden snap to black, one which slowly fades to black and one which cross fades into another scene. It is also important to remember the absence of light too – darkness is crucial to this piece both thematically and for the style in which Neil is directing it. It will be as much of a challenge to me to create complete blackness where we need it as it will to light other areas.

This is also a very ‘theatrical’ piece – when Neil and the cast want to show us how things are done we will see them, in almost a ‘poor theatre’ style. Equally when they want to hide things they will do their best to hide them. We want to unlock the audience’s imagination. The production is not about creating the illusion of a naturalistic reality on stage, and then concealing the tricks that theatre uses to create that illusion. This leads me naturally to consider the more obviously theatrical uses of light: sidelight, footlights, backlight contrasted with very little light from front of house. Look out for these non-naturalistic ways of lighting the stage; look out for the ways in which light creates time and place; and look out for the ways that I use the absence of light – darkness – too. Also contrast the levels of light in Act One, which is all set in Pip’s childhood home, and the scenes in Act Two set in London.

A piece like this, performed on a bare stage is a wonderful opportunity for a lighting designer – exciting, challenging and a little scary!

Great Expectations is on at Bristol Old Vic (27 Sep-2 Nov). Find out more here.

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