Mayflower Theatre, UK

Pic: Tom Lee

As part of a new £7.5million refurbishment, 18 Degrees has created a lighting scheme that celebrates the beautiful architecture of Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre, while creating a comfortable environment for theatregoers.

The Mayflower Theatre in Southampton, the third largest theatre by capacity in the UK outside of London, last year marked its 90th anniversary with a new, £7.5million refurbishment.

The renovation project, taking place in a twelve-week window starting in June 2018, was extensive, with the theatre seeing a completely new colour scheme introduced throughout. The radical transformation has seen the Grade II listed theatre move from its previous green colour scheme to a regal red and gold, intended to represent the heritage of the building.

The restoration also saw most of the auditorium seating refurbished or replaced, while the orchestra pit was moved to below the stage area, and accessibility into and around the theatre has also been improved.

London-based lighting design practice 18 Degrees was appointed as lighting designer for the project as, following consultation with architects Foster Wilson and theatre consultant Charcoalblue – both companies that 18 Degrees had previously worked with – lighting was identified as a key element within the refurbishment. Not only to bring the theatre forward in terms of technological advancements, but also to complement the new interior look and feel, creating a comfortable environment for theatregoers.

Speaking on the initial design brief, Christopher Knowlton, Director at 18 Degrees, said: “The Mayflower Theatre CEO Michael Ockwell was very clear that under the original lighting he couldn’t read his programme. With the colour of the auditorium being taken to a martini red, there was a concern that the low lighting levels would become even lower.

“The overarching project goal was to improve the audience experience. The theatre’s 1920s lighting design was much unchanged since its installation, leaving the auditorium dimly lit and consuming significant energy. In some areas patrons were finding their seats and reading programmes in just 1 lux.

“We set out to create a well lit environment where navigation and accessibility was improved and architecture celebrated.”

Layered into this were enhancements to the circulation lighting used within performances to ease wayfinding, and lighting some of the architectural details within the space that hadn’t ever been lit before. This included elements such as the dome and sun rises, with the new lighting, provided here by Universal Fibre Optics and Lumino respectively, revealing the gold leaf, and providing texture to the auditorium’s rich new colour palette.

To create the new environment and pay tribute to the heritage and architecture of the theatre, 18 Degrees’ design approach was to provide layers of light that would present the auditorium beautifully, yet have subtle variations in function. This was realised through general, comfort, decorative and accent lighting – a response to the performative nature of the space.

General illumination was provided by the installation of more than 200 new Lucifer Lighting downlights. Carefully integrated into the historic fabric of the building, after gaining permission from English Heritage, who oversaw the restoration works, this light created a soft, even illumination to the space, improving distribution and increasing the illuminance during general, day to day use. This means that heritage lighting now only needs to be used for performances. Dimming, distribution and illuminance levels were all carefully plotted, along with extensive onsite testing for performance and colour rendering.

All heritage lighting within the venue was retained – a key component of the design plans – as 18 Degrees decided to refurbish and repair the fixtures, replacing the old halogen lamps with Global Design Solutions LEDs. The use of LED lighting throughout provides increased functionality, while ensuring a more conscious approach environmentally for the venue, leading to a longer term, more efficient lighting solution.

For these heritage fixtures, the original 1930s cabling was concealed within the architectural fabric of the building. Accessing this would mean breaking into the Grade II listed building, so instead 18 Degrees continued to use this wiring with new LED lamps and drivers especially designed for this application.

New comfort lighting, in the form of nearly 300 new LEDFlex linear lights integrated into the end of row arm rests and handrails, provides low levels of light during the performance to allow for improved visibility when accessing the walkways. Totally concealed, these linear lights only offer illumination into the aisles, while the low level of light ensures that patrons are not lit or distracted while watching a show.

