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Rachel Healy launch of Nigel Levings' Platform Paper

Platform Paper 49 THE LIGHTING DSIGNER: WHAT IS 'GOOD LIGHTING? by Nigel Levings was launched by Rachel Healy at Imprints Bookshop in Adelaide on 15 November. Pictured are Rachel Healy, Nigel Levings and MC Julian Meyrick.

Read Rachel Healey's speech:

When I was at high school my friend showed me a sketch of her mother’s boyfriend that she had drawn on his birthday card. He was sitting cross-legged, had long hair and wore sandals. Apparently he was a staunch vegetarian who ate mung beans and was building a mud brick house at Carey Gully. I’d never encountered a real hippy before so when I actually met Nigel Levings (who even then was the pre-eminent lighting designer in the country) I was surprised and yes, I confess, slightly disappointed by how little his manner resembled that of Neil from The Young Ones.

Now I know there are two types of hippies: those who are content to quietly contemplate life from a relaxed distance and those who plunge into it with an almost puritanical zeal and a work ethic that puts the rest of us to shame. When you visit Nigel’s now completed mud brick house and realise that it’s actually an architecturally significant mansion with sustainability and efficiency credentials that must have been 25 years ahead of their time, it’s confirmation that he is of the latter variety.

Also ‘dazed’ and ‘confused’ are adjectives that simply don’t apply to Nigel’s prodigious mind: he is a polymath equally at home discussing the merits of this or that pianists’ interpretation of the Goldberg Variations or explaining the process by which he grew, aged and bottled his own (pretty damned good) pinot noir or sharing his passion for the most recent Hubble telescope revelations about distant galaxies with the kids at the local primary school.

He’s a joiner, not a couch sitter too. By night he may be seeing in a new theatre show while by day designing an upcoming opera but he’s still somehow got time to ferry one of his sons to 7 am choir practice in the city and the other to 7pm soccer in Strathalbyn. (Nigel are you secretly a woman?) Twice a year at the charming Stirling community hall you might be lucky enough to see the most gorgeously lit amateur show in town: Nigel Levings quietly lends his services to the Hills Youth Theatre and keeps his hand in as an operator there as well.

This little book is a beautiful introduction to the art of stage lighting and should be mandatory reading for any young budding designer, but it is also a revealing self-portrait. I can’t think of any other theatre practitioner who could list as essential to their craft a passable to deep knowledge of biology, physics, psychology, literature, fine arts, electronics, computer programming and musical score reading. Having first succinctly and unpretentiously explained exactly how these skills come into play. Here we see Levings the Renaissance Man.

Reading between the lines is fun too. He names the odd name but industry people won’t have too much trouble guessing the other directors that have raised his hackles over the years. And what a surprisingly scorching list of misdemeanours he chronicles and pet hates he espouses. Ah yes, Levings the Curmudgeon.

The book is full of delightfully unexpected insights. I loved the bit about how closely human behaviour is linked to light- how we seek it out in some situations and retreat from it in others-and how, for all their obsession with the minutiae of their character’s psyches, actors are actually denied access to this primal element by being forced to rehearse under constant bright fluorescents. The lighting designer has to “reverse engineer” this situation in the few days leading up to the opening and therefore needs to have already gone on this part of the actor’s journey for them. So many aspects of what we take for granted once lighting is subsumed in the totality of performance he makes us mindful of. Levings the Illuminator.

I also love his understanding of the human face, that no matter how complicated or distracting a construction the set or costumes offer, no matter the dominance of every physical part of the stage, our primal response is to search for a human face. That it is paramount in our visual processing.

There is a well-known Jeffrey Smart painting of Clive James, called, in fact, Portrait of Clive James. Smart has depicted the author standing on an overpass, small and alone within the concrete and iron infrastructure of the city. Two-thirds of the canvas, is taken up by a corrugated iron barrier blocking off a building site. Across the top of this is a concrete wall, and poking above it is the bald pate and top part of the torso of James. The work is significant because it belongs to a trilogy of rare portraits painted by the artist in the 1980s and 90s and I seem to recall the painter talking about these portraits, highlighting the fact that the representation of Clive James himself takes up 3% of the canvas but 100% of our attention when we examine the painting, such is our fascination with the human face. Nigel illuminates the science and neurobiology behind this phenomenon. Levings the Sage.

In my admittedly limited experience as an observer of technical rehearsals at Belvoir St and the Opera House I have witnessed a little bit of the “actors as cattle” approach taken by some lighting designers. It’s not bullying exactly, more a good humoured but patronising exasperation with the cast’s inability to find their mark; to slot in with a pre-ordained plan. Nigel’s approach is so different. Not to say ad hoc or collaborative for its own sake, but genuinely actor-centric because that’s the best way of serving and communicating the meaning of the work, the paramount aim for actor and designer alike. His warmth and sympathy for his partners in this joint effort is palpable. Levings the Humanist.

At the top of his list of essential skills for the lighting designer is the ability “to work calmly and quickly under extreme time pressure”. Perhaps he can be grumpy but Nigel is not a tantrum thrower. Most people in the business would describe him as an unassuming, quiet, get-on-and–do-it kind of fellow. Affable enough in the tea breaks but certainly no raconteur. Internationally renowned but you wouldn’t know it as he’s not one to skite.

This book shows how deep the still waters run: he humbly but quite proudly sets out the complexity of thought behind each of his calm, quick decisions and makes the readers (whether they be audience members or theatre professionals) come to an appreciation of the artistry inherent in this “invisible” aspect of a production. It’s actually a veiled, passionate polemic for an ignored form of artistic expression. Listen to this:

“When I get it right, even if only to my partial satisfaction, my lighting design springs from a desire to share with an audience this love of light: visibility, poetic density of meaning-but above all pure, succulent, sensuous visual pleasure.”

Levings the Dark Horse that brings us light.

I highly commend it to you all.