The Halfway House, UK

12th February 2021

Fusing architectural lighting with theatre and public realm lighting, Satu Streatfield and her lighting team created an immersive, all-encompassing lighting scheme for the site-specific theatre piece, The Halfway House.

Although the link between theatre lighting and architectural lighting design is a well-worn path, with many in the architectural lighting design world starting their careers in stage lighting, it is rare that the two typologies overlap in one all-encompassing project.

This was the case for Satu Streatfield and her team when it came to illuminating The Halfway House, a site-specific, immersive theatre piece that was devised and staged in the old Central Saint Martin’s campus on Southampton Row in Holborn, London.

The piece was created by Persona Collective – a group of creatives led by theatre director Rocio Ayllon – who were invited by arts charity The Koppel Project to develop and stage a theatre show at their Koppel Project Campus, which was conceived as an experimental, cross-disciplinary education and arts facility in the former Central Saint Martin’s college.

Ayllon established Persona Collective in 2017 as a not-for-profit community interest company that would serve as a vehicle for creative practitioners from design, art, photography, film-making, music and theatre to collaborate on cross-disciplinary, site-specific theatre projects. The collective seeks to involve local communities, including both amateur and professional performers, in co-creating its shows, while also using buildings and spaces that are either overlooked or at risk of slipping from living memory.

Shows and performances are developed using ‘devised theatre’ techniques, while Ayllon also runs months of dance, improvisation, role-play workshops and theatre games with performers in situ to gradually develop their characters and the narratives. Research into the history of the site, its urban context, and past uses and users, heavily influences the role-plays and the narratives. This means that the story is tailored to, and emerges from, the building and its history. In the case of The Halfway House, Covid-19 inevitably drove much of the conceptual, physical and logistical aspects of the performance too.

The narrative for The Halfway House revolved around three storylines – The Porter, The Maids and The Resident – each unfolding in the titular Halfway House, a fictional hotel. The building and its residents are stuck between two worlds, paralysed by nostalgia and slipping into real and fabricated versions of their past, but equally seduced by and drawn into the absurdly ill-fitting and new reality of a ‘luxury’ hotel, which is in the process of being constructed but already feels extremely makeshift, seedy and tired.

The three storylines run concurrently, overlapping as audience members follow each story in and around the building.

Streatfield explained further how the lighting concept for such an immersive, interactive performance was created: “The piece was site-specific, so lighting-wise the first thing we did was spend a lot of time in the building, exploring inside and out, sketching, photographing and filming it at different times of the day and night. It’s a huge, labyrinthine place and, during our first couple of months there, it was almost completely empty,” she said.

“The lighting effects – both natural and man-made – that we found in some of the rooms and corridors were already beautiful. Other spaces had no lighting at all, or glary bulk-head lights that the construction company had introduced as part of their building works. But even those spaces were really inspiring because they were so jarring – the place was a real Frankenstein’s Monster of atmospheres, details and styles. We saw the building itself as a real character and major protagonist in the show.”

From here, Streatfield started to formulate rough ideas for the lighting, before the performers had even arrived ‘on set’. One of the key elements that she sought to incorporate was the combination of both interior and exterior lighting.

“There were really striking views from the building down onto the street that we really wanted to make use of, so we decided early on that the show should involve scenes both inside and outside, with views between exterior and interior, public and private realms. 

“One of the most inspiring existing effects on site was the light spilling into the historic Lethaby Building from Southampton Row. The light from streetlights pouring through windows and filtering in through trees, car headlights flashing past – these all formed really important inspirations and juxtapositions not only for the designed lighting effects but also for certain narratives that emerged through the workshops.”

In the early design process, Streatfield and the lighting team kept their ideas “pretty loose and minimal”, not getting too attached to any particular ideas in the knowledge that they could change as the stories and characters evolved. As such, Streatfield sat in on performance workshops to gauge the progression of the narrative and play around with basic effects of light and dark, colour and focus “to see if they felt right, or to see how the performers would respond”.

“It was a very fluid, iterative dialogue and really involved just playing and improvising with light as part of the workshops,” she recalled. “Rocio [Ayllon] and our photographer, Karolina Burlikowska, would feed us references from fine art, photography, music, architecture, and in particular cinema, to get us all in the same kind of mindset, atmosphere-wise, as the narratives started to take shape.”

