Interview with Vincent Longuemare
TWENTY PLUS ONE QUESTION FOR VINCENT LONGUEMARE
Vincent Longuemare was born in France, where he studied theater at Paris VIII, continued at the INSAS in Brussels. He works as a lighting designer and set designer for contemporary dance and theater companies across the entire Europe, most recently, he was also dedicated to architectural and independent film projects. In the beginning of his career, he had the opportunity to work with directors as Philippe Sireuil, Michel Dezoteux, Jean-Claude Berutti, later Robert Altman, Armand Delcampe and Josef Svoboda, Sosta Palmizi, Marco Martinelli, Déja Donné company, Teatro Kismet or Marco Baliani. In 1996, he moved to Italy, where he teaches lighting design in Milan among other things and leads individual courses with its own pedagogical approach. He wrote several texts on poetics and dramatic nature of light.
He was awarded the “PREMIO UBU SPECIALE FOR LIGHT DESIGN” for his work as a first lighting designer in Italy. In 2009, he started cooperating with the Institute of Lighting Design in Prague, where he chaired the first jury ever of Prize for lighting design within the festival Czech Dance Platform and led the first workshop for theatrical lighting designers. Since then, the Czech professional public has regularly the opportunity to become familiar with his distinctive approach to the field – close relation of light, space and drama / dance events. This “philosopher of light” has led several workshops in the Czech Republic and again sat in this year in the head of the jury for lighting design at the ČTP.
1) First question – could you list in five words, what is the essence of lighting design for you?
Darkness / Black
perception of space and body
And if you should explain it more?
Whenever I start to teach a group of students, I use the same words to express the essence of lighting design: we are not able to see the light as such. We see it through the objects it affects. As it moves through the space, it enters into contact with objects and bodies. One of the best ways how to be able to perceive light is to realize its contrast with the darkness. That is the most basic contrast. There is nothing and suddenly everything comes to life, because I see it standing out from the darkness. The sight captures and interprets light stimuli to us. We cannot think about light, if we do not think about darkness as well.
The way we see and perceive is the next step. A better ability of observation and perception is required from a lighting designer. A lighting designer must be able to transfer the shape, structure and the presence on the stage into the general visual scheme through the light. Space, props, costumes, body, but also the direction of looks of the eyes or the color of the skin – everything that happens on stage, must be seen and discovered.
The best way to achieve this is to create a contrast on the stage, which allows the spectator’s eye to perceive what is happening. From the smallest detail to the dramaturgical structure of the performance. It’s like creating a variety of visual perception and differentiation: to organize the visual field into a general structure and within that, to organize (to the viewer) the movement of the eyes.
Technical knowledge is, of course, indispensable, it allows you to work faster and more accurately. However, I believe that it is necessary that technical knowledge would be in the service of poetics and creation, not vice versa.
2) Are the lighting design in architecture and lighting design in theater the same professions? Do they have something in common?
They can be created by the same person, but it isn’t the same profession. Dance and theater serves to a world that is ephemeral, intangible and illusive. To a world that is built again and again, represented to the spectators and then disappears. Only some pictures will remain in the mind.
Architectural lighting is challenging due to the actual volume of material, of building, of something that is permanent. It has to be said here that a capable designer can be naturally able to achieve excellent results even in the architectural lighting. In the architectural lighting, one must take into account various constraints (rules, safety), durability of the material and the like. Architects, designers, engineers and firemen hold together and sometimes you have to respect the rules according to which the functionality has the priority over the “beautiful”.
3) How do you explain the fact that in recent years, there appears to be a growing interest in lighting and lighting design, not only in the theater world, but also in architecture and other arts?
It seems that we find ourselves once again in an age, which is ruled by visual communication: Our fascination with images (in a broad sense of the word) is like a mother’s breast from which we greedily suck the milk of information. In the society, there is a distinctive need for veiling the world with images, to understand and explain the world with images rather than words. Some people seek the truth of history or politics through the images. Most of them creates images in order to hide what is not to be seen. Images that emerge from any kind of power to create a nice two-dimensional world. I assume that interest in the visual creation, by which we can control the world, means that we need technologies to build a vision of the world. Fortunately, I still believe that theater is a place for creation of images. It’s one of the few places where people meet in direct contact, face to face, where you can search for the truth of moments, the truth of humanity. It may be that not that much money flows through the theater world as in other fields of human activity and that protects it against industrial production of images, which has always only one goal: to make money and lie to people in order to maintain power.
