The illuminated Shakespeare

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Enter stage left, bearing torch and tissue paper. Timothy Ramsden explains.

Technology has taken theatre lighting giant strides forward, making it a major part of the total experience of modern Shakespeare. But costs make the latest equipment prohibitive for most schools and colleges.

Help is at hand from Shakespeare Online (, an annual event developed by educational internet content provider Actis. A number of workshops were hosted during the event in February, among them a session on lighting by the Royal Shakespeare Company's lighting designer Simon Kemp. To follow the workshop, all classes need, besides the text - a working script of a scene - is a set model, torches and coloured tissue paper.

The script will be marked up with colour-coding or symbols of a pupil's own devising but with a key to make meaning clear to others.

The workshop asks pupils to look first for factual detail related to lighting: is the scene set at day or night; indoors or outdoors? Then the language is explored, looking for words to indicate how light or dark it is, and whether there's artificial light. Kemp uses Romeo's second sighting of Juliet ("But soft; what light through yonder window breaks?"etc), as an example. Lighting changes during a scene are another clue to search for. The next step asks pupils to look metaphorically, at mood and shifts in language.

Not only is Juliet behind a window in artificial light, but we may want to present her as romantically lit. The search is for lighting's potential to reflect and represent atmosphere and mood changes.

Enter the orches and tissue paper. Using a model set, and cardboard mini-characters, pupils have a chance to try out their lighting ideas, examining the impact of different colours - possible even in a semi-darkened classroom - the way angles influence the scene and how shapes and shadows can contribute to overall impact.

Kemp sees the objective as examining how lighting helps tell the story through a sense of place and mood. He brings a career history of lighting expertise, but points out that young people can contribute their own striking ideas, and we can benefit from their fresh approach.

Izzie Lawson, an English teacher and art co-ordinator at a Northampton middle school, has found the workshop useful.

"We have absolutely no lighting in our school. I've used set and costume ideas with key stage 3 Shakespeare but hadn't thought of lighting; it's a good way to examine mood in a scene."

She's also planning a Year 8 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the summer. The workshop plan, she says: "Willhelp in the rehearsals, working with 13-year-olds in my classroom. We can use lighting and mood to create character. It's better than switching the room lights on and off."

For someone coming cold to theatre lighting there is a helpfully detailed report of Simon Kemp's workshop on a scene from Macbeth, held in Stratford-upon-Avon last year.

This gives examples of the use of colour to create mood and has the kind of specific examples missing from the plan.

Simon Kemp's workshop can be found at Stand D30

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