Site-specific Shakespeare

This is another article that I wrote for the ALD‘s magazine FOCUS. It was also a part of my exhibition at WSD 2013.


There are few words that can strike fear into the heart of any lighting designer quicker than the words “it’s a site-specific piece…” For a number of years, the Guildford Shakespeare Company has been presenting their annual production in the Holy Trinity Church on Guildford’s High Street. This year, it was Shakespeare’s famous tragedy MACBETH that was to take to the boards. I feel I need to mention at this point, that whilst I am aware (and am mindful of) the superstitions around saying “Macbeth”, I am not sure if that extends to the written word. So, instead of constant referrals to the “Scottish play” and what I can only imagine the lead character be referred to as “the Scottish person” (as this would dramatically increase my word-count), I am going to use the word “Macbeth” and ask that if you are reading this aloud (for reasons I cannot imagine) that you simply skip over the “M word” as required. And may I also suggest that you try not to whistle at the audacity of that statement, as I believe that may lead to a fly-man dropping something on your head…

With director Caroline Devlin and designer Sarah Bacon, we set out to create a production that made use of the church’s wonderful architecture (including a Grade 2 listed Rood Screen) while still being able to retain a sense of the slightly supernatural world that Macbeth inhabits. To add to the joys that are lighting for site-specific works, it was decided that the main acting area would be in-the-round, with audiences seated on all four sides of the main stage, as well as using a smaller stage in front of the rood screen and a few guest appearances (by ghosts and pages) on the balcony. There were also a few smaller stages dotted around the space where the witches would appear. Large timber structures clad the fronts of our stages and came to be affectionately referred to as the “trees”.


As with any site-specific work, the main problem is usually power. Or the lack thereof. Of course, you can bring in generators and the like, but our budgets do not really extend to that and fortunately the church does have a 63A 3-phase supply which we are able to use. I was also very fortunate that both Philips and ETC were able to assist us – ETC with an Element console, and Philips with 6 of their new PL-1 Cyc lights. The other big problem that generally faces you when working site-specific is the lack of suitable lighting positions. Every now and then you get lucky and there is some sort of structure that you can rig from, but we had to make do with what we had. I decided that the bulk of the lighting for the main stage would have to come from a boom position, A) because it was easier to rig and cable and B) it meant that if I could rig them at a low enough angle I would be able to focus them in such a way that we could keep the worst of the glare out of the audience’s eyes. The result of this was that most of the action ended up being slightly up-lit and I think that this worked to our advantage. Whilst I did install some low voltage birdies around the edge of the stage intended for the “asides” where we wanted a more unnatural feel, the balance of the general lighting also had a slightly unnatural feel to it as it was coming from a lower angle that we are used to seeing in everyday life. We had just about enough power to drive the 24 dimmers that I used, although we dare not bring everything on at the same time for fear of plunging Guildford into darkness. There were also 7 re-plug circuits, all with A’s, B’s and C’s, so the ASM had quite a job frantically repatching lights during the performance.

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Colour choice was also a tricky one. The beauty of playing in the round is that each member of the audience, or at least each block of the audience, will have a slightly different experience and I made the choice quite early on that I was not going to try and cover the stage evenly from all four sides and in fact there was only one colour (Lee 728 Steel Green) that was consistent from all four sides. All the other sides had different colours, sometimes complementary and others offering a counter-point to the key light. The result was that we achieved a great sense of depth and three dimensionality in a reasonably small space and hopefully, it was also more visually interesting for the audience to watch.

Anyone who is familiar with my work knows that I have a few trademarks (which some might refer to as something that requires therapy) and one is my love of green. I have managed to use green in every show I have ever designed and this was going to be no exception. Aside from the L728 in the FOH wash, the LED fittings were used to make a wide range of greens (and other colours too) ranging from the really saturated to the paler, more acid greens. This I combined with some of the dirtier yellows and blues to create a world that seemed familiar, yet slightly unnerving. Lee 643 Quarter Mustard Yellow, Lee 603 Moonlight White and Lee 711 Cold Blue being among the colours we used.


The interior of the church is white – another helpful aspect when working site-specific. This of course leads to an enormous amount of bounce light, so I decided that I would actually use the huge white ceiling as our cyclorama and I was able to throw some colour and shadow up there from the LEDs that were dotted about the space. The result was a sense of being totally immersed in the space and at times it felt as though you were sitting beneath a sky just before the apocalypse.

Another of my favourite things is gobos. We had one Clay Paky Alpha Spot 700 and I had several other gobo effects peppered about the space. A broken, textured light featured quite heavily in our world and thanks to loads of haze and smoke helped to create some wonderful aerial effects for the witches, both Macbeth Lady Macbeth’s decent into madness and the various battles.

Our budget was quite small and a big thank you must go out to Leo of SHOWTECH who is “full of the milk of human kindness” and was extremely helpful in getting me as much as possible for the money that we had to spend. Our final gear list was as follows:-

1 x Clay Paky Alpha Spot 700

4 x ETC Source 4 50deg

2 x ETC Source 4 Zoom 25/50deg

3 x ETC Source 4 Jnr Zoom 25/50deg

8 x Strand SL Zoom 25/50deg

10 x Strand Prelude Zoom 22/40deg

18 x PAR 64, assorted lamps

1 x Strand Patt 243

1 x ADB 1kW Fresnel

18 x Low voltage “Birdies”, assorted lamps

6 x Philips PL1-Cyc

4 x LEDHead LED RGBW battens

1 x Hazer

1 x Smoke machine

24 x channel of dimming

1 x ETC Element console

More TRS cable than you can shake a stick at

Loads of Socapex and DMX cable

 The other big thing that we had to factor in was the fact that the Holy Trinity Church is still a functioning house of worship, so every Saturday night after the performance, the main stage had to be removed, the chairs put back in position and things restored for the Sunday services – and then all back in again on Monday mornings. The stage- and production management team were awesome and they worked tirelessly to ensure that the show was restored and looking great every time.



To sum it all up: Site-specificnoun, meaning a production that will be staged in a space where there is limited power, few rigging positions, tight budgets; Verb, to strike fear in heart of designers; Adj., an end result that is immensely satisfying to bring to life and present to an audience.

Would I do it again? Without a doubt.

Lead on, Macduff.


One thought on “Site-specific Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: Site-specific Shakespeare | Tinseltown Times

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