Apr 12

Three Years a Lighting Designer

I have now been a theatre lighting designer for three years and… oooh… six months, give or take.  I say ‘I have been’ but in my first secondment out of RADA a large part of the experience was being informed that to even call myself a lighting designer, in my ignorant state, was an offense to the profession, and I should consider myself brash to even consider myself a junior technician.

At the time, and given the manner in which this truth was addressed, I found it utterly disheartening.  Three years later I do see its point.

However, I’m going to take the plunge and say that finally I think I’m at that point where my calling myself an LD does no dishonour to the profession.  I have lit dozens and dozens of shows, of every size and shape.  I’ve fought against site-specific projects in spaces with no power, no equipment, no nothing save a dose of ambition; sat in techs in giant theatres surrounded by teaming crews and wondered just where in the 200-700 range of channels is the single unit I rigged to a ridiculously specific purpose amid the crowd of movers and generic lights.  I’ve learned to program a whole range of desks with names that I fully intend, when I finally get round to writing space opera, to steal for the names of my planets, villains and spaceships.  I’ve become a girl who lights music gigs, despite the fact that my knowledge of popular culture starts to get wobbly around about the treaty of Tsitsa-Torok.  And I guess in the interest of being literal-minded about this, I’ve been accepted as Professional member of the Association of Lighting Designers, although alas the title didn’t come with a secret handshake.  (Although if you ever meet me in a silly mood, ask me how lighting designers shake hands… I know a particularly nerdy joke along those lines…)

I find it hard to measure how my career is going.  Secretly I keep an eye on the careers of a few of my contemporaries and attempt to roughly measure myself against their progress, use them as markers.  I try my very best to do the best job I can on every show, regardless of its scale or fee, and still believe, with a few footnotes that I won’t bother with here, that meeting awesome people is the path to success.  Every year I aim to work with someone new and someone I’ve worked with before, and stealing a lesson from one of the best lighting designers I’ve ever seen, Mark Howland, every show I try and do something new, whether it’s a new colour or a different choice of unit doing a different job, just to see if it works.  Alas, on too many shows my rigging options and, more importantly, time, is often so limited that I have to stick with what I know just to get the job done… but sometimes there’s a chance to take a risk.

The book-thing is mostly a blessing in terms of my lighting design career.  Simply put, most LDs after even three years in the job are struggling to earn a decent income without resorting to technician work to supplement their pay.  While I’m a perfectly competent technician, one of the things I learned during my stint at the National Theatre was that I was never going to be a great one.  Thankfully, I get to write books instead.  On the downside, novel-writing doesn’t add to the theatrical contacts or technical experience I acquire, but on then again, I don’t have to write them while standing at the top of a ladder.

I always suspected that directors were a many-flavoured species, and three years have not diminished this view.  I’ve worked with some incredible directors who, frankly, need to hurry up and take over British theatre as quickly as possible for the sake of all the awesome that must inevitably ensue.  (Morphic graffiti… I look pointedly at you…)  I’ve also done plenty of jobs where half of an LD’s job is finding a way to communicate ideas that make perfect sense in terms of lighting in the space, but are much harder to express to a creative team for whom ‘blue’ is the extent of their lighting vocabulary.  What kind of ‘blue’ are we talking about?  Daylight blue?  Half CT blue?  Royal blue, palace blue, congo blue, sky blue, ice blood, glacier blue, steel blue, deep blue, cyan, Tokyo blue?  A blue to express a magical night, a blue to heighten a sense of loss, a jazzy blue, a sinister blue, a blue that really wants to be darkness but can’t quite pull it off, a blue indicative of a summer sky?  Sometimes talking in a language other than filter colours can be a bit of an adventure for an LD, and as for explaining why something hugely technical cannot be achieved in plain language… it remains a long way from being fun…

I have, however, developed an extensive collection of cheese jokes.  Technical theatre can be very stressful.  It is almost invariably very tiring.  Complicated sequences in a technical rehearsal can take hours, hours to rehearse.  When I have a programmer, they tend to report that by day two the sound of my voice in their ear saying, ’37 at 50.  At 45.  Update to track.  101 into focus palette 7.  Lift a little.  Home beam.  Update cue only…’ … has become ubiquitous enough to invade their dreams.  After 48 hours of a tech, DSMs struggle to keep the tension from their voices as they growl down the intercom, ‘So when you say LX cue 271 is with ‘the shouty bit’ … could you be more specific?’

