Paule Constable: pressing air

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

Alice Boyd: Interview with Paule Constable

Paule Constable is a lighting designer who has worked at major venues both in the UK and internationally. She is an associate of the National Theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith and for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. She has created the lighting design for many productions at the National Theatre, including Follies, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse, and Angels in America. She has been the recipient of multiple Olivier, Tony, Helpmann and Knight of Illumination Awards, alongside other accolades. She is currently working on Matthew Bourne's Romeo and Juliet.



What's your favourite thing about lighting design?

That's a really simple question. My favourite thing about lighting design is darkness. I really love an absence of light. I think it's what makes light more interesting. So often, good lighting is about what you don't put light on. Everything for me starts with nothing. I keep banging onto people about how taking responsibility for the use of resource is good design practice because it implies a rigour.

Rigour is my other complete obsession. Making it dramaturgical. Technology is a means to an end. As a lighting designer, if you invite an audience to engage with beauty and story in the same way that everything they're seeing and hearing is telling a story, then it becomes more holistic. I think that's when work becomes interesting.

"There's a school of thought where lighting can be seen as decorative and it can be seen as 'stuff'. I think a lot of people are drawn to lighting because they're excited about working with technology and that sort of thing. For me, lighting isn't about the 'stuff', it's about the air that you press."

At what point did you become aware of environmental sustainability?

I've always been quite political. The repercussions of behaviour and digging into what's actually going on has always been something I'm interested in. I've always been a militant cyclist. It's interesting how those two things go hand in hand. Particularly being in London in the 80s, as soon as you went onto two wheels you were part of a different tribe. It was a war zone out there if you were on a bike. There were no cycle routes anywhere.

At the beginning of the London Cycling Campaign, cyclists were referred to as 'moving targets'. Being on a bike all the time, you felt like you were this sub-strata of the city. The importance of critical mass and the rights for cyclists to move came out of that. I did a bit of lobbying for the London Cycling Campaign and it made me realise quickly that the city is obsessed with the car. For me, it really started there.

I love the sense of taking responsibility for your own travel, rather than sitting in a metal box and being taken places. I love the fact that when you're cycling around London you're IN London. You're amongst people and, while you're cycling faster than people are walking, you're interacting with people in a city in a very visceral way, in a way you don't in a car. I suppose that also relates to my work. When I run I never listen to music. I want to be in the moment I am in. I want to experience it.


Follies, National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson.

How did environmental sustainability then come into your work?

One of the things I love about lighting is that quite often it's trying to capture a moment of the natural environment and use that as a story-telling device. I know that I respond to light in a very particular way. That's one of the reasons why I love being up in the hills. My sense of design led me to [environmental sustainability]. I was trying to grapple with a natural sense of landscape and space that I related to outdoors and put it indoors. You can't have one without being concerned for the other. That's a two way conversation.

How have you then incorporated sustainability into your design? How has this been as a journey?

It's partly being willing to ask the questions. If I'm concerned about how I travel to work, if I'm concerned about what happens to the resources that I use in my domestic life, why should that stop the moment I am at work and in an environment where I might not feel like I can control it as much? In the same way that when you're grappling with something creatively in a show, you don't ever give up as a designer. There must be a way. There's no problem so great that you can't solve it. We just need to bring that same rigour into the environment we're working in.

You start debates about PVC (electrical) tape and lighting cables, and you feel so ridiculous. But actually the more you try and encourage people to ask the questions, the more we can change the direction of travel. As the conversation gets bigger, you feel less marginalised. It's been a slow evolution for me and it's been quite difficult. Alison Tickell (Founder and CEO of Julie's Bicycle) has always been a big supporter of mine and she's asked me to speak at events. I often feel like a bit of a charlatan because I'm not a scientist, I don't know anything!

But whoever works with me would never bring a plastic bottle of water onto a tech table, because I'd just tell them to go away and take more responsibility. Isn't that really puerile? But then you realise it's important to create an environment where we can question our practice.

One of the biggest questions is "who is supplying energy to the buildings we work in?". I've got to the point where I'm just going to ask it. The big one for me that we need to think about in the next few years is the building stock we work within. In this country, we have an incredible amount of older building stock, which is so incredibly porous in terms of belching energy out. How many West End theatres are insulated? These are such key questions.

"The problem is it's so invisible. The impacts of our daily lives go far beyond our own existence. It's changing because we are starting to live with the effects of climate change, but how do we actually get people to take responsibility when it's not direct cause and effect? It's not as if I use a plastic bag and the next day find a dead dolphin on my doorstep."

Do you have any particular examples of your work where you have used a more sustainable technique?

I have an ongoing relationship with lighting manufacturers in terms of the development of technologies, such as LED technology. We're developing that technology to have beauty and story telling capacity, rather than being something that is just a brutal like for like use of a new technology.

I hope that it all has that quality. We were looking at the energy usage of Romeo and Juliet (Matthew Bourne). It's set in a white space. When you're in a white space you're not starting from dark, you're starting from light. We only have one set of lights that are non-LED on the show. There are five or six occasions during the show where we use these lights for a short period of time and the energy spike is incredible.

We've made this bright white aesthetic using very low energy sources. It makes sense. It's a rental, so we don't have to buy new lights, we can move very quickly and use new technology. It absolutely fulfils the brief. But there's one moment when I felt I wanted an organic push. It's like a breath of air and then it goes. The graph we were were looking at for the energy is almost like a graph of its visual energy.


What do you find are the biggest obstacles to becoming more sustainable in theatre and lighting design?

I think the fact the subject's overwhelming. I think people are worried that they don't have choices. Often, commercial success is often held up as 'the best'. It also implies loads of 'stuff' and use of resources. I think the most useful thing I ever did was pub theatre. I think if I hadn't busked a show with four lights on sticks and a bedside lamp, I'd never be able to deliver the shows I am doing today. It's the same process.

One of the pieces of work I'm trying to do is looking at how we can engage at the creative front end with sustainability, making it part of the creative process rather than a stick to beat people with.

"A lot of our society holds up 'fast' as a value. Why is fast considered a good thing? 'Lots' is considered a thing we should aspire to. Trying to shed that is really really hard. Trying to wrestle with the behemoth of this subject as an individual is so overwhelming that I think people feel they can't."

What do you see as a solution to sustainability in lighting design and whose responsibility is it?

I think we have to take a massive responsibility as designers. So often we feel we have to work with what we're given. If you create something that is not particularly sustainable, it's good to have a conversation about your wants and needs relative to the bigger picture. You acknowledge that something that you're doing is using a lot of resources, but you're not just being careless. Stopping being careless is a really good place to start.


What would you say to any lighting designers who care about sustainability?


Don't be careless. Don't feel like you're a victim. Always ask the questions.

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