Updated: May 19, 2020
ALD Chair and Freelance Lighting Designer Johanna Town discusses her early love of lighting, refurbishing the Royal Court and promoting best practice in the industry.
What was your first experience of theatre lighting?
My first experience of lighting was through amateur dramatics. My mother and father both loved theatre and the whole family went regularly to regional theatre productions. We were very lucky to live somewhere that had as many as a dozen regional theatres within an hour’s drive.
My father passed away when I was quite young and, with my brother and sister still away at school, it was just me and my mum at home. In order that my mother could continue her amateur acting she would take me along too.
We spent weekends at theatre festivals, and by the age of ten I was helping to load the trailer with set and lighting and then fit it up at the venue. If there were no technicians to help during the actual performance our own technician would look after the sound and I would operate the lighting, usually on a Junior 8 but sometimes I would have the chance to touch an SP60, which was very exciting.
As soon as I turned 17 I took my driving test and this allowed me to apply for jobs on one of the many variety shows in Blackpool, near my hometown. My first paid job in theatre was follow-spotting for two shows a night on the North Pier Blackpool.
Why do you enjoy lighting new writing?
I absolutely love new writing, I love being part of a creative team that explores a piece of writing for the first time and questions how to present it to an audience.
With a play no one has ever seen before, there are no rules one is expected to follow and this makes it really creative and exciting. I love the fact that the choices I make become the guidelines for producing the play for its lifetime. A totally empty canvas, who wouldn’t like that?
I also like new writing because it is usually a modern or current subject matter; new writing touches on society, people, the environment, politics and more. I have learnt so much about life, events and subject matter that I might not normally have had any personal contact with. New writing has opened my eyes to the world and the people in it, whether this is through the play itself or through the research process. Plays help to inform us about our world and I really like that.
Can you tell us a bit about the experience being one of the lighting architects when the Royal Court was refurbished (reopening in Feb 2000)?
I was very lucky to be at the Royal Court at just the right time. It was my third theatre as a Head of Lighting and I had also done lots of touring as a Chief too, so I knew what I liked and didn’t like as a lighting technician and how I wanted my theatre to work. It was also useful that I had been at the Royal Court long enough to experience two very different artistic directors and their aesthetic.
This was the beginning of a new time for theatre development: in many venues previously, staff were laid off and their wealth of experience and knowledge lost. The Royal Court team however remained in full employment and were allowed to collaborate in the building process.
Being able to specify what to install was very exciting and scary. I felt a great responsibility to a theatre so many people loved; we did take some risks and they mostly paid off. It was a time of great technical change: moving lights, lighting desks, dimming – everything was changing and changing very fast.
I wanted to get the infrastructure right, giving the building some future proofing. Kit can always be bought and sold and moving lights can be hired monthly, as long as you don't have to spend your budgets on the basics.
My task was to think about that unusual lighting position, wiring infrastructure, lighting department working space and connectivity – things that would have been harder to re-create once the building reopened. We did also take the risk of not buying any kit until near the end of the build, which has its risks and advantages. The advantage is that the kit you specify isn’t out-of-date, and since there was so much lighting development at the time this was something I wanted to avoid.
The risk is that by the time the building is ready someone else might have spent your dosh. I was less worried about this outcome and so of course it happened: six months before completion I was told the money was spent and I would have to reinstate our old lighting kit.
I still wasn’t worried – the kit was still in very good nick – but I explained to the management that they had created the most beautiful building, with amazing state-of-the-art installations, did they really want the lighting in their auditorium to be P264s from the 60s or P223s from the 50s? We owned nothing newer than kit from the 80s, and not surprisingly, I got all the equipment I had asked for.
The Royal Court is now 20 years older and technology has changed again beyond what any of us might have imagined.
There are always things that could have been done differently, just as with any theatre show. You have ideas that you want to bring to the creative table but they don’t all necessarily work together to make a whole piece of work, so we fight for the things we believe in and compromise on others for the best result of the whole show, or in this case the venue.
How does working freelance compare to being an in-house lighting professional?
I spent the first 30 years of my career as an in-house technician, I was extremely lucky moving from job to job. A Chief Electrician at 20 and Head of Lighting at the Royal Court 25, it often felt quite a responsibility, but I loved it. I loved being part of a team, being in a building working together to make shows happen, even if it was a Saturday to cover show duties, I was part of making theatre.
As a freelancer I miss that building camaraderie and sometimes when things are not going well on a show, I can still get a bit bossy and step in too much to try to fix things. I like to fix what isn’t working and I like making a team work together for the whole production.
I miss this as a freelancer – not being part of the production team in the same way. I know I am in a creative team and we work together to make the show be the best it can be, but it does feel different.
I was never trained in lighting and have just learnt my craft by observing some of the world’s greatest lighting designers. I watched how they had created an effect, how the positioning of a light had made a certain look on stage; being full time in a venue allows you to really see how the lighting is created and I miss that.
I do like being a freelancer, I like the freedom it gives to my life, I now have hobbies and days and weeks off to spend with my loved ones at home. I love the travel and meeting new people all the time. We are very lucky we see so much of the world and of our country. I think it is this flexibility in my work and the flexibility in where I might be at any one time that has made the current situation so easy to get through. No one day is ever the same.
When did you first become involved in the ALD?
I first got involved as an associate member, when I was Head of Lighting at the Liverpool Playhouse. I lit all the shows except the Christmas show, so I definitely saw myself as a lighting designer at this stage.
I don’t know where I heard about the ALD – maybe a trade show – but I was eligible to apply to be an associate (an LD working outside of London applied as an associate in those days, thankfully we have changed this now recognising LDs working anywhere in the UK as professionals) so having passed the criteria I was allowed to join.
Once in London, I moved up to being a professional member and was then later approached by Mark Jonathon to become the Professional Rep, so I joined the Exec and the rest is history.
Why is it important for lighting designers to engage with the association?
As Chair I don’t want the ALD to ever feel like it did when I first joined: it felt like a club and that I had to make a special request to join.
I want everyone who works in live production of lighting and video to be a member. I want the membership to feel they can contribute to how the association runs and works. It should be an association for our industry and created by our industry. We give support and have some great resources available for all our members, we can be a focus point for sustainability, health and wellbeing as well as a social club for people to mix in and have CPD sessions etc.
It is important for freelancers and employees to maintain standards for working practices that we believe in, and create the same responsibility within the venues we work in. I hope the ALD can be the great leveller in this and that we can maintain better practice in our industry for ourselves and the future generations.
The American way of working in theatre holds a much higher respect to its employees in the lighting lighting industry, it is well respected and has some great values that are supported across their industry, I don’t see why we can’t be the same. It won’t change overnight but if we don’t come together to work and support each other it will never change.
I want the ALD to be that association.