Consequently, I always go into technical rehearsals with cake, fruit, lots of water, and plenty of two-line jokes.  I will fight for the things which I think are vital to the lighting design, but will also discard and add cues left, right and centre if I think it’ll achieve something more interesting than what I originally had in mind.  As one of my favourite set designers points out whenever the set is falling down and the dimmer racks have tripped out… ‘Guys, it’s gonna be fine.  Breathe out slow and work through the problem.  We’re putting on a show here, not curing cancer.’  While this philosophy will never fix a broken shutter on a moving light, it is a healthy one to cling to whenever things look like they might explode, and it, along with the sacred mantra of ‘less is more’ pinned to my lighting console, is one of many many thoughts I try to take with me into a stressful plotting session.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/04/12/three-years-a-lighting-designer/

Apr 09

Season of Daffodils

Every year I tend to blog about how beautiful London can be in spring.  Alas, as I write this entry, all of England – not just London – is shrouded in light smog.  A mixture of European and British pollution, combined with dust from the Sahara, means my asthmatic lungs are currently bordering on non-functional.

However!  For the days preceeding this blog, and hopefully in days to come, London has been bursting with cherry blossoms and daffodils.  I’ve blogged about how happy the blossom on the trees make me, but actually, let’s just take this moment to hear it for the plucky daffodil.  Barely a public park, garden patch, community grow box or innocent windowsill has bloomed this spring without a display of daffodil, so much so it’s beginning to look like a weed.  A beautiful, ubiquitous, lovely weed.

Daffodils in London 2014 (4) Daffodils in London 2014 (5) Daffodils in London 2014 (1) Daffodils in London 2014 (2)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/04/09/season-of-daffodils/

Apr 06

Adventures in… Northampton?

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Northampton is not the glamorous throbbing heart of the North.  Once it was clearly awesome.  It has a museum dedicated to the history of shoe manufacture, which once it was a centre of, a beautiful guildhall, a nice market and an absolutely lovely theatre.  The rest… well… I’ve seen sexier places.  But!  It is a cliche for a Londoner to bemoan anywhere that isn’t London, and for an inner city girl to bemoan anywhere outside transport zone 3, so in the interest of defying stereotype, let’s look at the good news.

In the centre of town is some really kinda awesome architecture…

I was in Northampton to light two shows at the Theatre Royal.  The theatre is beautiful.  A proper old proscenium arch space with a lovely auditorium, spacious stage and an awesome roof (I know that last doesn’t sound like high praise, but seriously, standing on stage and looking to the grid, I was wowed).  It’s also one of few hemp flying houses still in England.  For anyone who doesn’t know – and moreover, is mildly curious – most theatre flying – the means by which curtains and bits of set are lifted in and out – is on a series of counterweights.  If you have 200kg of set, then you have 200kg of stage weights counterbalancing it, which allows the flyman to haul a large amount of weight without giving themselves a hernia.  Which isn’t to say it’s always easy – the time I spent as flyman during my training was exhausting, because while it’s all very well having a mostly-balanced system to fly, overcoming inertia one way and momentum the other on a fast, heavy bit of flying can – and frequently does – have the effect of pulling you physically off your feet with the force of it.

That’s counterweight flying.  Hemp flying has no counterweights at all.  On one end of the system you have, say, 150kg of weight, and on the other you have four or five hearty men and some rope.  There are some pros to this system… but when you’re trying to fly out fully loaded lighting bars at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning you can struggle to remember them.

As is the nature of theatre lighting, during the week I was actually staying in Northampton, I mostly saw the inside of a theatre.  Hence my fascination with the flying system.  However, the shows were awesome and the crew were lovely.  As a collective technical team I think we proved once and for all that it is possible to go into a production with absolute professionalism and an endless supply of cheese jokes, and achieve everything we need to in the process.

Despite the hectic madness that is technical rehearsals, I also spent a lot of time popping up and down from London in the weeks proceeding, and did my best to get some sort of a nose around en route.

Abington Park in spring has ice cream, playgrounds, football playing, and tree-lined walks along little streams…

First impression of Northampton: it has a lot of Chinese takeaways.  It is a great sadness to me that I didn’t get a chance to try one.

