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Rose Bonsier, Deputy Head of Lighting at Theatre Royal Plymouth

Rose Bonsier is Deputy Head of Lighting at Theatre Royal Plymouth. Tricia Stubberfield talks to her about her work and how she started her career.

Rose Bonsier is Deputy Head of Lighting at Theatre Royal Plymouth. On a visit to the Theatre in December, Tricia Stubberfield talked to her about her job, and climbed into the highest parts of the Lyric to see where she does it!

Hi Rose. What a unique place to work! What do you do, and how long have you been with the Theatre Royal?

I’m one of the deputy heads of lighting, and I’ve been here for just over five years. Part of my job is to look after the lighting for the shows that are coming in, and make sure that everything is rigged and focused and all the lights look as per the lighting designer’s design.

So the lighting has already been designed before the shows get here?

It depends on the show. We’re both a receiving house and a producing house, which means that some shows are coming in touring – they have already done the design when they’ve done their production, so we are essentially recreating it. With shows that we are producing in-house the design is done whilst that show is in production. So that’s built as we go along.

And do you consult on that when they are being built here?

It depends on the show. If it’s a big touring show we work with the touring staff, if it’s an in-house show then some members of the team will take on, for example, lighting designer responsibilities. So it just depends on the nature of the show.

With a touring show things have to adapt, particularly the sets, from place to place. We’re quite a big theatre on the touring circuit so we’re fortunate that we have more space than other venues. Shows tend to design for the smallest space they’re going to, so we’re fortunate that actually it can translate quite well, and we’ve got the space to do what we need to. Every theatre, particularly with lights to be rigged in front-of-house spaces, has different lighting positions and they each give us a slightly different shot to stage, so it’s all about working out where the best position is. We’ve got positions we know tend to work quite well for certain shots so we might recommend those.

What are your main duties through that process? Do you have a typical day?

We don’t in that sense, in that we tend to respond to what the shows need. But there tends to be a structure to the week. Usually at the start of the week, if it’s a weekly touring show, the tour will come in. We’ll do a long day on Sunday or Monday, and then a Monday or Tuesday getting the show in and ready and putting lights up. Lights will tour in, and we’ll rig them and focus them. Whoever is operating the lighting desk, which is usually touring staff if they’re bringing in shows, or us if it’s a slightly smaller show or our own production, will do a bit of relighting from there. This is essentially programming to make sure the lights are doing what they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to. Then the show will open. 

In our team, we’ve got some really good follow spot operators, so if there are follow spots in the show they’ll be operating them. I don’t tend to do that any more but sometimes I’ll be on the lighting desk. And that’s what we do throughout the week – the shows. And at the end of the week, usually a Saturday, the show will leave, so we’ll pack it down through the night for it to go off to its next venue.

That’s a really quick turnover!

Yes, it does tend to be, when you get the weeklies. But some stay for longer, like really big musicals. When Les Miserables comes in, it’ll stay for three or four weeks. 

With something like Les Mis that’s really established, does the lighting design change or do you think “oh, it’s that again” and get out the same old thing?

That’s an interesting question. Usually, it’ll be based on the same original design, but sometimes the designer will come back and relight it. So they might make small changes – certain colours or certain light intensity levels, they might try something they think works better that didn’t work so well last time. They will make changes and every time they do a tour of a show that’s been out before they’ll do a slight redesign. Some of the older shows which used to be lit with generic lights which work as one lamp on, one lamp off, are now being lit with more intelligent lights and LEDs, things which can do a bit more and save a bit of energy. So that means that you need a redesign again, to be able to provide a different design for that lighting rig. 

Are there fashions with lighting? Do certain things go with certain productions?

There can be. There are certain designers who like to use certain lights, or certain colours for certain lights. They all have their trademark way of doing things. Some want to use lots of lights to light particular scenes, and some are very much into what we call specials – fixed-focus single lights that just pick up parts of the set or people. It’s very much that creative element of what they want to do.

So, how did you get into doing this?

I did lots of theatre as a student in amateur productions. I found that I really enjoyed it. I was fortunate enough to get a traineeship which was brilliant because they were really few and far between, at the Marlowe Theatre in Kent. It was a similar size to here, and also a producing and receiving house. I did a year’s traineeship and moved on to other lighting jobs. I realised I quite enjoyed lighting and that was what I wanted to go on and do.