The final component of the new lighting scheme was the newly designed orchestra pit. Split into two mechanical lifts, concealed seats within the pit can be raised or lowered to provide an additional four rows of seating, if needed. Due to the pit’s close proximity to the stage, beam control was critical, as Knowlton explained: “As the lighting was located eighteen metres overhead, it led us to design a series of apertures to project narrow beam LED theatre lanterns to illuminate and zone the area accurately.”

Controlling the many new lighting fixtures and scenarios in the auditorium meant the need for a new state-of-the-art control system to ensure that the lighting could be controlled individually or in groups. Working with Charcoalblue and ETC, 18 Degrees designed and commissioned a control system where every light can be individually controlled, either via touchscreens and buttons, or via the lighting control desk.

“The lighting control on this project represented a huge paradigm shift for the theatre,” Knowlton elaborated. “Previously lighting was controlled from a number of dimmers controlled via DMX. A small number of addresses would be used to call up elements such as decorative fixtures or downlights.

“The new all-LED system required many more specialised drivers, taking the original DMX addresses to 365. This allows every light to be individually controlled, which is both a benefit and a challenge. For a receiving house theatre like Mayflower, giving an incoming company that many DMX addresses to control would be highly impractical, so a solution was developed with ETC where the Paradigm Control System can operate with only a small number of DMX addresses when accessed via DMX. When the theatre is not in performance mode, a touch screen and wall stations around the auditorium are used to control the lights for day-to-day operation.

“At the start of the process, there were a lot of people asking who would ever use all those addresses and what for? By the end of the project, we had found an ever-growing number of opportunities to use the house lights as part of the theatrical experience.”

Because of the vibrant new colour scheme, 18 Degrees had to carry out a series of tests to ensure that the new lighting complemented the deep red interiors.

Knowlton continued: “People often forget that colour is really about relative contrast, so even when the theory is telling you something should work, it’s not until you see it for real that you can tell if it works.

“In an auditorium, light levels are often very low, and dimming between 0-30% can dramatically change the appearance of colours. It was therefore decided that we would test all materials and paint finishes under the lighting conditions that we would have in the theatre. This process meant the whole team spent a lot of time looking at samples in a dark room with the selected downlights.”

The lighting design firm’s close, collaborative relationship with Foster Wilson also helped to yield positive results. “Foster Wilson were great to work with, developing a palette of materials and finishes that were tested under the exact lighting conditions in the theatre with the new lighting to ensure that we all agreed on the finishes under the correct lighting, so there were no surprises when the lights were switched on for the first time,” Knowlton said.

“When you work with collaborators that understand each other’s practice, it’s so rewarding, and I think the results show how successful this can be.”

Indeed the end result shows the remarkable success of the renovation, with the new lighting design perfectly complementing the deep, luxurious new red colour scheme. The space feels fresh, yet with a warm, comforting sense of heritage, while the beautiful architectural elements are wonderfully celebrated.

Knowlton is equally pleased with the final product, on both a practical and aesthetical level: “The lighting design functions really well. We have reduced the energy consumption on a day-to-day basis, while at the same time providing higher light levels that are more equally distributed.

“In such a large space it would be easy to flatten the space with so much light. However, the integration of lighting into seating and features prevent that from happening, allowing the building to have an identity of its own, while allowing each show to sit comfortably within.

“The lighting supports the space and its function: a response to the architectural form rather than an imposition on an old building.”

However, while Knowlton is pleased with the new lighting scheme, he said that it was the reaction from those working at the theatre that he’ll remember. “There was a beautiful moment where we got control of the lights for the first time and could really show off what we had done,” he said.

“The BBC had been in earlier in the day to film their restoration documentary and the stage curtain was lowered. All of the staff who had not been allowed into the building site for twelve weeks were ushered onto the monochromatic black stage when the curtain was raised and they got a first glimpse of the new colour scheme and lighting. For some it was quite emotional – a testament to the way the theatre is run by passionate members of a huge team.

“Mayflower Theatre and the people who bring it to life made it very hard not to fall in love with this project. The Mayflower plays a huge part in local community life, and to have even a small role in regenerating the space has been an honour.”