Second impression: it is magnificently served by outlets of Greggs the Baker.  Bring on greasy sausage rolls!  If you head east out of town, there’s a cricket pitch and Abington Park, where I spent my only free afternoon watching two dogs that looked closer to waggy-tailed sheep trying – and failing – to learn how to swim.  Children played, ice cream was consumed, lovers went on walks through the overgrown bits and generally speaking, an aura of ‘nice place to have a picnic’ prevailed.

It should be explained that when you’re already exhausted from weeks of rehearsal, the sight of dogs that look like sheep learning to swim is endlessly enthralling….

I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say that Northampton is a beautiful place to live, or a particularly serene one.  It is, however, a fairly real place to live, and rightly proud of some of the awesome things it has.  The theatre is a big part of this pride, and rightly so, and I only hope in the time we spent there we did right by it.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/04/06/adventures-in-northampton/

Apr 02

Spring Festival at London Metropolitan Archives

So, the London Metropolitan Archives are having a festival… and I’m going!  I’m going to read books (probably mine) and talk about books (again, still probably mine although you never know, I get easily distracted) on Friday 11th of April 1-2 p.m..


Right now, as I write this post, I am stupidly ill, which makes it hard for me to sell the awesomeness of all the awesome, but for a view on this thing and how much better it is than my paracetamol-addled brain makes it sound, have a closer look here….




… I hope to see some of you there!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/04/02/spring-festival-at-london-metropolitan-archives/

Mar 31

Injury Time!

I shouldn’t be so surprised that after 4 episodes of Hamlet on BBC Radio, and 3 hours of listening, Claudius still isn’t dead.

Hamlet in the afternoon has been my background noise while working this week.  There’s something about the woes of a semi-suicidal-insane-Dane that really lifts the day, not least when that moment comes somewhere in Act 3 when I look up from the computer, consider the world around me and conclude that yeap, I probably would just kill the King while he was at his prayers, and worry about what his heels trip at later.  Self confidence, it turns out, is a many-splendoured thing.

Questions are sometimes asked as to what a writer’s average week is like.  I always avoid it, because by definition, the answer is… rather average.  However!  Something of a theme has emerged these last few days, which normally my days lack: I refer of course to pain and suffering.

Let’s begin with the end of last week, and my feet.  I spent all of last week in steel-capped safety boots.  A tragic mistake.  After five days in my big 7-year-old boots my feet felt like undercooked pancakes. Given that four of these five days were spent teching two theatre shows back-to-back in Northampton, it was something of a race between my mind and my legs as to which gave up first.  On the last train back to London, I entered what I think can be described as a fugue state.  Mystic places such as ‘Tring’ and ‘Leighton Buzzard’ seemed, somehow, unearthly, unreal, and perhaps indicative that this was the beginning of a journey that would never end.  As it was, it did end at about 1 o’clock in the morning when I staggered through the door of my flat and started giggling.

Hysteria, it seems, is the end-result of too much stress.  I sat on the edge of my bed and giggled.

I’m not sure I’ve stopped since.

The day that followed should have been a rest day, but as is often the way when coming straight out of a show, it was a catch-up-on-everything-ever day.  All the email, all the writing, all the laundry, all the… everything.  I confess: during the run-up to the shows in Northampton, I had been neglecting the writing.  I didn’t want to, it was simply a necessity of time, and now that time was coming back and biting me on whatever part of my aching body was most likely to suffer when bitten.  Rest day… didn’t really happen.

Then there was an escrima seminar.

Oh the escrima seminar!

I love escrima.  I love learning it, and I love how every now and then there’s a glimpse – just a glimpse – of just how clever it could be once I’m even vaguely good enough to be even slightly clever about it.  However, doing a three hour seminar on a backlog of two-techs-no-sleep and after weeks of schleping up and down the country, unable to attend lessons, was something of a killer.  It was during this that the next round of injuries were inflicted.  The little finger of my right hand was, I think, the consequence of not getting low enough to block a low backhanded strike to the knee.  The bruising inside my left hand that immobilised my thumb for a day came from failing to block butt strikes (with a stick, not anything else you might imagine…) quite gracefully enough.  How my thumb lost most of the skin about the middle joint, I have no idea.  I only spotted it when I saw blood on someone else’s hand and, when we couldn’t work out where he was bleeding from, discovered that in fact, it was me.  It didn’t hurt then.  It still hurts now.