The general interest in architectural and public lighting follows from industrial innovation and creation of new markets. There is always someone who wants a new toy or desire to be modern. I believe that we live in difficult times, and the light is associated with life, birth and faith, with the expectation of a new day, but also with the end. Maybe we seek hope through the light: will there appear better days in better light?
4) Can you describe a typical content of a day of a lighting designer?
When I was young, I was able to spend twenty four hours a day in the theater until I found the right way, there was no daily program, there were only questions, the stage in front of you and possible solutions. Currently, my program is divided into two main parts: the time I spend creating and inventing a lighting design at home in the studio, and the time I spend preparing and installing the lights before the performance. During the first phase, I go to the rehearsals, I discuss with set designers, costume designers and directors. I’m trying to get as much information as possible. I study the scenes or get inspiration from my life and the events around me. During the second phase of preparations, I usually spend twelve hours a day in the theater. I come at eight o’clock in the morning and leave around ten or eleven at night. During the technical preparations, I give a lot of time to building light changes. I try to make the lighting seem natural and live. I like a lighting design, which blends with the performance and helps to complete the story and the time is a single tool for creation of a light dramaturgy.
I mostly come to the theater as the first one- I enjoy the moment when I enter the empty, silent theater, night slowly sails away, technicians begin to come and smell with the first morning coffee – and I am the last to leave. I promised myself that I will be a sound engineer in my next life – the last one who comes and first one who goes.
5) Your main fields are a theater lighting and set design. When you create a scene, do you imagine it already lighted, or do you invite colleagues to help you to create the light design?
I have started dedicating myself to the set design about ten years ago. I was partly inspired by those morning moments when you enter the empty silent theater. The space in front of you it is not yet burdened by any human activity, and you can fully perceive it. I was also dissatisfied with the approach to the production of scenography. It was annoyed by a general practice of artists who ignore the individuality of space and just builds and builds, inundate the space with walls, structures, props. I have always had a feeling that uniqueness of the space has to be respected when creating performances. Makers of stage sets should be focusing on looking for ways how to work with it instead of overfilling the area. I believe that in every performance there are direct relationships between bodies, voices, eyes and space as such. This mutual interaction between individual elements should be searched for and consolidated during the creation of each performance. Light can also be the structural element for building “architecture” of space. When creating a stage set, I closely work with the director, I use all the actions and movements, which are contained in the performance. I start with lighting, then I define the spatial layout and the invisible lines in which the voltage flows, I assemble all elements of the performance so they correspond in best way with the already created lighting.
So far, I haven’t had the opportunity to see my stage set be lighted by someone else. I think they invite me to do the set design and lighting design also for the reason that to the production would save money!
Performance Capuleti e I Montecchi in Royal Opera of Wallonia(Source: http://www.donizettisociety.com/Pastproductions2010/2010ICapuletiLiege.htm
6) It is important for you to work with someone who you know you have positive experiences with or do you ever take a risk and enter into cooperation with a for you unknown director, choreographer or company?
I’m doing both. I actually think that the biggest risk is when you work long time with the same director. There is deep trust among you, you work already very quickly, but then there may be a situation when you don’t discuss together the project. He knows that you’re sitting there somewhere in the dark, trusts you fully, doesn’t have to explain how he works and then may come the moment when you loose your way.
On the other hand, I constantly try to pay attention to young companies that don’t have the money yet. It is very important for me to maintain a relationship with the younger generations because they perceive the world very differently than I do, and obliges me to pose questions, how to create the visual part of the performance so that it would respect and resonate with their perception of the world. Experimenting with creation of images that would be meaningful for the younger generation is easier than, say, experimenting with opera. You need to look for a simple and inexpensive solution and to be a realist. I think it is important to return to the simplicity, to the craft: to use eyes, mind, soul and hands – let them talk and create. Handicraft skill as opposed to the “factory”.
7) How much are good communication, mood and atmosphere in a creative team essential for the quality of a performance? Do you agree that sometimes one works better under pressure?
Unfortunately, some directors and actors think so. Personally, I believe that the need to work in a tense atmosphere has more to do with the need to have control over actors and other members of the creative team than the actual creative process.
I think that the right working atmosphere or mood should not be characterized as stress, verbal aggression or need to push someone into something. It should rather be an issue of a creative urge. You know that you want something and you are looking for ways to achieve this. The working process requires concentration and awareness that you are responsible for organizing every minute so you could achieve what you want. It’s artistic, creative tension, not the senseless selfish behavior that we see on many stages. Narcis has not died yet.
