Macbeth at the Albery - The Inside Story

Last Update: 13 November 2002

"Fortune favours the prepared": The Lighting Designer discusses his work

Ben Ormerod is the lighting designer for Macbeth at the Albery. He has worked with Ed Hall and Michael Pavelka on many productions including Julius Caesar and Henry V at the RSC and Rose Rage with "Propeller"  

What do you work on to start with?
Normally I start by reading the play and making lists of all the references to light - the weather ("so foul and fair a day I have not seen"), time of day, light as metaphor and so on. It's worth reading these lists as if they were a commentary on the play; comparing a list compiled from Hamlet (which is so short as to be insignificant) with one compiled from Macbeth (which is huge and contains whole speeches) is very revealing about both plays. In this case I'd already written my list (I've lit Macbeth seven times) so the first work was to discuss the storyboard* with the Director and Set Designer. This production has a particular route through the play (Ed's put the two English army scenes together and cut the cauldron) so I talked to Ed and Mike about the different ways of realising the route they'd chosen.

What do you do in rehearsals?
In the beginning I just watch. Sometimes what happens is that scenes begin to light themselves. I was watching the apparition scene at a moment when Macbeth and the three sisters were entwined and immediately I saw them being lit from the side, lower than their faces, as if from a footlight in a controlled area around their faces. A few days later I was watching the dagger scene (it's one of those scenes that has to look dark but you've still got to see everything) and I wanted to light Macbeth but I didn’t particularly want to light a bed that was on stage at the same time. The position for the light I'd used to create the "footlight" effect immediately solved the problem so now two lights are rigged as low as possible in the auditorium, able to light any part of the stage and creating a high shadow effect. In this way the lighting rig* slowly builds itself in my head as if I'm having an imaginary technical rehearsal (tech*) there.

Describe how you approach the technical rehearsal?
This is the most intensively creative period. Lighting rigs are often capable of far more than you have imagined them for so you're thinking "on your feet" constantly. You'll be working away on the lights for one scene while the set is being changed for a different one and in a moment look up and say "wow that looks fantastic - I'll use that!" At the end of the tech the lighting can look very different from your original idea but you have to come to the theatre totally prepared if you're going to stay open to the new opportunities the rig presents to you. By the first dress rehearsal I like the lighting to be of a standard I would be happy to put in front of a paying audience. That way you have two or three more days to let the lighting design tell you what it needs to fulfil it's true potential - "I need more of this" it'll say or "I want to be more like that" and so on. Ed and I nearly doubled the tech time from the original production schedule because we believe that this is not just time saved later on but it means you can reach another level of lighting performance by the time the show opens.

Does atmospheric lighting mean you can't always see the actors' faces?
I happen to believe that there is nothing quite as atmospheric on stage as the face so my first job is to reveal that. Effective lighting is not about using large quantities of light (which can be difficult to control) but about lighting the actors with the materials you're trying to build your ideas out of. Light is by it's very nature atmospheric or evocative so when you light the actor you must also make a choice as to what the nature of that light is going to evoke - is it sunlight or moonlight? Electric light or light through water? This way good lighting reveals atmosphere rather than adding it and at the same time illuminates the actors' faces.

What kind of lighting rig are you using on this show?
A very small one. This isn't just because "less is more", though that's part of it, but because we are using a type of robotic, computerised light, originally pioneered by the rock band Genesis. They have inbuilt motors allowing them to point and tilt, narrow and widen, change colour and refocus from scene to scene so that with skilful programming each light can do many different jobs. In this case twelve lights are able substantially to carry the whole show. However we wouldn't be able to use these lights without the specialist Programmer we've brought in because the speed with which he works and the way he thinks is central to the process (when we worked with him on Julius Caesar he plotted a hundred light cues before the first line of the play). He has to know exactly what the lights are doing when they are not in use so that they can be reprogrammed in time for their next lighting job; he is known as the "master of the blackout"!

*storyboard is a technique borrowed from film whereby the story and setting for the play is revealed through a series of printed visual images (like a "comic book")

*lighting rig is the phrase used to describe all the lights in their designated position and focus

*tech is the name given to the first rehearsal in the theatre after the set is erected to cue all the sound and lighting and precedes the "dress rehearsal"

Directors and Designers


Part Two: Actors and Acting


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