Here it is… here it comes. Can you feel it? It’s there, just lurking on the edge of your awareness, needling… the voice of self-doubt.
Everyone gets it. Me… I’ve always been lucky enough to do stuff pretty much by myself, for myself. As a scribbler I don’t read my own reviews, I definitely don’t go looking for them, and even if bad stuff is written about my books I figure, meh, everyone’s entitled to their own point of view on something as subjective as writing.
But then other things start to nag. In the five years in which I’ve been doing theatre professionally, I have been part of some stunning productions, produced work that I am incredibly proud of, been treated with respect and in a spirit of equal collaboration by many incredible directors and creatives, met friends for life and worked with tech crews and casts who leave me genuinely wowed at their talent and commitment.
I’ve also met contempt, disrespect, obsessive behaviours, bullies, misogynists, creatives, directors, actors and technicians whose deep fears and insecurities – for who wouldn’t rightly be frightened putting on a show? – make them behave appalling to other human beings, not just me. I’ve been shouted at, harangued, my views dismissed without a thought, my skills done down, my expertise questioned and dismissed, my value as a professional undermined. I’ve been paid pittance and asked to work sixteen hour days in exchange; I’ve been on the receiving ends of random bursts of indignant fury which have very little to do with the realities of the situation, had my sexuality picked over at great length by technicians who should be my peers, and dismissed in every way you can imagine. My views are not my own because each creative brings something of themselves to what they do; rather they are the views of a self-important, opinionated, facetious, needy, difficult, uninspired, technically incompetent, young, naive – the list is pretty endless and fairly comprehensive – sub-person.
And this happens more often than it should.
It’s very easy for me to rationalise most of it, of course. I am capable of being told that the lights are terrible and I am useless, when I can also see that the director is shitting a brick because the cast are under-prepared and the production isn’t going to live up to expectations. I am also capable of having my work ignored completely in such circumstances, indeed I prefer it to the alternatives; although every now and then my ego kicks in as a truly excellent cue runs that I spent ages getting right, only for the director not to notice. Or to dismiss with a cry of ‘oh, yes, the lights – well they’re a bit dark throughout, aren’t they?’
It’s fine. It’s fine – it’s nothing to do with me or the work I do, it’s… everything else. All the pressures on a director’s head, and everyone knows that creatives and technicians don’t need nearly as much reassurance that the thing they’ve invested in is good as actors do, right? Right….?
I can tolerate being shouted at. Random bursts of rage, of shrieking indignation and fury. These things tend to come from fear – terror at what an audience will say when the show goes up – and fear, as Yoda points out, is a good step towards the Dark Side of the Force. Again, it’s fine. The show will open and we will get on with our lives, and if we’re lucky the show will be stunning and it will move people and open their hearts and minds. And if we’re unlucky, it’ll just be another bit of theatre, and still, as one of my favourite set designers says, still not a cure for cancer. Or a kidney.
Getting notes is obviously part and parcel of the course. Though there is a key difference between this note: “Cat, I felt that during the ballroom scene the blue was a bit too saturated, what do you think? Oh, you disagree, ok… can we have a look at it together and run through some options?” And this note: “Cat, I thought the ballroom scene there was something wrong, maybe the blue, like, maybe it’s too blue, I want you to get rid of that.”
A noble minority of directors do the first kind of note, which I know may feel like a negotiation but isn’t. It simply isn’t. Oddly enough, if as a lighting designer I feel that my point of view is respected, it is easier for me to respect and value the opinion of a director, and under such circumstances I am far more likely to do what a director wants even if I disagree, simply because of the build-up of mutual trust. Easier for me to value you, if you value me. Dictatorship is not trust; tyranny is not leadership.
And again, I can rationalise. It can be hard to understand what a lighting designer says, and I’m one of many who still struggles to express my thoughts in language that is accessible. “If I remove all the blue from the ballroom scene, all we’ll be left with is front light and a bit of warm side. What if I de-saturate while keeping it keyed from upstage left, maybe putting in some warm front?”
These words to me sound like a conversation. To a lot of directors it can sound like so much gobbledegook, and so the answer comes back: “Just do what I asked you to.” It’s fine – it’s just a language barrier thing.
“Cat, I want this effect.”
“Great, it’s going to cost X amount.”
“Can’t you get it for cheaper?”
“No, that’s the best deal I could get, calling on personal favours to achieve it.”
“It’s too expensive.”
“Then you can’t have effect X.”
Not listening – in serene moments I’m even down with not listening. You’ve invested a lot of time, passion and occasionally money in this project, and like most of theatre it’s strapped for cash. In your mind, effect X is show-critical, but there’s no money, and in this chaos of desire, in this whirlwind of huge emotional investment, it can be hard to hear ‘no’. Psychologically just genuinely difficult. So many directors I’ve met who, on a Monday you say something to, who by a Wednesday deny that it was ever spoken, yay, even though the whole stage management team sits there and swears they heard it too.
Time management. So there’s four hours to tech, and a hundred and twenty cues to get through. You’re in charge, you’re frightened, you’re scared, you know it’s going to be tight, but it’s still your show, your baby, and because lighting doesn’t have time to talk you through everything that’s happening and because cues are running out of sync with the action on stage, you have no idea if what you’re seeing is right. It can’t be, though, can it? The sunset was supposed to be five minutes ago and you know lighting is still trying to catch up and there’s no time for them to call a halt but still, it’s wrong, it’s just wrong, it’s wrong and you trust your lighting designer you trust her to know what she’s doing but what if she’s missed something if she’s….
