I am a London-based theatre and live music event lighting designer. I started work over ten years ago, initially with an emphasis on theatre, and increasingly for live music.
I am also an award-winning novelist, and generally churn out a book a year. You can read more about that corner of my life here.
Writing has one big effect on my lighting career – I can pursue lighting because I love it. Courtesy of writing, every job I do because I think it will be flipping awesome. Over the years, it has been my honour to work on some truly stunning shows with some inspiring teams. Equally, if I’m not right for you, the Association of Lighting Designers has many who will be perfect.
Theatre & Music
Theatre LDs traditionally spend months calculating where to put that perfect unit to do the shot to achieve a look that will be lovingly cultivated over several days and let’s face it, a lot of up 5%, down 5%.
Venue LDs might listen to the band they’re going to light that day on youtube, and watch what they do in soundcheck, but that’s often all the insight they get before a gig. When the band start playing, you rely on experience and a little bit of hope that you’re gonna nail it. On tour, you may know the music, but not the venue, and have to make rapid choices about the best way to integrate the show with the space.
Years of theatre taught me how to find the nuance and the storytelling in a music gig. Every gig needs a place to go when the emotion picks and when it drops. Conserving your tools for the perfect moment, waiting for the shift in the audience and on the stage, are all things theatre teaches.
Equally, years of working under the high pressure of busking live-music gigs have made me good at working in the boiler room of a manic technical rehearsal. There’ll be a solution to the problem – you just gotta find it.
What Kind of Lighting Designer?
This is the question you always get asked, fairly, but there’s no easy answer. I am (or aim to be) the lighting designer that the show requires. For candlelit Russian dramas: palettes of suffocating warms and sweeps of half-shadowed gloom are the order of the day. For panto: bright, vibrant colours and evil cackling witches, picked out in green uplight. For abstract pieces in black boxes, the lighting exists to create a space that is as much metaphorical as a geographical location or time of day; for full-scale musicals LX tells the eye where to go, opening up or closing down a space depending on the grandeur or intimacy of the moment. If you’re low on power and money, practicals come into their own. If you have all the budget in the world, I will happily spend it on tools to make your audience reel with wonder.
Within that, I do have a fondness for haze and side-lighting, and am much more likely to create intricate cue stacks of subtle, tiny shifts in attention and emotion than to just leave one state up for a show.
From a technical point of view, I worked on the lighting crew in the Olivier Theatre in London 2010-2012, and haven’t yet met a lighting desk I can’t use, though I prefer ETC/Avo to GrandMA/Chamsys.
I also worked in the NT’s Video Department for a few months, to get to grips with this industry-changing technology, and can program QLab, as well as use Wysiwyg and Vectorworks.
That said – I’ve never done film/TV and it’s probably a bit late in my career to start. I have lit farce, and laughed a lot, but to be honest from a lighting point of view, bright lights-up, brights lights-down three hours later… not really my cuppa tea. Unless there is in fact, free tea.
I have lit rap of various sorts, and gigs with extensive video support, and my main conclusion was that with something so heavily lyrical and technical, you probably need an LD who can tour with you for weeks at a time to do the job properly, and I may not be that woman.
Finally, if you know you’re going into a venue with only twelve dimmers, three lengths of cable, no time, no budget and a lamp that looks like the rejected parts of a Dalek… I can make it work, sure, there is enough gaffer tape in the world. But I will not make false promises; no decent LD should.
3-9% of Lighting Designers in the UK Are Female
Women are a minority in this industry. While the overt sexism of ten years ago is declining, low prevelance still means we are treated as novelties. One consequence is that we are still regularly challenged in ways our male colleagues are not, our capabilities constantly and exceptionally questioned. Female LDs who ask for the same things in the same language as their male colleagues are still refered to as ‘ball-breakers’ or ‘bossy’ rather than the professionals they are. Merely being competent for a woman is often not enough. We are culturally pressured to be exceptional, and the actions of one is still too often reflected on the gender as a whole.
Across the industry, incredible women – and incredible men – are fighting to change this attitude. New generations of designers and technicians of both genders – and more diverse ethnicity in an industry that is still predominantly white – are emerging. However there are still a lot of gender assumptions to overcome. The pressure on technicians to be stronger, tougher, work longer, harder and frankly, lift things that will hurt them, is as much a symptom of a long-ingrained macho culture as it is a poor reflection of how theatre can and should be run.
I strongly believe that having women ingrained in crew rooms and tech teams changes both the backstage atmosphere of a show from fit-up to get-out, and also changes the creative approach to a show. My gender does not change how I rig; but it does change how I see stories, and in any creative process, diversity is the best mother of ideas.
I campaign for the Green Party in the UK, because climate change.
I teach women’s self-defence, and currently hold 9th grade in a martial art called escrima. I enjoy running and swimming; speak conversational albeit ungrammatical German, and can read a bit of Mandarin (simplified) Chinese. At the time of writing I hold British citizenship, and am waiting to hear if my application for German is successful.
I will sometimes work for free for really good causes. And cake. But mostly good causes. If you have either or both going, lemme know.
You can follow me on twitter @ClaireNorth42