8) Nick Moran writes in his book “Light design for theater, concerts, exhibitions and live events” that lighting designers often find themselves in a position where they function as a filter for tension between the director, set designer and costume designer. What is your opinion?
I think that lighting designers have a good position in a team. Firstly, because they are often hidden in the rear in the dark. They perceive the tension in the creative process on stage, but they keep their distance. It is not unusual that a director comes to sit up to me to the lighting desk during rehearsals to ask me what I think about specific scenes or situations. It’s probably because lighting designers work with eyes, understand what is happening and they can have a better general view than the director, who spends most of his time down on the stage, and therefore he may sometimes cease to perceive the overall scene. When one finds out that the set design or costumes are done poorly, there is nothing much to be done in most cases, a lighting designer has an advantage in this. Convenient lighting can help the ugly looking sets or a bad actor (by means of hiding him in the dark). A lighting designer can adjust his design to the scene to help the director with his intention. I have noticed that if there is a problem in dramaturgy, there is a problem for the lighting designer as well. A lighting designer has trained observation, is capable of an overall view, sees everything that happens on stage, how things evolve and change, and notices places where there is a problem. He has to proceed very gently and subtly and try to remove the disharmony, even if it means a change, and adapt his original intention to what is taking place on the stage. A good scene emerges in harmony of all elements that are present on the stage. I always say to myself that lighting is as a good sauce: it mingles all the flavors into one.
9) We live in the European culture that was influenced by Christianity for centuries. Our work is often unconsciously influenced by the environment in which we live. Do you think that it would be hard for a European lighting designer to work, for example, in Asia?
When I worked in Japan, for instance, I had to learn the symbolism of colors, which is completely different from ours. For example, the color that symbolizes the spring in Japan is the color of cherry blossoms. This pink may seem dim to us, because the color of spring is bright yellow, green or orange for us. But I think that anyone can adapt to these cultural specifics. Rather, it can be hard to get used to the different organization of work. Almost all cultures of the world are available to us for several generations, although in superficial honeycomb of images and words: if you want to do your job well, you have to have an open mind, go to the streets and watch and watch until your eyes will cry with fatigue.
10) Do you use some kind of symbolism, characters in your work, or do you work instinctively?
It’s a big fight between intuition and knowledge. Once you begin to think that you know something, you can be a goner in the next moment. At the same time, it is the reason why people want to work with you. They believe that you are good and you know all the solutions. If you start thinking about yourself that you have the knowledge and solutions, you start to repeat yourself. Some of my colleagues do the same design already for twenty five years. This may be convenient to some directors and productions, because they know what they can expect. However, I believe that each performance is a new experience and therefore we should look for new ways and opportunities. In this conflict, I choose intuition, groping in the dark and discovering the light is much more fun. I don’t mean that in the morning I go to the theater and say to myself, “so how we do it tonight?” For me, groping in the dark means a research and study of new possibilities, preparation. Then I come to the theater with a clear vision and definition of what I want to do.
11) The use of conventional halogen resource consumes large quantity of energy. Currently, the trend is the search for new, more environmentally friendly sources. Do you think that we can expect any radical changes, such as an improved and cheaper LED source, in this direction in the future?
I think it is good to learn the distinction between what may be beneficial and what is just an empty ideology in the context of the modern trends. I assume that the industry has its own reasons for such a strong bond with ecological views. It probably has something to do with the need to restore industry and ecology can be a good investment move, especially if public finance is used to it. The technologies currently assume dominant place in our lives. New technological products appear constantly on the market. Over the last twenty five years, there appeared on the scene new highly sophisticated lighting consoles, moving lights, lamps producing more light using less energy and so on, so we are enchanted with the ideal of never-ending evolution. But is it necessary?
In my opinion, the best for theatrical lighting are halogen bulbs, they look good on the skin and costumes, they have a good temperature and color, shine clearly, they are versatile. I would never use the LED source to light the face. LED sources are not yet a suitable product for theatrical or opera stage. They can be used for architectural lighting or live events, where it’s more about the effects than about the quality of light. I am sure that the LED is going to improve in order to endorse global environmental beliefs, but most technologies, which production is costly, are doomed to poor utilization. To sum up the answer to this question: when creating a lighting design, always try to pick from what is available to you, sometimes it can be easier than you think.
Most of the big light shows, which I saw, hid their emptiness and creators of these shows just stirred up the air to make people think that something was happening. In my opinion, this is the problem with the most large light shows, and it could be the first step towards ecological thinking: let’s use only what we need for our concept and technical documentation immediately become thinner.
12) What do you think about the quality of new light sources (LED, electroluminescents, laser, video, etc.), will they determine the new aesthetics of lighting design?
