The State Opera of South Australia 2004 production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen began with almost three minutes of utter darkness. The pesky glow of seat markers and air-conditioner LEDs had all been painstakingly obscured or extinguished. Even the orchestra pit was unlit. In that bottomless nothingness, with audiences unable to see their hands in front of their faces, the first sound was the immense growl of a 32-foot organ pipe.
Trust a lighting designer to understand the primal power of darkness. Nick Schlieper, who was both lighting and associate set designer in that production, tends to terminate performances in a dead blackout, plunging audiences into a momentarily disorienting void.
For nearly 30 years, the prolific Schlieper has worked with every major performing arts company in Australia, his efforts gracing more Australian stages, more often, than any person. He lit the way as Australian theatre developed the severe Teutonic style and aesthetic of landmark productions such as director Benedict Andrews’ War of the Roses (2009) and Simon Stone’s Baal (2011).
In the past year Schlieper has lit four Sydney Theatre Company (STC) productions, including Waiting for Godot (restaged at the Barbican in London), and Melbourne Theatre Company’s North by Northwest. And yet his contribution goes more or less unnoticed.
“If you subscribe to the theory that theatre is an act of manipulation, light is one of the principal mediums for that process,” Schlieper says. “But the instant that becomes discernible to an audience, you’ve blown it.”
Schlieper recently returned from six weeks in Hamburg, lighting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies. The production’s opening night was struck by a technical catastrophe that might have led some to imagine Phantom of the Opera–style sabotage: a curtain was destroyed in full view of the audience, forcing Schlieper to spend the entire performance in the control room, lighting on the fly.
When we speak he’s in the third week of rehearsals for another STC production, King Lear. Directed by Neil Armfield and starring Geoffrey Rush, it’s staged at the Roslyn Packer Theatre (aka the Ros), one of the more lovingly kept, better equipped theatres in the country. “I don’t like it aesthetically,” says Schlieper, “but it’s my favourite theatre to work in.”
Up to 400 “lamps” are used in a production on the scale of King Lear. At any one time, a combination of these will work in harmony, from all angles, to accentuate the outlines of the cast, pulling them out of the depth of the set.
Beyond the mechanical process of focusing an audience’s attention, the deeper role of lighting is psychological. The shifting dynamic of brightness and shadow on an actor’s face has a profound effect on how they are perceived.
“You can make somebody look foreboding and saturnine and ominous just by manipulation of shadows that fall across their face,” explains Schlieper. “You can make an actor look incredibly bland by eradicating all of those shadows, or make somebody look a lot more interesting than they maybe are. You can even change the power relationship onstage between two actors.”
For Gross und Klein (STC, 2011), Schlieper even succeeded in the singular task of rendering Cate Blanchett unglamorous.
“In the bad old days, you probably would have reached for the colour pot and gone a little bit pinker to elicit more sympathy, or a little bluer for less. It’s in that tradition – we’re just more sophisticated about it nowadays.”
When Schlieper lit Bell Shakespeare’s King Lear in 2010, the blinding of the Earl of Gloucester was accompanied by a blitzkrieg of retina-searing effects that Schlieper admits was a “perhaps slightly simplistic attempt to communicate what it would be feeling like in his head”. Schlieper prefers slyer manoeuvres. His lighting changes are typically so gradual – a relatively fast transition takes 30 seconds – that they have become known as “Schlieper’s Creepers”.
“I’d be able to pick one of his designs … without prior knowledge of who was behind it,” says the Ros’ deputy head electrician, Harry Clegg. “The lights are always changing, growing, shifting.”
Schlieper, he says, is “innately aware of the semiotics and deeper art within a work, and strives to support that”.
In the last moments of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (STC, 2013), Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin were blinded by Schlieper’s spotlight as they teetered at the edge of the stage. “I’ve never felt anything more vertiginous,” says Schmitz. “I swore I was going to fall off the stage. One night I did. The next day, with a hip-to-ankle scab forming, ‘Schlieps’ remarked that I was still yet to quite find my precise beam of light in that last moment. I told him I felt like I was falling off the end of the world in that last moment. ‘Perfect,’ he said.”
Part of Schlieper’s fundamental interest in constructing images can be put down to the influence of his older brother, Michael, a skilled painter who passed away last March. “I would wake up before going to school and walk through his room on the way to the kitchen, and the first thing I would see was the progression in his canvas overnight,” Schlieper says. “The palimpsest process of the painting being built up layer by layer by layer taught me a lot at that age.”
For more than a decade, Schlieper was resident guest lecturer at the Bavarian Theatre Academy in Munich, where he instructed lighting students to examine the techniques of painters like JMW Turner and Edward Hopper.
“Once you accept the different starting point – one being a two-dimensional white space and the other being a three-dimensional black one – they are such similar processes. Every single light source is its own brushstroke, if you like. All of the same compositional principles apply, all of the same spatial relationship principles apply and, once you get your head around the fact it’s a different set of primaries, all the same colour principles apply.”
The second half of Armfield’s King Lear at the Ros takes place in an infinity cyclorama, a white set with no discernible edges. At different times the space can resemble a small concrete room or an endless blank void – an optical effect achieved through Schlieper’s lighting. The result is at once a dazzling theatrical gesture and an uncluttered vision of the most immense of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
“It’s a terribly serious and very, very moving piece of work,” Schlieper says of the play. “Any kind of frippery or trickery feels like it’s really short-selling the enormous human scale of this tragedy.”
The light-rebounding whiteness of the walls makes the drudgery of focusing lamps – typically as much as nine hours’ intensive labour, usually at heights of up to 12 metres – even more slow-going.
Only then can the illumination begin.
“All things being equal, that’s when you finally get to realise, in living Technicolor … the images you’ve had inside your brain for maybe a year, in some cases.”
Earlier in the rehearsal period, Schlieper still had a chance of catching the smog-filtered sunsets on Sydney Harbour that saturate the wharves with shades of orange, tangerine and pineapple yellow. “You look at it and think, God, if I put that onstage people would laugh me out of town.”
As opening night approaches, however, Schlieper departs later and later from the warm glow of the theatre, straight into a taxi and back into the darkness.
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