Queensland Theatre | Shining a Spotlight on David Walters
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Shining a Spotlight on David Walters

In Part One of this retrospective, David looks back on his very first show, talks about how he got his start at Queensland Theatre, and throws forward to this year’s show, Bernhardt/Hamlet.

Cropped QT Berhardt Hamlet Rehearsal 003633

When Bernhardt/Hamlet hits the stage at the Bille Brown Theatre, legendary lighting designer David Walters will click over to a very grand milestone. It will be David’s 100th show for Queensland Theatre, over 37 years, meaning he has worked with every single Artistic Director of the company, from Alan Edwards to Lee Lewis.

Your first show for The Royal Queensland Theatre Company (as it was then) was a production of Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov at the SGIO Theatre in 1985. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

Little did I realise, when I was offered this opportunity, that it would be the start of a lifelong professional relationship with the Company. At that time my home was in Iceland and I was visiting Australia under the auspices of a six-month grant from the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. I recall being somewhat nervous at the prospect of my first professional production for my home state theatre company. My only other professional design in Australia had been a production for the Nimrod in Sydney the previous year. Although a university graduate, I had never studied lighting design or technical theatre and had learnt ‘on the job’. This involved reading voraciously (I had virtually ingested Richard Pilbrow’s book Stage Lighting) and working for the previous six years as a freelance lighting designer in Iceland. Also, not entirely irrelevant, was my attendance at a course in projection for the theatre in Finland in 1982 by the celebrated master Robert Ornbo.

I was familiar with the work of Chekov and relished the prospect of grappling with the play. One of the things that became immediately obvious was that the designer, Peter Cooke, and the director, Greg Gesch, had come up with a sumptuous setting. It was a gift to a lighting designer. However, Peter had also painted several abstract textures which he wanted to use to cover the extensive scene changes. Here my newly acquired knowledge for projection in the theatre came into play and in the light of the projected images the scene changes became a thing of interest in themselves, carefully composed to promote the drama and help seamlessly knit the acts together. However, it was also the start of a relationship with Greg the director where he allowed me to go out on a limb with the design. I was struggling to come up with lighting that matched the drama of the fourth act. It was an exterior scene with winter approaching both figuratively and literally. I had an idea to use the notion of the light slowly pulsing, as though heavy clouds were scudding overhead, but expressionistically timed to match the ebb and flow of the emotion in the drama. It was an idea that paid off and in her review in The Australian, critic Sue Gough wrote “The final scene was an exterior, engulfed by the cold, bitter light of reality, the barren monotones bringing a surreal feeling to the prophetic final denouement.”

On opening night, the Artistic Director, Alan Edwards, wrote me a handwritten letter of welcome as he did for all new artists. I doubt that even he would have realised how prophetically true his words would be when he penned: “As it’s your first production for the company, but I hope not your last…”

Shortly after that, you were offered the position as resident lighting designer at the company, and that set you on the path to averaging about three shows a year for the company. Do you recall what kind of resources, technology and funding was available to you then, and how it compares to doing the same job in the present day?

I commenced work as a resident lighting designer for the QTC in 1986 on a yearly salary of $19,000. This represented a considerable investment for the company at the time but was still a low salary and was offered with the understanding that I was free to take on outside work. This proved to be somewhat difficult as the eight mainstage shows the company was producing annually took up most of my time.

It was also a time of great technological change. The previous year I had purchased my first ever computer. It was one of the very first Apple computers (a total memory of 520kb if recall correctly) and it had cost about a third of my annual salary. Somewhat ironically my office was an improvised space in the old projection room of the Suncorp theatre. As my computer was not yet up to the task of computer aided designs (CAD), all lighting plans were still hand-drawn on tracing paper using ink pens with a succession of different thickness nibs. Symbols, numbers and letters were created using a variety of different stencils. If one made a mistake or wanted to change the plan one donned white gloves and with the assistance of a razor blade and talcum powder carefully scratched out the offending ink. The plans were printed using ammonia printing machines which gave rise to the term ‘blueprints’. After the plan was complete it took me about three days to tabulate all the data necessary for the implementation of the design. In today’s world with specialist lighting design programmes this is achieved with the click of a button. The last 40 years have seen the development of technology in the field of lighting and lighting design accelerate at a pace that has been truly dizzying.

Fast-forward to 2022, and you’re about to light Bernhardt/Hamlet for Lee Lewis. You are an encyclopaedia of knowledge not just on theatre lighting, but on the history of humans’ use of light, in general. When Sarah Bernhardt produced her Hamlet in her 1700-seat theatre on Place du Châtelet in 1899, it was just a few years after Edison patented his incandescent light bulb. The façade was said to have been lit by 5700 electric bulbs, 17 arc lights, and 11 projectors. If she had hired you to work on that show, how would you have lit it?

When researching for the current production of Bernhardt/Hamlet I remember reading the above passage. Like most things about this woman, it is a story of extraordinary excess. Her life seemed to be ruled by the adage that nothing succeeds like excess. Even for Paris with its reputation as the city of lights the technical list above is truly mind boggling for its day. Because this was the façade lighting for the opening of the theatre, I tried to imagine what it would be like if she were here to open the show today at the Bille Brown Theatre. In a similarly bold move, the company would hire the services of specialist programmers and nightly above the Bille Brown would be a thousand drones each loaded with multiple LED sources. These drones would be programmed to create vast three-dimensional colour changing images in the sky — portraits of her, of Hamlet, of her famous posters, of Paris. These colour-shifting ephemeral images would be visible all over Brisbane.

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