As I noted in my previous answer: there will always be someone who wants to be more modern than you and will want to bring something new. Technology is a very interesting area of interest. You have to be careful that you don’t use it only technically, but try to understand how and when to use it so it would serves you during the performance to create poetry, humanity and beauty. To create an authentic aesthetic experience. In practice, you can loose a lot of time with a sophisticated technology and discover that it just says, “Hi, I’m laser.” Or ” Hi, hi! I’m the new video projector. “
Sometimes I use new technology in my work, but I find out that something is wrong in their basic concept. New technologies are presented as intelligent machines for that the most people use them to do what they are programmed to as such: for special effects or projections. And nothing more.
Video projections are currently very fashionable. This is a great tool, but very few people know how it can be used in art to create a real aesthetic experience. When you start to use these machines for a special purpose, you have to realize that it will cost you a lot of time and effort before you achieve what you want. Once again, it’s not a question of technology, but the way one works with them.
13) There is only few lighting designers and technicians in the Czech Republic, who have studied this subject, and if so then abroad, because there is no such a field of study here. Their route to the theater was complicated. You’ve graduated from school that was focused on lighting design. Which was your way to the theater?
I guess I was lucky. My girlfriend wanted to be an actress, so it seemed natural to me that I would do the lights during her talent exams. Without any knowledge of theater lighting, I passed the talent exams at the theater school in Brussels. Not only that I was accepted to my surprise, but they opened first year of the field of lighting design in the same year.
Only after I left school I realized that I actually don’t know anything about the real world of theater, which was of course far away from the position of a successful young man in school. My first light design was really stupid. It looked as if I didn’t respect at all that something was happening on stage, that there were some actors, costumes, etc.. I became a technician in a real theater, I learned from others, I opened my eyes and mind, I learned a lot during tours and one day I found that I was able to help and give advises to others during creation of a lighting design. I was ready.
14) Then you started to teach lighting design, and have created your own methodology. What are the main principles?
I have always thought that there are two main ways of learning: positive and negative. The positive means that you learn what you are being taught and what you get. The negative means that you learn from what you’re missing, from what haven’t been said to you or not explained, from what you have to try and find out (tours are a great school).
My phone rang late in the night two months ago. It was representatives of one dance group who organized a kind of showcase of new dance troupes, and wanted me to come, discuss and evaluate the work of dancers and choreographers. I told them that I wasn’t a choreographer, but they insisted that I would come, and even offered it to me for a fee. So I arrived, I was still a little worried about what intelligent things I might say to them and when I watched the first choreography I realized that they were facing the same problems as students of lighting design: they don’t see; they cannot articulate what they see; they start something and don’t develop it further; they don’t follow their thoughts and intuition; they don’t trust their movements; they don’t know how to name what they do; they have ideas, but do not know how to translate them onto the stage; they are not able to fully loose themselves in the creation, slipping to superficial interpretations.
To sum it all up in a few words: the learning method, which I have developed over the years, I recently started naming as “Active eye” and it is based on the art of watching, naming and creating your own language of production. I always start the class with an exercise for the acquisition of visual perception and for the development of the ability to express what we perceive visually. In explaining the theory of lighting design, I’m very careful, because it is a complex of theories of optics, physics, imagination, and the like. I always try to add a bit of theory to practical exercises so the theory and practice would be showed together. Students learn the theory through their own perception on the stage, through practical interaction and use of materials. It is important that everything is happening before their eyes. Then we stop, we discuss the theory and then repeat the exercise again.
15) And which kind of self-education in the field of lighting design would you recommend?
Self-education is an everyday activity. Go out, forget yourself, breathe deeply and images will come to you from the outside world and later you find that you naturally begin to develop new associations with shapes and colors. Watch movies, browse the books, comics, watch the sky and then name what you have seen and felt. Sit to the Internet and search for other materials and inspiration. And then try to follow the idea.
16) You use reflective surfaces in many productions. Have you been somehow influenced and inspired by the collaboration with Josef Svoboda?
No, the main inspiration for the use of reflective surfaces was my childhood. My father was a craftsman working with glass and mirrors. To get to my room in the night, I had to go through his workshop, which was full of mirrors. Under the full moon, it was a magical experience, daydreaming. I love the reflected light – this “filtering” relieves us from direct impact of the resource. It’s rather a more cinematic way of working.
17) Who was Svoboda as a person and what kind of a set designer he was?
