Paule Constable

18th February 2016

Winner of four Olivier awards and two Tonys, Paule Constable is a lighting designer who needs no introduction. With work spanning a broad catalogue of opera and theatre productions, her stripped back approach to lighting design has earned global recognition. mondo*arc caught up with Constable, after a showing of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, to talk about light and its ability to adapt.

Growing up in a military family, lighting designer Paule Constable has moved around all of her life. The need to make friends quickly and the peripatetic nature of this lifestyle made theatre attractive to her. Although it may seem like a somewhat unlikely correlation, Constable explains: “It’s amazing how many military kids gravitate towards theatre.”

Like many young and brilliant minds, Constable studied an eclectic mix of arts and science subjects through school, culminating in A-levels in Maths, Physics, English and History of Art. “I didn’t know what to do next. Originally I was considering architecture, then I thought about engineering but in the end I decided to do an English degree,” says Constable. The English degree in question she pursued at Goldsmiths College in London, which at the time – in the mid 80s – was a hub of creativity, producing the likes of Damian Hirst, under the guidance of Dean Richard Hoggart. Invigorated by the artistic essence of the institution, Constable changed after a year to a combined English and Drama course because “…it was just a better course for me,” she explains.

During her studies Constable went through the motions of wanting to become an academic or a director. However, during a real-life piece of theatre, her flatmate – a stage manager at the time – fell madly in love and ran away to Spain. Seizing the opportunity, Constable pretended to be her, took her job as a follow spot operator and turned up at the Hackney Empire to announce “I’ve no idea what I’m doing”.

After doing a lot of climbing when she was younger and having never been frightened of heights, she was immediately happy amongst theatre’s stage rigging and equipment. Constable explained: “Because of A-level Physics I could rewire stuff and I loved the creative aspects of lighting. It discovered me really. I worked in the music industry for a few years, then experimental theatre and devised theatre. I simply followed my nose.”

In that time, academic study of lighting was rare and the route into the industry came from people who were working as electricians. Learning on the job, Constable followed the advice of a couple of key designers who mentored her. After being in the industry for a short time, she realised that it wasn’t just the technology that interested her but also the storytelling of lighting. “I already had an academic strand to my life with an English degree and a love for literature, as well as a very practical strand and I didn’t want to do something that was purely one or the other.” It was at this point that she realised design was the missing piece to her puzzle.

When asked about her influences along her journey to success as a lighting designer, Constable responds: “Through learning, there have been people who have been very influential to me. Through looking at other people’s work and realising it was different, particular and special.” More specifically, she cites Germany’s Wolfgang Goebbel, who created a very different aesthetic to anybody on the UK stage, as well as Jean Kalman from France. These people, along with many others, made Constable realise that light could be more; it didn’t have to be purely functional.

In her own projects, she worked with a lighting designer in the UK called Stevie Whitson who was very experimental after coming from La Mama theatre in New York. “I worked with him and helped him out a lot. He was completely anarchic and brilliant. He made you believe that light could do anything,” she explains.

In addition, Constable draws inspiration from cross-discipline sources, finding reference material that unlocks her creative vision in sources such as American photographer Gregory Crewdson. “He uses light in a very particular way, it is so resonant.”

Lighting is a very diverse medium, from theatre to architecture it can be manipulated to impressive effect. Constable attributes its creative value to the feeling that “there is something about working in a landscape that is not necessarily understood, seen or overt. Something about the subversive nature of it. It’s not concrete and not right or wrong; it is incredibly lyrical but also literal. It’s so many contrasting things”.

As a great lover of the outdoors and, more specifically, an obsessive fell runner, Constable’s appreciation for light and the way it interacts with landscape, people and space runs deep. “Even if you’re working in a tiny space, you have to find a sense of why light is there; working in a medium that is never entirely finished, it is entirely illusive,” she adds.

This philosophy runs through into her lighting of theatre. For example, shows such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time doesn’t use traditional scenery to tell the story, but instead uses gesture and lighting to create the impression of a room with nothing. Based on long collaborative relationships between the team behind the show, the result is a spectacular display of light, sound and interaction. “We began with a floor of LED pixels in a grid. We wanted to make it an experience for the audience, a journey they went on with Christopher – the lead character,” explains Constable. With the focus on stimulating the audience and to reflect Christopher’s state of mind, the team looked at how the space would respond. Therefore, allowing the stage to become the inside of his head. Based on the protagonist’s immaculate attention to detail and fascination with his surroundings, the team thought he would love technical theatre, lights and equipment. With this in mind, they came up with the idea of a square and then Constable created the idea of having a pixel grid of LEDs and RGB light boxes, which are used to represent objects throughout the performance. “I wanted to reflect the same above him, to create Christopher’s world, his machine. You feel as if you are creating the show with him, creating an immersive experience for the audience.”

As a member of the audience you understand the rules of the space within the first ten minutes. There is a collective sense that you are going to share something with the actors. This is achieved, in the most part, by a stage brought to life through intelligent lighting and the diversity of LEDs. “When we first started making Curious Incident, LEDs would flash on and the story would get lost as it felt as if the lights were doing something to him rather than with him. We had to make sure that it felt like he was making it happen – a brilliant conversation between mediums,” comments Constable.

