Chris Donnelly is the Lighting Designer for the show, which tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who survived both Nazi Germany and Eastern Bloc Russia.
Here, Chris answers some questions relating to his position and responsibility in the context of the show.
Can you tell us a little about the process you go through with the creative team in settling on the final ideas for the Lighting Design?
The lighting design is different to other design elements like set or costume, a large portion of it can’t really happen until the blocking (the actors movement) is locked down. Cherish the set designer, Joe the director and I had a lot of conversations weeks out from rehearsals about the styles and looks we wanted to achieve. So, I had a pallet to work inside, but my design isn’t locked down until it’s programmed into the lighting desk, which happens about two or three days before opening night.
Image © Daniel J Grant
How do you convey the images in your head that you have imagined to the creative team?
There are a few ways. I can create mood boards and give reference images. If I want to convey a feeling more than a specific image I might send through some good photos of that feeling (perhaps a smokey dark forest or a huge warehouse with a single spec of light piercing the entire space), I’m fortunate that I’ve worked with the entire team before, so we understand each other's language and processes – so we can reference other works we’ve seen or worked on together. I also talk about light like you talk about food or art. I use lots of adjectives to create moods, for example. We’ll break the set up with a big sweeping burnt orange back light. There will be little flecks of a slippery teal colour breaking up the space, falling onto the actor's face from over his shoulder. We’re looking for a lumpy kind of state, nothing too clean or even – It’ll give him space to move around but won’t give us much clarity in the detail of his face.
Director, Jo Lui, is also a lighting designer himself. Does that change the process at all? Is it easier or harder?
Joe and I came up together. We both studied at Murdoch Uni at the same time and got into lighting design at the same time. Joe and I used to work together a lot, we started a company together with some other friends and did dozens of shows over a few years together. Then, we both started getting bigger gigs and didn’t work together for a few years. It’s been awesome being in the room together again. He’s been really great to work with, he doesn’t step on my creative toes, but he understands exactly what I’m talking about and I can get super technical in my language – which is something you can’t do with a lot of directors as they don’t always understand the processes of lighting design (light angles and colours). It also means that I have to be very specific about what I talk about, which is great and keeps me working hard!
Image © Daniel J Grant
What key elements did you need to consider? How will the lighting contextualise the many characters and locations that need to be represented on stage?
The play takes place in two separate time lines: 'current day' 1993 and Charlotte’s timeline of childhood to death. Brendan has to flip between dozens of characters and time lines very quickly. Some people would consider using light to assist with this, but Joe and I decided that largely, the character swapping is so complicated we need to keep the lighting clean, even and uncomplicated. We’re going to have specific lighting looks for the 1993 timeline and then we’re going to treat the Charlotte timeline as a more traditional lighting design, it will breathe in and out and be more textured and creative. The idea is that whenever we return to the 'present day' timeline, the audience will realise based on the lighting look.
Did you need to make any compromises with your design? If so, what were they and what solutions did you discover?
Of course! Art is an ecosystem, there’s dozens of things at play. You need to consider things like the size of the auditorium and the age of your audience – if you’re in a 1,500 seat theatre doing an opera (where you typically have an older audience) you need to make it brighter so everyone can see properly. But in a smaller venue like the Studio Underground – we can afford to get more moody and dark. Also, in theatre lighting, it’s very important to be able to see the eyes and face of the actors properly. So much of Brendan’s acting is subtle face acting that if I’m spending all my time making big beautiful architectural lighting states and I don’t make sure the audience can see him, a lot of the intent of the show will be lost. It’s a balance between creating a beautiful installation and leaving space for everyone else (director, actors, set\costume and sound designers) to have their art displayed properly too. The solution is always just a conversation. We make sure everyone’s work gets its intent across. Sometimes a scene requires a big moody statement from the lights, sometimes seeing a prop or costume is the most important thing. We all need to work in synergy.
Image © Daniel J Grant
Did you always know that you wanted to be a Lighting Designer? Have you always been interested in the arts? If you weren’t doing this as a career did you have a fall back?
No, I was super lucky to just fall into it! I was studying literature and just happened upon some production classes at uni. I didn’t even do TEE (ATAR) drama! I also didn’t (and don’t) have a fall back. As soon as I started doing lighting design, I loved it. I commit to it fully and don’t consider other career paths. Maybe one day it will lose its shine, and I’ll start thinking about other jobs, but for the moment, it’s all I want to do.