20 Questions With...Rick Fisher
Date: 27 February 2006
Billy Elliot’s award-winning lighting designer Rick Fisher – whose new productions of Resurrection Blues & Peter & the Wolf both open in March – values teamwork, comic strips & minimalism but is driven mad by drama critics.
Having lived in London for the past 30 years, American Rick Fisher has built a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the stage’s leading lighting designers with numerous awards and nominations to his name.
In this week’s 30th annual Laurence Olivier Awards, Fisher was one of nine nominations for Billy Elliot. While he didn’t win this year, he’s previously bagged Best Lighting Designer Oliviers for Hysteria, Machinal and Moonlight in 1994 and for Chips with Everthing and Lady in the Dark in 1998.
In addition to Billy Elliot, his most recent London productions include Tintin at the Barbican, The Philanthropist and Old Times at the Donmar Warehouse and Jerry Springer - the Opera at the National and in the West End.
Amongst Fisher’s many other London theatre credits are: in the West End, A Woman of No Importance; at the Royal Court, A Number, Via Dolorosa and Hysteria; at the Donmar Warehouse, Lobby Hero and A Boston Marriage; and at the National, Blue/Orange, Honour, Lady in the Dark and Chips with Everything.
For the widely exported National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls, one of his earlier collaborations with director Stephen Daldry, Fisher was nominated for an Olivier and won both Tony and Drama Desk Awards in New York, and the Ovation and Drama Critics’ Circle Awards in Los Angeles. He has also lit the production for tours of the UK, America, Australia, and in Tokyo.
Fisher’s recent opera work includes La Sonnambula in Santa Fe, Fiery Angel in Moscow, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Venice, Intermezzo and Madame Mao for Santa Fe Opera, The Little Prince for Houston Grand Opera, Wozzeck for the Royal Opera House, Turandot in Moscow and St Petersburg, Flying Dutchman, Gloriana and La Boheme for Opera North, and Orfeo for English National Opera. Dance productions include the award-winning all-male Swan Lake in London, Los Angeles and Broadway, and Cinderella in London and Los Angeles, both for director-choreographer Matthew Bourne.
In March, Fisher is lighting two new productions: Robert Altman’s UK premiere production of Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues at the Old Vic, and a new interpretation of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at Hackney Empire.
Fisher is also chairman of the British Association of Lighting Designers.
Date & place of birth
19 October 1954 unfortunately - I’d change the year if I could! I was born just outside Philadelphia in the Unites States.
Lives now in
Right in the middle of Theatreland in Covent Garden. I’ve been living in London for 30 years now.
What made you first decide to get involved with theatre?
I fell in love with musicals when I was a kid. My mother took me to see children’s shows and then touring shows in the States - I thought it was a glamorous thing to see and do and be part of. I was initially attracted to acting but soon realised, when I started throwing myself at theatres saying “give me a job”, that my personality was better suited to backstage involvement. I like the fact that backstage we’re all pulling together for a show and seem to have the opportunity of working more often and we’re not judged so much for our appearance as actors.
I have a BA in theatre arts from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and I did some technical work but mostly learned on the job. I was originally planning to be a stage manager. Lighting was a bit of a surprise! Being a lighting designer is certainly a lot more artistic than scientific. I don’t know how a lot of things work - I can’t fix things or programme a lighting desk - but I work with the director and stage manager to design the look and feel of the lighting.
First big break
I was very lucky when I came to London in the late Seventies to get a position at Oval House Theatre Club as a resident stage manager putting up chairs and selling food and tickets as well as working on the show! I met a lot of people really committed to performance, and they took me on as a colleague and collaborator then as a lighting designer on some fringe shows that led to some projects at the Royal Court.
Career highlights to date
That’s hard to say other than list some of my favourite productions… which comes later in the questions! I’ve been lucky enough to work on lots of very popular shows, and some, like An Inspector Calls and Swan Lake which are both still touring - An Inspector Calls after nearly 14 years and Swan Lake is celebrating its tenth anniversary - have been great to be part of. Also, things like Machinal at the National that only had a very short life and some of the operas I’ve done have been really wow!
What do awards mean to you?
I’ve been very lucky to win two Oliviers, a Tony and numerous other awards - I never dreamed it would be possible. Awards really only help you to be taken more seriously by producers. Each project is such a collaboration it’s hard to single out one design discipline. But they do let producers know that maybe you know what you’re doing. It’s a shame awards are not celebrated quite so much here, though. In America, if you win an award, it’s like, “wow you’re the best in the whole world!”, whereas in Britain, it’s like maybe you stuck your head a bit too far over the parapet. The Oliviers don’t have that much commercial impact; if a show wins a Tony Award, that’s everywhere, on all the posters and in all the publicity. It’s particularly difficult to have awards for lighting because it is such a collaboration. If the set looks bad, nobody’s going to like the lighting, and to some extent vice versa. I think there should be awards for design teams as a whole rather than one aspect of the design. I’m thrilled, though, to have been nominated for an Olivier for Billy Elliot.
If you hadn’t become involved with theatre, what might you have done professionally?
Originally, I thought I was going to head towards politics and the diplomatic service. Theatre looked glamorous and interesting. As a young teenager, I never dreamed I’d make it work - but here I am!