Most of the real lighting design work, Streatfield continued, came towards the end of the workshop process, once the narratives had almost taken form. “At that stage, it was really about watching and following the performers through their scenes to develop and refine the lighting concepts, building upon those early ideas inspired by the existing architecture and context. The sound and lightscapes emerged in parallel, feeding off and supporting each other. It was a really inspiring and exciting way to work – listening to the soundtracks in situ, even without any performers, was a really powerful catalyst for envisaging the character of light that could emerge.”

Throughout the performance, the variety in scenes and storylines called for a broad range of lighting scenarios, some relatively natural, and others more abstract or ethereal. 

“Some scenes involved very little or no dialogue and were conceived as more overtly dreamlike spaces, with light creating an amorphous perception of space and evoking characters’ moods or echoing the movements,” Streatfield explained. “In others, we kept the lighting very naturalistic and still, putting all the focus on the performers’ subtlest expressions, movements and dialogue.

“In other rooms, we started with unremarkable-looking light from familiar sources, which would then be oddly juxtaposed or begin to distort somehow to give that sense that everything was a bit off-kilter and unstable. A makeshift hotel room was lit with floor-standing lamps, but these were supplemented with fill-light filtered through a fan, which we slowed down at points to give the light a subtly-nauseating, shuddering quality.”

The central focal point of the performance was the Storm Room, a stand-alone light and sound installation created by fellow lighting designer and light artist Jack Wates. “On our first visit to the campus there was one room in the historic, listed Lethaby building that we found so beautiful and magical that it was almost intimidating,” Streatfield continued. “It was so spectacular that it really demanded a lot of love.”

The Storm Room was conceived as an artificial lightning storm that would occupy a central space in the building, positioning Lethaby’s iconic glass dome as a “mediator between body and storm”. “The concept was to produce a piece of magical realism as a place in which a storm was forever raging. The immaterial characteristics of the storm – rain, thunder and lightning – would become permanent features of the room,” Wates explained.

The “storm” was designed to give the sense that it was continuously moving – approaching, departing, and climaxing in moments where lightning would strike directly overhead. The lightning, and associated thunder, was programmed with a randomiser to ensure that each strike was unpredictable, so that no one – actors or audience – could predict when it would strike.

“The Storm Room was a really important part of the show,” continued Streatfield. “It needed to be a really powerful, immersive space, but also be visible from other rooms and corridors around the building complex.

“In urban design we refer a lot to Kevin Lynch’s ideas about mental mapping and creating landmarks. The Storm Room became that landmark and common reference point, around which the different narratives unfolded.”

The Halfway House as a performance spanned across the building and surrounding streets, with a myriad of locations and spaces that needed illuminating. This variety meant that the performance became one of the most “logistically complex” projects that Streatfield has worked on. Add on top of that a very small budget, and the impact of Covid-19 and it became a very challenging experience.

“In all there were around 35 different spaces to light, some with a number of different scenes and transitions,” Streatfield explained. “The campus is large and its layout complex. It has been disused for years, so some rooms had no existing lighting in them, and others just had a single or no working power outlets. Our theatre lighting technician/designer, Steve Lowe, did an amazing job running cables and getting lights where we needed them.

“We had to be very resourceful and creative with the existing lighting. We started by going through every space and filtering, blacking-out, shielding and re-directing existing lighting to transform those spaces without having to add any new lighting at all. We then added accents where needed, and designed a lot of the spaces that the audience wouldn’t necessarily walk though, but would nevertheless experience on their route around the building, seeing them through windows or slightly open doors.

“We then put our main resources, equipment-wise, into the main scenes where the audience would spend more time, and some of that kit had to travel between rooms during the show to make full use of it.”

On a technical level, the location also meant that it wasn’t possible for the lighting to be pre-programmed for each performance, meaning that any scenes requiring lighting transitions needed a lighting operator in situ – sometimes hidden in plain sight, dressed as a member of the cast, and other times hiding under tables or in corners.

“All of the lighting operators had their own choreography and timelines through the space, with some staying put and operating one or two rooms throughout, and others ducking from one scene to another via back routes and stairs to avoid crossing the audience’s path,” Streatfield recalled.

