In conversation with Peter Mumford

For the latest in our series of interviews with Lighting Designers, Collaborative Creations spoke to Peter Mumford. Peter has been working in lighting for over 50 years and recently received the Fellowship of the ALD in recognition of his significant contribution both to the industry and its association.

What was your first role in the creative industry?

After studying stage design at Central School of Art I became a founder member (as designer and lighting and projection designer) of 'Moving Being' an experimental mixed media theatre company created by director/choreographer Geoff Moore in 1969.

The first main season of work was presented at the ICA in its first year. We mounted nine short pieces which received great reviews and were immediately booked for a festival in Berlin. None of us had toured before and were pretty green – quite an adventure in the days when Berlin was still partitioned.

On the back of that early collaboration I remained with Moving Being as designer for ten years, designing sets and lighting and creating projection – both still and moving imagery – but of course we were using film not video!

What product or technical innovation has had the biggest impact on lighting design?

Looking back over five decades there are many innovations that have changed and enhanced lighting design to the degree that it is now regarded as an art form in it’s own right. There are three particular major developments that I would identify: firstly, control systems, secondly the advent of ‘intelligent’ or moving lights and thirdly the new light source LED.

However, for me the one that has most affected actual design is the massive evolution of control systems. Back in analogue days we were gradually achieving more and more control over what lights could do but there were limits to what an operator could achieve using manual sliders etc., however skilled that operator. When computer control came in new possibilities opened up, not least the ability to create and recreate designs accurately – even from venue to venue. This gave a lighting design the security that would become similar to that of set design – a show could reproduce and maintain the lighting design with few adjustments in many situations.

It’s also very true that the effects and the way that lighting changes during a performance became hugely more sophisticated – hence the emergence of the role of programmer, in my opinion a creative role not dissimilar to that of an editor in film and nowadays an essential companion to any lighting designer.

I could now create a lighting change that might be programmed to happen over twenty minutes or be linked to sound or time code where cues would be impossible for an operator to keep up with accurately.

While moving lights and LED sources with their internal colour mixing and ability to change focus and position have been hugely influential in facilitating a design – light itself, the rules of colour and the way light strikes a surface or character have not changed. The physics of colour and intensity remain the same as they have always been and therefore true design is embedded in the principals of the medium that we work with creatively – light itself.

King Kong, New York City, Broadway Theatre, 2018

Tell us about your period in Dancelines Productions.

I co-created Dancelines Productions (from the mid 80s to 90s). At the time I was working predominantly with contemporary dance – designing both sets (sometimes) and lighting for many dance works for theatre, working with a large number of the choreographers of that period.

Increasingly works were being filmed for television – mostly for the new Channel 4 and BBC2. Although that was great, in many ways those of us whose work was being filmed were often dissatisfied with the end product. Pieces were being shot like drama, not understanding or portraying the language of choreography.

After persuading Channel 4 to shoot a piece (Run Like Thunder, Chor. Tom Jobe) in a studio reconstruction rather than as a ‘relay’ from a theatre performance - the success and difference of the result caused Michael Kustow, commissioning arts editor for Channel 4, to invite a proposal for Dance on Television from myself and Terry Braun (who had directed the film) as to how dance on TV could be made to work in a different way. That was the beginning of Dancelines Productions, which for me was to last another decade, both producing and directing many films for TV for both Channel 4 and BBC2.

However I never stopped working with live performance throughout that period, and lighting design remained a core element of my work although I do love working with camera and continue to do so when the opportunities arise. I did stop Dancelines however, as I felt at the time that opportunities for dance, music and opera for TV were becoming less, particularly as Channel 4 became more commercial and lost its ’non-profit’ tag. It’s interesting that online broadcasting seems to be changing that somewhat – which is great.

The Ferryman, Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York City, 2018

You’ve worked on a lot of “classic” plays i.e. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg – what’s the appeal of those productions compared to new work?

The key to any so-called ‘classic’, be it in drama or opera, is that it has survived the test of time which means that one can find a contemporary relevance in the material. I don’t know any director who would not approach such a classic piece as a new work albeit with a history. Greek drama, for example, might be 2,000 years old but can still resonate as being entirely relevant to our own time and culture.

While it is exciting to work on entirely new pieces, there is always something to be learned and something new and contemporary to be offered from a work that has survived decades or centuries. In theatre I’m not interested in recreating museum pieces – theatre is a living art form and there to reflect the world as it is at the time of performance.

What do you discuss with the other creatives when you’re working on the lighting design for a production?

You can’t show a director or co-designer a lighting design in advance, in the way that a set designer can present a model or a costume designer drawings, at least not generally. A lighting rig plan will not communicate those ideas even though for me it is my palette. So you have to be a bit careful about describing a lighting design – if I try to conjure up an image by description then almost certainly we will all be seeing different things in the mind’s eye.

I try to stay in the territory of talking about mood or the psychology of the piece and of course reacting to a set model or costume drawings that as a team might be looking at. The real creative work for me happens actually in the theatre, that is where I create my images.

Lighting design in many ways is the last creative act when performance and surface are melded by light – the ‘how and what we see’ of things. Preparation is essential as is an understanding of a mutual concept with the rest of the creative team but in the end I have to present my work in situ.

Do you feel you have a specific style of lighting and how has it evolved over time?

Certainly designing for many dance pieces in the 70s and 80s ( and still) was very formative in my work.

In the early days the contemporary dance movement very much imported from America created pieces, often abstract, that allowed lighting to dominate the visual space and become scenic in its role and that suited me very well. Since then that approach has infiltrated the other areas of theatre that I work in.

So yes, I think that a style emerges over time and I’m always quite happy when others recognise my work. Style is something that emerges when you have a history – it’s not simply repetition but rather ‘informed progress’ – using visual approaches that have been successful in previous work and building on that to create something fresh and new. You can always recognise a Hockney but it’s also always full of innovation.

The Mask of Orpheus, ENO, The London Coliseum, 2019

When did you first join the ALD?

My designer friend Rick Fisher coerced me many years ago and then later I took over from him as chair for eight years.

Why is it important to be active in industry associations?

Lighting design, although collaborative, is a very singular profession; there’s usually only one designer per production. For years I would only occasionally meet other lighting designers and in many ways we were (and still are) in competition with each other. However that also breeds isolation and that can be taken advantage of in terms of deals/conditions/contracts etc.

Through the ALD we have managed to bring individuals together for the mutual improvement in every sense and furthering of knowledge of our art form. It also achieves a sense of belonging and now we are able to promote education and opportunities for upcoming young designers and create groups that are concerned with sustainability and diversity and many other issues within our industry.

What’s a significant challenge you think the industry is facing?

Within the lighting side of things I’d say we are in a pretty good place; there are now very good courses which never existed when I was starting and lighting design has a level of recognition that was unheard of not too long ago.

There’s a danger that our colleges may be producing too many young would-be designers, although there are many areas in which those graduates can disperse into that are design related or even outside the theatre world. Lighting design has a public and popular awareness now that can include many forms.

Within theatre I sense a move towards commercialism. Success seems to have become a major motivation. What I mean by this is that each project seems much more aimed at what it’s commercial future might be i.e West End transfer or Broadway rather than the value of the work itself and I worry that there is less truly experimental work purely with the instinct to innovate regardless of prospect and that there is less proper funding for this. I may be wrong. I hope so.