Shining a Spotlight on David Walters: Part Two
A look back at David's iconic designs. David celebrates designing for 100 shows with Queensland Theatre on Bernhardt/Hamlet.
In Part Two of this retrospective, David muses on his almost four decades of theatrical magic and selects some of his most memorable moments and standout shows.
What was the most all-out, no limits, go crazy, money-is-no-object show you have worked on for Queensland Theatre, and how did you approach lighting that show?
I think I would like to take two shows to answer this question as they nicely bookend my time. The first would be the production of Gilgamesh in the Ashgrove Quarry in 1990. To celebrate 21 years since the theatre company was founded, Artistic Director Aubrey Mellor asked the Queensland theatre legend Brian Nason to direct this show. In an audacious move it was decided to stage the production of one of the oldest epics known to mankind outdoors in the abandoned quarry in Ashgrove. This required an amazing amount of site preparation including the clearing of weeds and shrubs, creation of parking spaces and pathways and the installation of a new power transformer, in addition to creating the sand-covered playing space. In one of my site investigations I came across something that I felt augured well for this production. Not only was the ancient tale being performed in the shadow of Mount Nebo, a biblical name from Babylonian times, but here in the cliffs of the quarry was a story of a natural drama frozen in time. Most of the rocks on which Brisbane is built formed over 300 million years ago at the base of a continental shelf. Then just over 200 million years ago hot magma welled up under these sediments and cooled deep under the earth. Here in the cliffs of the quarry was visible the exact contact point where these molten rocks from below had melted and twisted the rocks above them. This titanic struggle from yesteryear was now frozen in time and formed the natural backdrop over which lights played for the epic story of Gilgamesh. Lights were rigged all along the top of the cliffs and when lit, the cliffs were visible over 20km away – all the way to Redcliffe. It was a spectacular setting for a spectacular production.
More recently was the production of Macbeth in 2014 in QPAC’s Playhouse. With special funding from the state government, Artistic Director Wesley Enoch was able to bring out the acclaimed British director Michael Attenborough to direct a cast of 16 — a blockbuster effort for Queensland Theatre. It was a privilege to work with someone of his experience and as luck would have it, I was working with designer Simone Romaniuk who is also designing Bernhardt/Hamlet. It would be my second Macbeth for the Company. The play was set in a primal forest where the laws of nature ruled and where the man-made world was crude and constantly under threat. It was a dark, gloomy, crepuscular world where every shadow harboured imminent danger. Simone’s black jungle was a strangely familiar but unrecognisable environment. Disconcertingly, the trees seemed to grow down rather than up, creating a strange arboreal cavern. In this cloying atmosphere of fear, the power of untrammelled ambition could feed, overwhelming guilt could fester, murder reigned and the supernatural seemed almost natural. With the help of a great soundtrack from Phil Slade and the use of lots of atmospherics and unusual lighting angles it was a compelling experience. For me it was also an affirmation that lighting design could equally be known as shadow design.
In his review in The Australian Martin Buzacott wrote: “…it’s Simone Romaniuk’s set and David Walters’ lighting that steal the show.”
By contrast, what was the most minimalist or economical show you ever lit for Queensland Theatre, and what was behind your decision to keep things small or simple?
In stark contrast was the production of Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel, programmed by Michael Gow in 2001. Directed by Jennifer Flowers and designed by Bill Haycock, it was a play not of action but of narration. Essentially it was the tale of the eponymous Molly Sweeney who was congenitally blind and the efforts of two men to restore her sight. Her sight is restored, but the overwhelming flood of new sensory input causes her to lose her sanity. The three characters were stationary for the duration of the show and the story was told in a series of monologues. The monologues were gripping, however I was aware that focus on stationary characters would magnify the effect of even minimal lighting changes, so I set up a lighting board and some spots in the rehearsal room to experiment with how I could marry small changes with the text.
Afterwards in a long letter describing the process, Helen Howard, the actress who played Molly wrote, “It was exhilarating to feel the lights changing on my face and body as I spoke the lines; sometimes the hair on the back of my neck would stand up as David’s lighting reflected the precise change of mood I had only just begun to identify in Molly myself.”
To try and allow the audience into the sightless world of Molly, one of her monologues was lit by a single slit of light just wide enough to catch both her eyes. Finding this light and staying perfectly stationary while delivering a monologue is probably the most difficult task I have ever asked of an actor.
By your reckoning, what has been your most impactful lighting cue in a Queensland Theatre show, a real audience jaw-dropper?