Billy Elliot is becoming quite a favourite, but it was very hard to put it on. Young performers who have very tight guidelines of when they can work make it hard to fit in all the rehearsals. But it’s thrilling when audiences have such a good time and you just feel elated watching it. I try and keep in touch with the shows I’ve worked on. I’ll watch Billy and stand at the back about once every other month. Shows are living, breathing organisms and they change; if there’s some new blocking and all of a sudden someone’s stepped out of the lighting, it therefore has to change. It shouldn’t be frozen, particularly with Billy because the different teams of performers all have slightly different ways of working so we try to let the resident people make modifications as and when necessary. There are also some operas that I have been very proud of such as Wozzeck and Peter Grimes in Santa Fe. And L’etoile and Gloriana for Opera North.
There are so many to choose from, but I’ve particularly enjoyed working with, among many: Eileen Atkins, Kenneth Cranham, Josephine Barstow, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw. They always are interesting, sensitive and very real on stage. They are people I would go see read the telephone directory.
Again, lots. There are some directors I don’t even need to ask what show they’re doing - if they ask me to work with them, I say yes. Stephen Daldry, Phyllida Lloyd, Roger Michell and Francesca Zambello among many. They encourage you to do more and make the whole piece better, and they also understand what lighting can add to the storytelling.
What other lighting designers do you admire?
The great thing about lighting designers is that we are all very collegial. We do not feel competitive with each other, we enjoy each other’s company. I have been chairman of the Association of Lighting Designers for many years, which gives me an opportunity to help the profession as a whole be properly recognised for the contribution we make to performances.
What was the first thing you saw on stage that made a big impact on you? And the last?
The first was Hello Dolly on Broadway when I was a teenager. I was attracted by the precision and joy of the show and the amazing Pearl Bailey who made you feel that she was doing it just for you, even though I was in the next to last row in the gods! More recently, I have really enjoyed plays like Mary Stuart, The History Boys and The Wild Duck, as well as performance pieces like Robert Lepage’s The Andersen Project at the Barbican. I try not to notice the lighting too much - of course you do, but I try not to. I get so excited abut theatre, I think, “gosh, it would be really nice to work in it”, and then it’s like, “hey, I do work in the theatre!”
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
If they supported this industry nearly as much as much less successful industries, we would really be flying. Britain is a great exporter of culture, and this should be celebrated and recognised instead of the grudging attitude of making the arts feel grateful for any assistance because we are “non-essential". People in other parts of the world generally don’t want British cars or whatever; they want British shows because that’s what the tourists come here for. The government doesn’t seem to realise what a great industry theatre is here.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Fred Astaire. But I wouldn’t settle for a day, I’d want to be him for much longer than that! I look at those films and think he was so skilful and graceful and I really admire that.
Favourite holiday destinations
If I had to be confined to one country for the rest of my life, I think it would have to be Italy. The mix of beauty, culture, joie de vivre… People really know how to live in Italy - wine, music, opera, so much is great there. I’ve been lucky enough to work in Tuscany quite a bit doing some outdoor operas, and it is wonderful.
Of course Whatsonstage.com! Actually do very little on the web. But do enjoy getting Doonesbury every day in my email. I recently discovered a website called mycomics.com that sends you comic strips for free.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
In terms of lighting, “less is more”. The fewer sources of light, the cleaner and sharper it will appear; it’s all about contrast and clarity. For life in general, the best advice is not to take it too seriously. I’m lucky I love what I do so that helps. Although sometimes critics make me so angry, they’re so stupid. They write about themselves, they don’t write about what they’re seeing. They often tend to write about their expectations of what they’re seeing rather than what it is. It’s hard not to let them affect you because of the power of print. The bad ones stick, the good ones you forget, and that’s unfortunate.
What made you want to take on the job for Peter and the Wolf & Resurrection Blues?
With Peter and the Wolf, I know the director, Douglas Fitch, from an opera he did in Santa Fe when I was dong a production there and thought he was interesting. Peter and the Wolf is a little bit of a leap in the dark - because it’s not a play or a musical, really - and that should be interesting. It has some new music that’s never been heard before, and Hackney Empire’s a great theatre. With Resurrection Blues, the chance of working with a great film director like Robert Altman was impossible to resist. And also the fact that it’s Arthur Miller’s last play receiving its European premiere made me really want to do it. When I read the script, I realised there’s a role for lighting in this play which is quite special - without giving too much away. There’s not a person in the world who wouldn’t want this job. I’m very flattered to have been asked to do it.
What is the maximum number of shows you’ve worked on at a time?
You can only really work on one thing full time, but often I’m in the theatre in one show and having meetings about another one that’s coming up. I think at one time I had four running around the world that I had worked on. But once a show is up and running, it doesn’t need much if any attention. I leave it on opening night. Up until then, for plays it is two weeks and operas three weeks, working from 9.00am til 10.00 or 11.00pm - long days! Six days a week teching. And then you move onto the next intensive technical period in the next show. It can be a bit stressful. It’s either full on or full stop - those are my two speeds! Lighting designers are the last to be directly involved. We only really come into it when everything else it all done - the casting, the plotting on stage, the set – then we add in the lights.
Do you prefer working on plays, musicals, operas or ballets?
I love doing all of them. I love the fact I’m not pigeon-holed too much. I think my heart is in plays first, but I love the fact that I can move between the different forms. They stretch you in different ways and give you more challenges. What I like most is being able to help tell a great story!
What are plans for the future?
I am lighting an opera at Glyndebourne this summer which I am looking forward to. And I have just been asked to light The Soldier’s Fortune, a Restoration comedy that will be the first new production in the Young Vic this autumn.
- Rick Fisher was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Resurrection Blues opens at the Old Vic on 2 March (previews from 14 February) and runs to 22 April 2006. Peter and the Wolf is at the Hackney Empire from 30 march (previews from 28 March) to 16 April 2006.