If there are other people interested in getting into lighting, lighting design or anything related, what would your recommendations be?

Try to get some practical experience. Volunteer backstage if you have a local community group doing shows, or if you’re a student and have student productions. At school or college or university you can volunteer and get to use different lights, see what a lighting desk does, and see what you can pick up. A lot of it is learning as you go along. And there are other venues – Theatre Royal Plymouth are really good. We provide some work experience, and we take people on in starting roles as zero hours staff – usually those people have to have a little bit of experience but sometimes they’re amateur or students, if they’ve shown interest, particularly if they’ve done traineeships. 

So you’ve been in Plymouth for five years? As a newcomer to the city what have you noticed about the creative sector and the theatre scene in Plymouth?

I think the first thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a really quite laid-back and creative vibe about the city. There’s a really rich culture to Plymouth. We’re lucky, we’ve got quite a lot going on and beautiful surroundings, so there’s this wonderful outdoor lifestyle as well. I think that’s brilliant.

Are there any particular productions that you’ve worked on that stick out for you?

There are certain companies that do some incredible shows that come back again and again. Frantic Assembly is one – they do some fascinating stuff with movement and the way they integrate that into performances. We’ve done some production weeks for them because they’ve got quite a good working relationship with the Theatre. 

Do you get to look at the shows from a visual perspective before you see the actual production? How does that affect how you see the show?

It’s an interesting one. It is different. Sometimes you find it harder to sit and watch a show because you’re always conscious of how things are working. There are quite a lot of people working hard to make the magic of theatre happen, so you’re conscious of that process. When you go and watch a show you’re thinking about everything that’s happening to make that. It’s the same with anything, if you know the behind-the-scenes in art and film, you’re keeping an eye out for the technical details! There are things that are just for those people, almost like Easter Eggs.

Is there anything that’s surprised you about the role?

There have been opportunities that have developed that I wouldn’t have known were part of the role. For example, I look after quite a lot of the exterior lighting which has been quite a new project. Matt Hoyle (head of technical and wardrobe) and Steve Bennetts (head of lighting) have been moving that forward. 

So people who are walking past can see your work?!

It’s the outside of a building so it’s not a perfect blank canvas, not exactly as we’d like it to look, but it’s a work in progress and it’s quite exciting to be able to try new things and experiment. It feels great being able to be a part of events in the city. We try to do light-ups for things like Pride and Black History Months, and different shows will request different states. 

You were talking about how the technology has changed since you’ve been here. Is there anything inparticular that’s cutting edge that you’re interested in at the moment?

In terms of different kinds of lights coming through you’ll notice certain trends, and which brands have got the market at the time. At the moment technology is focused on getting that intelligent LED lighting to be a replacement for Tungsten. There was a period when you couldn’t really recreate how a tungsten light looked, whereas now it’s becoming more possible to do that with LED sources. 

The other thing we’re noticing is more and more what we call robospots – a type of moving light that’s used as a follow spot, and replaces your conventional follow spot where you’ve got an operator using handle bars and operating it remotely with a camera, from somewhere else, rather than it being physically moving the lights. We’re very lucky, we’ve got brilliant follow spot operators here, but not everywhere has, so it takes out the element of operator difference. Sometimes it means you can preprogramme colours, because at the moment they have to change colours and sizes and that’s quite quick between cues. And you can have a light in a position you maybe couldn’t put an operator in. 

Is there anything that you’re looking forward to in your role, or in Plymouth in general?

I tend to look at the shows that are coming and see what’s exciting – there’s always something coming up and we’ve got an incredible line-up in store. Also, the theatre have been reaching out so hopefully we’ll be doing more and more productions with people from the local community, that’s really exciting. 

Rose Bonsier is Deputy Head of Lighting at Theatre Royal Plymouth. Tricia Stubberfield talks to her about her work and how she started her career.
Rose Bonsier is Deputy Head of Lighting at Theatre Royal Plymouth. Tricia Stubberfield talks to her about her work and how she started her career.

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