“Every show would open with two of us spotlighting a character on the street, by the phone box on the corner of Southampton Row and Theobalds Road. As soon as the audience entered the building, we would have about three minutes to pack up and quickly and quietly rush to the opposite side of the building, ready to light another scene. Dressed in black, wearing our face-masks, hiding in doorways and glancing at stopwatches, it sometimes felt more like taking part in a heist than doing theatre show lighting.”

The various elements and locations of the show also meant that a multitude of different lighting applications were also used, from existing public realm/urban lighting, to architectural lighting and theatre lighting.

However, fusing these various typologies into one coherent show is something that Streatfield feels came “very naturally”. “Aside from the fact that we engaged people from different lighting backgrounds, there was a demand for each of these different experiences and understandings of light,” she said.

“It wasn’t straight theatre, because there was no clear stage, backstage and auditorium, but of course all the tech, cues, transitions and response to narrative needed theatre lighting sensibilities. It was an immersive, promenade show, but we weren’t working with a blank, black-box space – we were working within a very strong, existing architectural context.

“Principles of architectural lighting – including Richard Kelly’s elemental qualities of light – became crucial in creating a strong sense of space and context.”

Streatfield added that the building’s urban context also became an integral part of its character. The show opens in the street, where public streetlighting and the passing lights of traffic and the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances became fundamental components of the lighting. This then extended for scenes inside the building as well, with lighting designed around that spill-light through windows from the surrounding environment.

Utilising the surrounding urban lighting, along with what existing lighting there was within the building, proved to be essential, as the lighting team had an incredibly small budget to work with. A large portion of the lighting fixtures used were either donated or, as Streatfield explains, “borrowed, bought and scavenged from cast and crew’s homes, eBay and even Poundland”.

“We owe a real debt of gratitude to Paul Simon from Enliten, who donated a lot of colour and diffusion gels and blackwrap. He also lent us the fanciest bit of kit we used – an ETC D60 – as well as several Alpha Pack Zero 88 portable dimmers, without which we would have had very clunky transitions.

“One of our brilliant producers and lighting operators, Alice Wilson, knew someone who works at Shakespeare’s Globe, so they very kindly lent us some filters and redundant tungsten fittings. Stoane Lighting and iGuzzini also very kindly had a rummage through their warehouses and old samples and donated various luminaires, lamps and components.

“I also bought an old 2000W follow-spot, which we nicknamed Mable, for £90 on eBay, including stand and spare lamps, which I was pretty chuffed with!”

Alongside the minimal budget for lighting equipment, the lockdown measures implemented in March of last year severely hampered the planning and development of the show. Theatre workshops had to be moved online, while show director Rocio Ayllon had to film several hours of footage on site on the eve of lockdown, just so the production team could post videos and tasks that participants could respond to. “It was a very difficult process – to reinvent our ways of working and try to devise site-specific theatre, without being on site. But it did mean the group collectively built a rather wonderful virtual sketchbook of initial ideas, videos, dances, films, photographs, texts, collages and music compositions, all based on these video-glimpses into the site and various historic texts and research.”

It’s all the more impressive in that respect that the show was able to go ahead. And while the production team was not able to properly meet with the audience after each performance, Streatfield revealed that they did receive some very positive feedback.

“A lot of people said it was like being in a film,” she said. “Many commented on really enjoying the way the show allowed them to experience the buildings. One man and woman were moved to tears, which I think was a big compliment.”

However, at the moment there aren’t any plans for a repeat performance when lockdown measures are eased, and due to the site-specific nature of the narrative, it’s unlikely that the show will be transported to another venue.

“The show’s narrative and scenography emerged from the place, the performers involved and the very particular circumstances of the pandemic, so it won’t be repeated,” Streatfield concluded.

“It was a huge amount of work, with hundreds of volunteered hours by a fantastic team, and we were gutted that relatively few people got to see it. We did film each route and scene, however, so there will be a film released this year, which will open it up to a much bigger audience. Rocio is also hatching plans for a short film – a kind of spin-off for one of the show’s characters too.

“There will be another new show eventually too, but we will have to find a suitably interesting venue first…”

Pic: Karolina Burlikowska