Her commercially successful shows such as The Curious Incident, War horse and, which travel the world or appear on Broadway, obviously attract the most media attention. However, Constable’s favourite show of last year was a production of Wozzeck – the opera – in Chicago. “It was a piece I’d never done before; based on an 18th century German play by Buchner, written by Berg as a response to the First World War. Incredibly modern, short and episodic, it’s really angry. We did a stripped back version of it designed by Vicki Mortimer – a close friend and colleague of mine – and directed by Sir David McVicar – someone I have worked with for 20 years. The coming together of the piece, the creative team, the cast and the space made for a great production. All in white, it was hard, brutal and really stripped back. At first I never thought it was going to work but in the end we got close to something that really landed with the music,” says Constable.

When comparing theatrical lighting and architectural lighting, the link may seem unrelated. However, Constable believes that the understanding of light and its application is universal. Citing the work of Speirs + Major, she says: “I’ve always really loved their work because it’s story driven. I love their relationship to landscape and talking to them, I was fascinated to see how similar their thinking was to mine. I look at architectural lighting design, particularly in interiors – it can be quite functional or it can be quite transcendent. Their work for me feels like it wants to do both things. You go into their spaces and you feel different – your senses wake up.

“The area that people such as Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell are exploring is absolutely the area that concerns me. Then there are people who objectify light like Dan Flavin – even though his work is still about colour balance. I think this is true with architectural work, you can see there are places where people are really telling a story with a space or places that are rudimentary and functional. Similarly in theatre, say with musicals, the lighting often has to create rhythm and shift the space in a very overt way – not working from the inside but imposing an agenda on a moment. This to me is objectified lighting – it has a strong external hand. As in offices, when it needs to be functional, compared with places that need to be stimulating.”

The road to success is often described as a bumpy one and Constable’s has been no different. “Being female and having children has been tough. The weird thing about lighting is that people can use the idea of technology as a weapon against you. Being an electrician, my technical knowledge was quite good. But now things change very quickly. I use the technology to be creative but I can’t talk to you about the technical minutiae of how we manage data in say Curious Incident. It is about learning that you don’t have to be able to do everything. Originally, I would hang my own lights and do my own programming. That can be a problem for young people to come into the business,” she explains.

Constable went on to describe a brief encounter with the V&A museum that opened her eyes to how light can be interpreted in space. “One thing I think is interesting about architectural lighting design, I discovered during a brief encounter with the museum. They were scared by the way I think about light. I wasn’t thinking about lumens, functions, labels and walls. I was thinking about light as a dynamic, story-telling thing. I realised that I was the wrong person for them to be talking to. With my work, I can start with nothing but I don’t think in architectural work anyone can really do that. I don’t think of myself as much of lighting designer, as someone who works with darkness. That is a very different discipline.”

Aside from ups and downs, Constable has received four Olivier and two Tony awards for her work in lighting. Within an industry that is male dominated, achieving this level of public recognition has been a highlight in her professional career. “I am the only female senior lighting designer in this country who has global recognition – partly because I do a lot of opera. In a world where role models are really important, winning awards is great to prove to people that it is possible. In terms of gender balance within my own teams, most of my favourite programmers are women.  They tend to have a very level head in that particular role. Being in a position to champion them is really important,” she explains.

Constable pinpoints the beginning of her journey to success to a pivotal moment when she became the first woman to light a show at The National Theatre in 1993. “That is pretty shameful but I suppose that was the start of a big journey for me as I’m an associate director there now,” she says.

Another significant moment in her career has a very heart-warming story behind it. When working at the English National Opera, after just winning an Olivier award, the stage manager told her that she must bring it in the following week. On Monday, much to the manager’s surprise, the award was nowhere to be seen. “Where is it?” they said. “It went to show and tell with my kids,’’ says Constable. “They are nineteen and seventeen now but back then they must not have known what the bust of Olivier even meant.”

Her success and recognition within the industry is often attributed to her unique process, which tends to be simple and stripped back. “It’s kind of Amish,” explains Constable. With a simple, clear and honest approach, the focus remains on the right idea, light, the right moment to not feel obliged to do everything and the right moment to release a particular story. “My work doesn’t use a lot of saturated colour but I’m really interested in height and naturalism – ideas that come from a reality. I like stripping back to a truth and then heightening that,” states Constable.

What is apparent through lighting, whether it is theatrical or architectural, is that lighting designers share the same foundation of skills. These shape how people experience, perceive, feel and immerse themselves in space. There are so many ways to experience space and that becomes the common ground between all lighting designers. “Learning to look is the secret we share. The public don’t obviously always notice or perceive light. I was recently in terminal five at Heathrow, when my plane was delayed. I walked through the subway and the way the LEDs are used is really beautifully put together. You walk through the tunnel and you feel like you’re in a Sci-Fi movie – it is alive. It has been done thoughtfully without feeling suppressive. Even a small detail like that, you do it properly and it can make people’s travelling more enjoyable.”

Whether it is in theatre, architecture or any other environment, this anecdote encapsulates what designing with light can create. Just like in Heathrow’s terminal five, with thoughtful design, even simplistic lighting can deliver a grand impact.

Pic: Lulu Ladd