Find out more about the lighting design for Swan Lake with the show's designer, and New Adventures Associate Artist, Paule Constable

Q&A with Paule

Are there any recurring lighting states in the show that help the audience to know when a particular character, or location, is featuring in the story, and if so, how is this done and what is the inspiration behind it?    

It is very simple in a way – the palace world is very austere and clear. In terms of character, the emotional state of the space is less reflected in the lighting. For example, if the characters on stage start getting angry, the lighting state doesn’t change to red. The use of both clear and white states, are very much the ‘the muscle’ behind the show. Having said that the swans are also white, but there is a quality of light when the Swan is around that I hope has a more bluey-white/moonlit quality (as displayed in the below production shot), as opposed to the blank white of the palace. Qualities of white light are very important to the show. 

The Swans
Credit: Johan Persson

Are there also any other reference sources, or design inspirations, that have influenced your work more generally on Swan Lake?

It is slightly different in this instance due to the fact that there is a pre-existing design (from the prior revivals of Matthew’s Swan Lake), whereas normally I would use huge amounts of reference when designing a show. For example, with The Red Shoes there are the most brilliant amounts of reference, because you can watch the original 1948 film and take stills out of this, and there is so much within that (to draw on).

With Swan Lake it felt like I was looking for things to do with exposure, to do with whiteness and for some reason it kept making me think of things slightly like the American TV Series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ with that kind of level of scrutiny and austerity. I don’t mean in terms of the beams of light, but in relation to the levels of exposure. 

I also thought about that moment in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, where Johnny Depp’s character, wakes up and everything’s white – that kind of world. I was thinking about where we see white, blank spaces – that kind of flatness. You see it a lot in a particular kind of fashion photography by, contemporary artist, Wolfgang Tillmans that has a kind of flatness and exposure about it that I think is reminiscent of Vogue Magazine in the early 90s; it’s that kind of look. Also, very much like Mario Testino (a Peruvian fashion and portrait photographer) creates in his photographic portraits.

Paule's Advice for Aspiring Lighting Designers

I’ve had quite an unconventional journey into this career, and I think that’s had many advantages. I’ve got a degree in English Literature and so I’m quite good at talking about ideas and reading texts, and that sort of thing.

The thing about lighting is that it’s so hard to really get your head around what it is. If you just think about how you talk about lighting, and how you describe images in terms of light, it’s really quite difficult. It’s like talking about music – once you get beyond ‘it’s quite happy’ or ‘it’s quite upbeat’ - actually really talking about what it’s doing is quite complex because it’s abstract and you’re interpreting it. Similarly, that’s also quite hard with lighting.

So, I think the perfect way to become a lighting designer is that you first need to be visually hungry and visually literate. When I think about what I use to feed the ideas in my work, I use lots of film references, lots of photographic references, lots of references from fine art and things like that. I’m just constantly looking and I know that I’ve spent my life learning, and being really interested in how I might break down what I see, into how I might put that on stage.

A lifetime of ‘learning to look’, that’s the most critical thing. 

There’s great conservatoires to go to including: LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art), RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), LIPA (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts), the Royal Welsh College and the Royal Scottish Academy. Conservatoire training is great.

Whatever you try to do, having your hands on equipment and playing with it; and being in an environment where you can do that is fantastic. Maybe you can do that whilst you’re studying Physics in Newcastle, or whilst you’re studying English at your sixth form college. It’s just about enthusiasm and really getting your hands on equipment. 

I think a lot of people come into lighting because they love climbing ladders and they love the equipment, which I did too! But what I also found I loved as well, was what it does. I found I could be really fascinated at watching lights fades up and down, and at what point they became like ‘this’, and really ‘breaking it all down’. And, I realised that what I was really drawn to was what the equipment did, more than just the equipment itself.

So, it’s about being creative, being visually literate and being enthusiastic. That’s what you need. And I think your path to encouraging and honing those skills, can be anything that suits you really. Life experience is key too – that’s the other thing about lighting designers, we deal with everybody in their most stressful time. So, every director, choreographer, designer, performer that you deal with is ‘in the moment’ of having to put something in front of an audience, and that’s the only moment you get to be creative. Everyone’s expectations are supposed to be fulfilled in those two or three days (just before the show goes up) when you have your only moment in which you can do your work, so it’s absolutely terrifying, as well!