Surprisingly, it is not difficult for me to isolate a couple of moments out of 40 years of lighting.
Lighting Cue No 8
In 1997 Artistic Director Robyn Nevin asked Rodney Fisher to direct Master Class by Terrence McNally. In 1971, McNally had been in the audiences watching the opera diva Maria Callas deliver lessons to select students at the Lincoln Center in New York. Based on this experience he wrote his play. Jenny Tate designed the set and costumes for the QT/STC co-production in which Robyn herself played the signature role. The set was an elegant representation of the teaching space with blond wooden walls wrapping around a platform with a grand piano and a single black stool. Overhead was a very large disc creating a ‘ceiling’. The classes had attracted large audiences in New York and McNally replicates these with a series of different students who Callas refers to as ‘victims’. However twice during this illuminating teaching process he allows us into the mind and memories of Maria herself. The first time the doors on either side are open and the rehearsal lights fade subliminally until Maria is left entirely alone in a tight special centre stage with shafts from the doors on either side. For some time, we are treated to memories both brutal and beautiful of her private and professional life. As the audience’s eyes grew accustomed to the low light levels the side shafts slowly dimmed out and the doors were surreptitiously shut, leaving her in just a face special. Then as she begins to remember her operatic triumphs a recording of Maria’s actual voice singing in all its glory creeps in. Simultaneously an oil painting of the auditorium at La Scala ever so slowly materialises out of the darkness on the surrounding walls and ceiling. The effect was so surprising that many of the audience literally rubbed their eyes in disbelief. By the time we are listening to her full throated singing the entire space is an oil painting of the glorious auditorium of La Scala packed with adoring fans. When the lights then crossfade back to the brightly lit teaching space and the music stops the impact on the audience was almost visceral. This effect was extremely complex to achieve with four state-of-the-art projectors and large format slides knitting together to form a seamless image. It also required great technical skill on the part of the actress to remain stationary in a single face light for an extended period of time.
Lighting Cue No 96
More recently QT opened its own refurbished Bille Brown studio. For this auspicious occasion Artistic Director Sam Strong directed David Williamson’s brand new play Nearer the Gods. The play investigates the foibles and insights of the great 17th century minds of Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley and Robert Hooke. At one point in the play, we are treated to the moment of insight where Newton has a world-changing epiphany and conceives the universal laws of motion. Much of Renée Mulder’s glossy reflective black set was designed around this moment. The lights fade and Newton and Halley are left in the light of a candle on stage. In the meantime, thousands of concealed miniature fibre optic light sources begin twinkling in the walls and dozens of metres of bud lighting in the roof glow. At the same moment all other light in the theatre is extinguished and for a moment the audience are transported and suspended in a galaxy reflecting to infinity. This moment seldom failed to astound, and gasps of surprise were not uncommon.
Does anything you’ve ever done in a Queensland Theatre show stand out as a particularly big swing — something really out-there and weird and wacky?
I am going to allow the nerd in me to answer this question. In July 2008 in an erstwhile iteration of the Bille Brown, the Company staged a production of August Moon. This play by Adam Grosetti and Jean-Marc Russ was staged as a piece of verbatim theatre. The text was composed entirely of verbatim quotes from North Queensland victims of the devastating tropical Cyclone Larry. In an experiment with form it was decided to stage this in the round with the actors on a high revolve in the centre. Pushing the form even further the actors did not need to learn their lines but could read from their scripts placed on lit music stands on the perimeter of the revolve. Set designer Bruce McKinven’s cocoon-like set also wrapped the audience in abstracted screens on which video images were projected. It was not until it was decided that the revolve would be constantly rotating for the entire evening, first one way then the other, that I realised how difficult my job was going to be. To have a special on each of the six reading actors I would have to have six moving lights timed perfectly to the rotation of the revolve. However, as each moving light could only rotate 360 degrees and then had to reset, QT hired another six moving lights which ghosted the previous six so that a light could be brought up on any actor at any given moment. As soon as the revolve started all 12 moving lights started tracking at the same rate as the revolve. It was not until it became apparent that due to the slight differences in performance rhythms an actor could be at any position on the revolve when a certain special was required that it became particularly complex. After a lot of head scratching and hair pulling the lighting programming was split so that the tracking moving lights were a separate lot of cues to those adding and subtracting light levels. To the audience it looked remarkably simple but the lighting programming was as complex as it gets. Add to this a complex soundtrack and six video projectors doing surround images and it was a technical behemoth. If I remember correctly, the show won a Matilda Award for technical excellence.