The next round of injuries were acquired on the way to a meeting with a publisher.  Having spent a week in bad shoes, I resolved to get new shoes, since even my dedication to the art of the seven-year-sneaker has its limits.  New shoes are awesome, but they also take a bit of wearing in, and viola!  Cue: aching legs, mysterious bruises and chaffing feet.  Over lunch the awesome publisher picked my brains as to whether I had exciting things to say on a wide variety of topics, and I heard about her extreme – apologies, XTreme! – abs exercise regime.  Quote of the day: ‘That pain you feel in your belly isn’t pain!  It’s the freedom of fear leaving your body!’

I have thought long and hard about whether there’s a way to incorporate those words into any work of fiction I write, and having failed in the task instead put them down here, for all to enjoy.

The next day I attended rehearsals for another play, and discovered that I was moving swiftly through the hysteria part of exhausted and towards catatonic.  When I returned home I sat down to write, and was surprised to find that a character who, that very morning, had been destined for a long and happy life, was now in serious danger of having both hands chopped off and being thrown into a canal.  Thankfully, exhaustion kicked in before I could get to the absolute moment of truth and so the question of this individual’s fate remains thrillingly unresolved… watch this space…

Let me say: I do plan my books.

It’s just every now and then, details change depending on my mood….

The following day I had to light a gig in the evening, and my body being now tuned to waking at 7.20 a.m., I woke at 7.20 a.m..  Using my mastery of willpower and self-discipline I commanded myself to return to sleep, and at 7.25 a.m. I got up.  Having spent all day writing (apart from that bit spent listening to Hamlet, when I drew groundplans and congratulated myself on my willingness to just get on with it and kill Claudius because, really, seriously…) I arrived at the venue at 5 p.m. only to discover that the lighting desk wasn’t working.  I do not know the name of the very nice man I spoke to in Avolites Software Department, but I suspect that after nearly two hours of failing to resurrect the lighting system, the hysteria infused into every word I spoke was far more palpable than I think.  For your patience, and solution you found for my problem with… oooh… ten minutes to spare before the audience flooded in… I thank you!

That was yesterday.

Today I have a swollen lip, a bruised left arm and two new swollen fingers on my right hand.  The lip was my fault – I switched to a lighter stick in today’s escrima class because my arms were about to fall off, and it bounced back in my face during a badly-executed block.  The bruised arm and fresh addition to the oversized-club on my right hand, are the responsibility of an individual who’ll go unnamed for now, but who clearly holds a higher opinion of my ability to maneuver myself away from the escrima equivalent of an oncoming cement lorry, than I can actually achieve.  (The culprit’s catch-phrase: ‘Yeah, it’s really hard, I hate doing what you’re doing, and I wouldn’t actually ever do it myself, but you’ve got to learn it so yeah.’)

My weeks are not this often full of injuries and pains.  Well… no… actually… sometimes they are.  But if this is to be an insight into how all of this affects my life as a scribbler, let me say that as I write I’m finding it highly uncomfortable to use the letters ‘ujnikm’, and that in a fictional world far(ish) away, a stranger is still hanging onto a bridge above a canal for dear life, a clever poised above both his wrists.  How will this episode end?  Will this unfortunate escape with hands in-tact?

Ask me in the morning, once some of the swelling in my own fingers has gone down…

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/03/31/injury-time/

Mar 27

Writing Battles

A very friendly drunk man, learning that I wrote books for my living, once turned to me and exclaimed,

“Christ, I’m writing a book too!  It’s going to be incredible!”

At these words, a polite smile naturally locked itself onto my features.  For 45 minutes I listened as he told me all about his imminently awesome book, before finally he turned round and said,

“… so what do you write about?”

“I’ve just finished topsecretproject3.  One of the hardest bits in it was writing a battle.”

“Jesus, I know, I know!  The sword clashed against each other, the screams of the dying, the axe falls, the cavalry charged, men fought, sweat and blood and the stamp of foot, the trumpet sounds, the drum beats, epic – epic!  That’s the way to do it!”

