The Sumner at Southbank Theatre has many tools at a Lighting Designer’s disposal: boxes, slots, juliets, domes, bridges and more. If you’re wondering what those terms mean, let Lighting Supervisor Richard Gorr enlighten you.
Above the stage
The unique configuration of the Sumner’s flying system means any fly bar can be a lighting bar. ‘We can have multiple positions set up over multiple lines,’ explains Gorr. ‘For example on Storm Boy, we had lighting bars rigged “up and down” stage over three lines, with a weight of over half a tonne. This would be incredibly difficult to do on a counterweight system.’
The lighting bars can also be flown mid-performance to create new positions to light from, an ability utilised most recently by the lighting designers of Emerald City and Golden Shield. The lighting equipment above the stage is commonly used to create mood or atmosphere.
The Front-of-House positions include the three lighting bridges, the boxes, the slots (underneath the boxes) and the juliets. ‘These all provide some degree of front light,’ explains Gorr. ‘Front light illuminates the faces of the performers for the audience.’
On either side of the Sumner stage are three juliets, which take their name from Juliet’s balcony in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. These small ‘balconies’ house lights across three levels, and provide a lot of sidelight that gives definition to actors’ faces. ‘The stage-level juliets, and footlights, provides the best way of getting underneath an actor’s hat or eyebrow to light their eyes,’ explains Gorr, ‘while still giving some perspective, or shadowing for the audience.’
At the top of the Sumner auditorium walls, on both sides, are three boxes where lights can be hung on booms. Gorr explains that a lighting designer would use the boxes to ‘give a more top-light feel, while giving depth with their sidelight.’ Below the boxes are long slots, one on either side of the auditorium. Lighting from ‘the slots becomes flatter,’ says Gorr, ‘although still provides a bit of depth with sidelight’.
Detail of Matt Scott's lighting plan for Kiss of the Spider Woman identifying the bridges, slots, juliets and boxes.
High above the audience, concealed within the theatre ceiling, are catwalks or lighting bridges. ‘The first two lighting bridges give the best front washes,’ says Gorr, ‘although their toplight can be a bit overwhelming if the forestage is up, as those few extra metres make a big difference in the way in which we light the stage.’
The third lighting bridge is concealed behind the rear wall of the auditorium, where panels of the word wall can be opened. ‘It’s the furthest front-of-house bridge,’ says Gorr, ‘and it provides very flat front light. There is not a great deal of depth, and the shadows become quite long going upstage.’ Bridge 3 is where a lighting designer will put domes (or follow spots) which are very powerful lights manned by dome operators. ‘Their job is to pick out the protagonist of a scene, and highlight them to the audience.’
Reflecting on recent MTC productions, Gorr notes that domes are rarely used in the Sumner, with the exception of Kiss of the Spider Woman in 2019. ‘Lighting Designer Matt Scott often utilised the spot to pick out the singers’ face during musical numbers,’ says Gorr. ‘It can be very difficult to stay on a singer’s face while they are singing and dancing, as their movements, while choreographed, don't necessarily happen the same way every night!’
Caroline O'Connor is lit by a dome (follow spot) in Kiss of the Spider Woman. PHOTO: Jeff Busby
On the stage
Lighting designers will often make use of booms: scaffolding towers on which to hang lights, that sit on the stage deck in the wings. These provide side light across the stage. Lighting designers will often work with set designers to include practical lighting on stage, where a light source is part of the scenic on-stage world, such as lamps, chandeliers or streetlights.
The control room houses the main lighting console, as well as the backup console. ‘Essentially a lighting console is a computer,’ explains Gorr, ‘and should it crash or need to reboot, we have a backup in place ready to take over at a moment's notice.’ During the season, an experienced operator will be running the show, ‘but during Previews, and for Opening Nights, we have a special programmer in. They perform the role of a conduit between the lighting designer and the venue to ensure that the lighting designer’s vision is copied into a digital form so that the console can replicate their ideas every night of the show.’
With the emergence of LED technology, Gorr says MTC is adding more and more LED fixtures to its arsenal. ‘Where Source 4s are the generic backbone of our lighting rig – generic or conventional lamps are used to describe any filament-style light source – we are seeing ETC’s Lustr2 series, a 7colour LED mixing engine, quickly overtaking our current stock for their versatility and punch.’ MTC also has a number of intelligent lights that can move remotely during a performance. ‘We are using Martin Encores as our premium moving head,’ says Gorr, ‘which is a single-colour LED source that is instead mixed by putting different colour glass in front of the light.’
The cyclorama, or ‘cyc’, is a tool often used by lighting designers. The cyclorama is a large white cloth, stretched tight and suspended from a fly bar. The cyc is often used to depict the sky, or create the illusion of infinite space beyond the set on stage. Gorr and his team use an array of different lights for cyclorama lighting, as well as fresnels, pebble convex lamps and various degrees of Selecon Pacifics, as well as nearly 300 Source 4s which have interchangeable lenses, depending on the task at hand. ‘Picking the right angle for the lenses is crucial to maximise light output and create a smooth, flawless wash,’ says Gorr. ‘Typically a front wash in the Sumner is somewhere between seven and nine lights split into overlapping sections.’
Over the years, many complex lighting designs have been created for MTC productions in the Sumner. ‘From a lighting designer’s perspective, the most difficult shows to light are those that have walls and ceilings,’ says Gorr. ‘Some of the most complex I’ve seen were Home, I’m Darling, where Paul Jackson did an amazing job relying on a lot of scenic elements and on-stage practicals to balance his light around. Golden Shield was also very beautifully lit by Damien Cooper, with a boxed stage and a ceiling.’
Anna Cordingley’s set for Storm Boy included a shiny Alucabond box, with video by Justin Harrison projected onto the cyclorama. ‘Reflective surfaces and projection can make life very difficult for a lighting designer. In Storm Boy, Matt Scott had to blend his lighting in with the reflections and colours of the video projections, which I think he did seamlessly.’
However, of all the designs Gorr has worked on, he describes Niklas Pajanti’s lighting design for A View from the Bridge as ‘probably the simplest and most elegant lighting’ he’s seen. ‘It showcased how sidelight can be used practically without the use of any frontlight to light a show effectively.’
A brighter future
At MTC HQ, Production staff build low voltage, sustainable and reusable practicals, which also are seen in most shows. ‘These are often either single or strip LED lighting in various colours and dimensions to add depth and life to the stage,’ explains Gorr. ‘Kerry Saxby (Technical Manager – Light/Sound) and Allan Hirons (Senior Production Technician) do an incredible job of proof testing and research and development of new, incredible and unimaginably small lights for our shows. We are currently trying to move our venue to be more LED and environmentally friendly, but it is quite an expensive albeit necessary task as we move away from filament globes towards a more sustainable future.’