LONDON — Lighting designer Paule Constable is on a roll.
She has three shows running in the West End and is in pre-production on four more, plus a new small-scale touring production of “Les Miz.” Oh, and then there’s “Love Never Dies,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” sequel opening in the fall in London, Toronto and then globally. The icing on the cake? This month she picked up her third Olivier award in just five years.
Happy though this 42-year-old is at winning prizes for the job she jokingly refers to as “turning lights on and off in a darkened room,” the Olivier that meant the most was her first, in 2005, the first time the lighting award had gone to a woman.
“Accepting that as a woman is important,” Constable says. “It allows other people to believe it’s possible for them. In North America, some of the greatest and most respected lighting designers are women, and they are a huge muscle within the industry. That’s not the case in the U.K.”
Why the difference?
“Lighting design is only about 40 years old as a form,” she explains. “Here it has been driven by a tradition of electricians who, predominantly, have been male. Also it has an academic stature in the U.S. — Jennifer Tipton teaches at Yale — and that has only recently started to happen here.”
Breaking into the profession could be seen as tough, but Constable persevered.
“It’s undeniably a sexist part of the industry, but that’s like a red rag to a bull for me,” she confesses. “I am quite an old-fashioned feminist. I’m incredibly hard on myself and it raised the bar. It pushed me to try to be very good at what I did. And I came from the music industry, and however sexist theater is, it will never be like a rock ‘n’ roll crew!”
Constable would be too shy to admit it, but a degree of respect came very fast. She was the production manager for Complicite theater company and, thanks to a series of early collaborations with designer Rae Smith, was invited to light the company’s worldwide hit “Street of Crocodiles.” That show was so successful it was picked up by the National, making Constable the first woman to light a production there, and netting her first Olivier nom.
Constable’s modest about what makes her work so distinctive.
“I’m not sure,” she admits. “I’m really bad at looking at a model box and instantly thinking that’s how I’m going to light this show. I work from the inside out. I don’t think lighting is something you put on afterwards. I really love collaboration and being in rehearsal, because I’m quite slow and need to get inside a piece before I make decisions.”
This makes her unusually dependent upon the creative teams she chooses to work with. “And how it fits in with my domestic life, going running, surfing and having a partner and two children,” she adds. Although she is halfway through a commissioned book on lighting design, when asked about the detail of her work, she finds it easier to talk about what she doesn’t do. Especially her pet peeve, gobos — the little metal cutouts placed in front of light beams to make visible shapes, like dappling for sunlight through trees.
“Light coming through trees can be dappled, but it’s rare that we see it,” she explains. “Using a gobo just feels like lazy shorthand for saying ‘we’re outdoors.’ I’d much rather angle light to come past a branch or pieces of scenery to break light up. The light of everyday that you see on a river or in a room … if you can somehow base your ideas on that, you can take it to any dramatic extreme.”
Given her workload — she tends to light about 14 shows a year, although some of her colleagues do up to 24 — what’s the worst part of the job?
“I sometimes joke with my design colleagues that were we in the positions we are in any other industry, we’d have a p.a. and a driver at the very least,” she says. “I’ve got a huge bag and a collapsible bike. There’s a huge amount of administration, and I don’t think I’ve had a creative thought all week! I don’t like that.”