“Do you know where you are? Do you know what you’re doing?” A burst of command, a bark of rage suddenly from the stalls, the fear overflows and the technicians, sweating blood, flinch. “You’ve spent ten minutes on that cue, do you have any idea what that means?”
Words, snarled in fear, fear sounding like anger. Yes, we have an idea what it means, but we also have an idea of the shape of the cuing structure which fundamentally, no one else but the designer can know, because it’s our design, it’s our job to understand things which you need training to get and yes…
… I’m sorry but yes…
… you are going to have to trust us now.
And I know it’s frightening. And I know you’re afraid, because people will blame you, not me, if the thing is shit.
And I know that’s why you just shouted at me, belittled me in front of the entire cast and crew, demanded to know if I had any idea what I was doing, three hours to go until there’s a paying public here.
I know it’s because you trust me, but are so, so afraid.
I can pretty much rationalise all of it.
But then, just occasionally, the doubt creeps in. And the doubt is of two paths, one more scary than the other.
Path the first: what if this is it? What if this is what it’s like? If for the rest of my career I am going to occasionally work on stunning shows with peers who I respect and who value me in return, and create something truly special… while the rest of the time I am variously dismissed and ignored (fine if not great) but also disrespected, my voice lost in the cacophony of should be and might be, my labours buried beneath so much fear and anxiety and need to appease too many people at once. Is this a path I want? To work for hours at a time on less than minimum wage in an area which is so little understood that to try and explain why I feel I should receive some respect for Effort X would require a year of training in itself? Yes, the rewards can be fantastic. I love theatre. I love lights. That moment when the stage floods with colour, angles and beams in the air, on faces, on the floor. That moment when the audience gasps or the world you have created comes to life, story living in every part of the production from the words to the buckles on the actor’s shoes – it is sensational. But it is also sometimes fleeting, and while I can rationalise of the pain that is experienced getting there… do I need it? Or do I need to look at other paths?
And then a second thought: bloody hell, what if this isn’t theatre? What if this is the whole blinking world? Right now a junior doctor is being told that they are a disgrace to medicine; a copper is making a mistake; a politician lies, a journalist is deceived or deceives, a teacher speaks cruel untruths to a vulnerable student, a conference is held on the value of the colour pink in modern tampon-marketting strategies…
There is this phrase – the work is its own reward. And in theatre it is, it truly is. But every now and then you might be justified in wobbling, in shaking your head and marveling at how little you’ve eaten in the last few days, how much your body hurts, how bewildered and exhausted is your mind. Surely it was meant to get easier? Surely it’s not just pot-luck, making the right connections, surely you can take control and rise to the top, overcome all this dismissing of your worth for reasons that are nothing to do with your actions? Surely… yes? Perhaps?
And there… doubt creeps in. The doubt that comes from a sense that perhaps, you don’t have any control of your life after all.
There is a second path to all this, of course. A far more frightening one.
What if it’s me?
What if actually all of this, all the casual dishonouring of lighting designers, starting with the simple not acknowledging of their work up to the raging abuse – what if it’s just part of the cause, and I’m being a muppet? What – worse – what if it’s all true? What if I am a bad LD? Quite simply: a bad LD? If a director cannot understand me, that’s my fault; if a director won’t listen, then should I as an LD be better at making them hear? What if the definition of ‘professionalism’ into which I’ve invested so much energy these last five years – what if it’s a lie? What if this ‘professional’ that I strive to be is, in fact, an inept facade? It is a question that must be considered, if I am to be honest with myself, and it is terrifying. Underneath it is not merely a question about my future, but my whole identity.
And so again, doubt seeps in, but deeper and more terrifying than anything which has gone before.
Another thought arises: if it is me, if I am in some way different from how I imagined, is that a bad thing? Should I change, or should I just embrace it? Am I pleased with who I am? Am I distressed by who people think I am? Are these two the same? What should be sacrificed to reconcile this dichotomy, if anything? Damned if I know.
And again, I can rationalise. For some directors I am a joy, and my work a delight; for others I’m a pain in the backside, and they tend not to like me, and I tend to not like them, and much as I feel utterly fine with how my books are read, I’m ok with saying that this is also a people thing. Not everyone I meet will like me and visa versa, and though fear of rejection is a huge part of the human psyche, I’m kinda ok with that. And I am proud, in a way, of questioning these things. I am proud that, despite the huge emotion and energy that I have invested in theatre, I can finally step back and look at myself and ask whether this investment is good for my health. And I am proud, in a way, that despite the fear, I can look at myself and ask whether I’m blinded by my own ego, and though I may be too blinded to find a decent answer, at least the question is being asked. (Solve your way out of that circle of hubris, if you can.)
Then life goes on, and these things pass. My friends are a big part of that. When the work stops and I see them, and remember just how many clever, funny, kind, compassionate, generous people I have in my life, I feel a sense that if they’re ok sticking with me, there must be something worth sticking to. A sense of fatigue passes, and hope returns that the next thing will be better, and sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know whether I’ll be doing theatre in ten years time; I hope so. If I’m not… we’ll see. It’s still a thing worth fighting to do.