At this I fell judiciously silent again, since, not to put too fine a point on it, that was precisely the kind of battle I hadn’t written.  Don’t get me wrong, I love writing a good epic battle, and it’s a noble venture that has its place in so many different kinds of book.  Alas, topsecretproject3 isn’t that book.  It’s narrated by a first-person character who describes a night attack, and while I might know that on the left the cavalry charged, and in the centre the cannon fired, one of the inherent joys of a first-person foot soldier in a night attack is that, odds are, they haven’t got a clue.

Mud.  Mud and not quite knowing which way you’re turning now, are the predominant themes. I suspect my desire to write epic battle in this rather more parochial manner is a side-effect of studying history.  As a student I loved primary historical documents – the diaries, letters, chronicles of people who were actually there – so much.  I loved hearing the voices of the past writing about the then and there as the here and now that it once was.  But one of the chief lessons learned in this was how deceptive those TV documentaries are where the course of a war is described by a coloured line moving across a map.  Generals might stare at a map of the world and determine where to attack next.  Colonels might then receive these orders and, observing the valley they’ve been sent to capture, determine which road into the valley is going to be most fortuitous.  A Major, receiving the word from the Colonel that this ridge is their target, might then order this group to scout ahead and this group to trail behind, while to the infantry man on the front line the word might trickle down ‘go take that shed!’

This certainly is the impression you get from a lot of history.  Records are soggy with the tales of people sent to fight in places they don’t know for causes they’re not too sure about for tactical reasons that aren’t fully explained.  The writing of epic battle full of tactics and strategy and cavalry on the left etc. is wonderfully exciting, but actually there’s a certain literary strength in approaching a battle from the point of view of the soldier who waits, with orders to take that shed and no real picture of why.  One of the most powerful images to emerge from the bloody and barbaric warfare of the 20th century was the moment the cannons would stop firing in World War One.  For days artillery would blast away at an enemy position, and then they’d stop, and in that silence the order would be given for the attacking troops to go over the top of the trench.  Culturally we associate the sound of cannon with horror and pain, but to the foot soldier, how much worse might that have silence been, when all things stopped.

Or to put it another way: sweeping imagery and epic description have their place in this context, but so too does the quiet voice of the tired soldier whose socks are wet and can’t quite work out where the enemy is in all this smoke.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/03/27/writing-battles/

Mar 24

The Only Fantasy Map…



… is simple and wonderful.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/03/24/the-only-fantasy-map/

Mar 22

Adventures in Lyme Regis…

One of the great perks of being a lighting designer, is every now and then it takes you on an adventure.  A few weeks ago, this adventure was in Lyme Regis.

I know very little about Lyme Regis.  My Mum informs me it’s been the setting of a couple of novels.  My friend from Somerset informs me it has fantastic chips and clotted cream.  Two American friends who holiday there regularly, on hearing that this was my destination, joyously exclaimed ‘squid butts!’

Squid butts, it turned out, referred to fossilised squid butts.  ‘Everyone always goes down to the beach and turns right,’ explained my friends, ‘but the secret is to turn left, walk into the bay, find a good spot and just settle down and start digging for million-year-old squid butts.  So many just waiting to be found.’

Read the rest of this entry »

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/03/22/adventures-in-lyme-regis/

Mar 18

Scottish Independence

Sooo for anyone who hasn’t heard, Scotland is having a referendum in a few months time about independence from England.  Which is groovy – referendums are always fun, right?

And obviously I’m not Scottish, and I can’t vote in this one, and everyone’s sticking their oar in, so I’ll try and keep this short and simple and sweet.  Basically: I’m pro-Union.

My views have very little to do with either politics or economics.  I think it likely, particularly looking at the voting patterns of the North, that Scotland despises the Conservative government just as much as I do, and I’m sorry on behalf of all England that Scotland too suffers under the weight of the puffed-up ideologue loons who currently inhabit Westminster.  Will Scotland be better or worse off economically speaking if it splits from England?  Dunno.  Historically it hasn’t had a great time, but that was 500 years ago, so really, who’s counting?  Will England be worse off if Scotland goes?  Well, almost certainly, if only because we’ll have our despicable government all to our sunny selves, with fewer constituencies likely to vote them out.  Save us, Scotland!

But all of this isn’t really the point.

Read the rest of this entry »

Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/03/18/scottish-independence/

Mar 14

From Bestseller to Bust

This is a bit pants, albeit, I think, fairly damn true:


Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/03/14/from-bestseller-to-bust/

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