I had the rare opportunity to work with Svoboda on several productions in Belgium and I must say that I always appreciated his idiosyncratic production full of crazy visual technologies. His world was full of special rules and logic (even Czech beer had to be hidden by the technicians in boxes). Sometimes I wonder what he would have been able to do with modern video technology.
When you become famous and have a lot of projects, it may happen that you are doing too much and somehow you start recycling good ideas or simply getting into the stage where you do not have time to transform intuitive ideas into some form of the project. Later on, I became more interested in the light and his style alienated me, but I was young, and maybe I wanted to define.
18) What you are working on now and what do you want to pursue in the near future?
Currently, I have two main lines of work: the first is the theater, I prepare a performance about the birth of things. It is dedicated to very young children. During the show, we ask simple basic questions: what was the first light, how it got to the earth, why there is darkness and how we fight against the darkness. Small children are great, because they believe in the magic of the theater, while it is difficult for an adult spectator. The second direction of my work is currently focused on opera, I am dedicated to the design for two works by Hindemith: opera Sancta Susanna and ballet Nobillissima Visione, in collaboration with conductor Ricardo Muti. Both works are very demanding for me, because they require a very classic design. Then there comes the trilogy by Verdi: La Traviata, Trovatore and Rigoletto. A crazy project, which is a response to the current crisis of Italian opera: one opera that is performed every day. One space and three different lightings!
19) In April, you were at the festival Prague Czech Dance Platform, as a chairman of the jury in the category for the Best Lighting Design. What do you think about the awards for lighting design? Can be the lighting design evaluated in the context of contemporary dance theater? It is possible to objectively evaluate a lighting design in this area?
I live in a country where no such prize is awarded. Only just five years ago, they decided to make a special award for lighting design and instead of giving it to a Italian lighting designer, I got it. Funny is that I got an award for a performance in which I almost did not use any lighting, but I built a scene – something like a bunker, in which in the stage and the audience were hidden in order to reach the right darkness that I needed for the performance (it was all about the dark ). Actors use flashlights in it!
After I got the price, two companies contacted me just because I was awarded. They were the worst two production on which I’ve ever worked. What I mean is that when you receive an award, it doesn’t mean that you have achieved an objective or you did anything special. Rather, it means that you have to start again from the beginning to stay alive!
I think that the lighting design is still a very underappreciated professions, while in my opinion, the stage design is a profession, for example, that is on the contrary overrated and awarding prizes could be beneficial in this regard for the lighting design community. Light creates the world and can really help the performance. Especially in the time, when such an emphasis is paid on visual aspects. Lighting is very helpful to the dramaturgy of a performance. Creating images with the help of light allows you to make denser all the elements of a performance without using words.
But back to the evaluation. It’s a hard task and is even harder to be objective, but I think it’s possible. Simply because a lighting design is a language that has its own grammar and vocabulary, its own means of expressing the concept of aesthetics and ideas, dumb language, which is able to describe and finish the narration of atmosphere, feelings, moods or architecture.
20) You led a workshop in Prague for the third time, so you have some experience with Czech students. What are Czech students in comparison with, for example, Italian students?
This is a complicated question. When I came to teach in Italy, I found that many courses are organized by an association that was just about to get national or regional financial support, not an actual teaching program. So I found myself in front of unmotivated students who did not want to learn anything and were not ready to work. The best group I ever led in Italy, a group of Romanies from the outskirts of Naples, which is known as one of the largest drug markets. Those people could not write, but in two weeks, they were able to prepare such a good technical structure and accomplish the theater like no other. However, after they had the opportunity to show themselves off once, they disappeared. Prague students are much better prepared in comparison with the Italian ones. Both groups of students in Prague were different.
The group of students, which I led in Prague last year, had definitely wider cultural horizons than the group I led here three years ago and that created on obstacles during some exercises at the same time. But it was a very good group. I’m sure that they learned something at the workshop and left with a head full of images. I’ve had it like that.
21) How does such a workshop takes place under your leadership?
It depends on the group, the number of participants, their level of knowledge. I always “test ” them in the first hours to see what the knowledge level the participants of the workshop have. Then we deal with the relationship between space and light, adopting the ability to learn by observation – we practice concentration on any kind of information that comes to a light designer from the stage: silence, words, music and the like. It’s amazing how much you can build from scratch, I think that the whole ability of imagination is about this. Through these processes, we get to know the main aspects of lighting design language, we discuss four main qualities of light (direction, intensity, color, dynamics) plus one extra – contrast. The strange thing is that when we talk about the paintings, we’re talking about something intangible, but sometimes when we create them, they become tangible, solid and truly material.