Lockdown interview – The lighting designer: Jack Wills

This will be an occasional series of interviews with theatre professionals across a variety of roles.

First, I chatted with Jack Wills, a lighting designer who has worked on productions at York Theatre Royal Studio, King’s Head Theatre, Above the Stag, the Edinburgh Fringe and Theatre Peckham. He graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama in summer 2018.

Find out more about his work at his Association of Lighting Designers page.

Jack Wills, lighting designer

How are you coping during the lockdown?

I am coping ok, am very glad my family are currently all in good health and that my mum is able to carry on working for the time being.

With my dad and brother both self-employed it is also nice to spend more time with them around the house. I bring my grandparents food & newspapers every few days but otherwise am taking the chance to stay at home and embrace relaxing for as long as I can.

I am filling time by exploring my new found interest in remote control models (cars, boats, planes) and have got various small electric motors and controllers to play around with.

Although I am very keen to have a project to think about!

Tell me a bit about your role as a lighting designer. How did you get into it, and how would you describe it to others?

I got into Lighting Design during my time at school. My friend dragged me into the school theatre (which I thought was another sports hall) and introduced me to lots of friendly faces.

I started in the cafe just selling soft drinks to the audiences and after a few weeks I lept at the opportunity to “go and flash some lights” for the band that evening.

Over the years it got more skilled and I was able to have my own rig and colour/focus it the way I felt worked. Coming up to my GCSEs I was told I could do this as a BTEC, then I went onto my BA Hons at Guildhall and am now a freelancer.

My role as a LD begins at the start of rehearsals, me and the team are shown a beautiful model box by the Set Designer. I listen to their ideas, study the text and begin to plan a visual image that the lighting will create.

I then follow the collaboration through to the end and keep an eye on changes such as location, time, mood and setting. I also like to ask if anyone has anything specific they wanted to see e.g. light up bits of scenery or small light fittings in props to help add that extra bit of detail. 

How would I describe it to others? The work of a LD is to complement the set design, illuminate the acting area to the audience, but also show the audience a change of location, mood, time and feeling as the action progresses.

What has been your favourite project to work on?

I think my first design as a visiting LD at ALRA Drama school was my favourite project with me as LD. The small team put in such a huge effort to create a beautifully detailed set, the directors and I were on the same page throughout the process and the studying actors were so interested in the process.

The play was Days of Significance which follows a group of young adults in 2008 – the boys are sent off to fight in the Iraq war and have some very bad experiences. They come back changed which they inflict on their social lives when all but one of them gets home from the war zone.

I felt the acting and the directing was really something unique, with text that really brought me into connecting with characters and story, with a lovely set design and people to work with too. 

Secondly my favourite project has to be Spy Plays at Above The Stag Theatre because of their warm welcome, flexible setup and collaborative approach from everyone, I was fortunate enough to watch it again by chance the night before they shut all the theatres because of Covid-19. 

Spy Plays, Jack Wills as lighting designer. Image credit PBG Studios.
Spy Plays, Jack Wills as lighting designer. Image credit PBG Studios.

What has been your greatest achievement?

For six weeks I was the Assistant Lighting Designer at Theatre By The Lake in Keswick. I tied it in with my Guildhall work placement in third year and went to visit for the final two weeks even though I wasn’t required to.

I then took all three main house shows to York Theatre Royal and re-lit them (made the lighting look the same in a different theatre) with the help and guidance of Tom Mulliner.

I felt this was a great achievement: to learn and document three shows’ Lighting Design, then have months off on other projects in between, arrive in York and help it all look the same again in a very short time frame.

What do you think will happen to the theatre space after this pause in physical production?

I hope that all the creative people, writers especially, would have taken the chance to create some detailed and revised new work. I think the need to get theatre back to how it was will help drive up productions and audience members coming to support.

With summer just around the corner I don’t imagine theatre being back to normal until at least September. For me personally I have so far lost a total of 28 days worth of dance/drama production bookings in my local area & outer London.

I hope these productions will go ahead in the future and what I hope to see is all the young people from those companies being eager to put on their shows and get bigger audiences in to help catch up on all their progress and the shows that were missed.

The theatre industry seems saturated with new companies, ideas, performance models, collaborations, and innovation. Is there enough time, space, talent and funding to support the direction of travel or do you think a complete rethink is due?

I believe there is, although more funding is always welcome. But when things are going again this year I think people will struggle to find a stage for their creative output.

Cancelling the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2020 will have an impact: it is such a great platform for new companies, talent and performance models to be showcased to huge amounts of people in a short amount of time. 

Do you have a theatre show where you have particularly admired someone else’s lighting design?

Yes, Saturday Sunday Monday at Guildhall School with Jo Town as visiting Lighting Designer. I loved her use of different colour tones to show different times of day. My favourite moment of her design was when the morning sun transition came through the stage left windows and streamed across the 30ft wide set.

She beautifully showed the sun rising slowly through the windows, changing colours and angle at the same time. A very simple effect but with no action on stage at the time it felt like the whole audience really got a feeling of “this is the next morning” without any actors or cheesy sound effects to show the change of time. A really great example of lighting setting the scene.

Looking forward to when this is all over, what’s the next project on your agenda?

I have to admit that currently I don’t know, I am still fairly new to the design ladder and am still working on a 1-2 month booking at the most. Although this whole year was looking promising for me as a LD starting with atl east one project pencilled in nearly every month but I know most of them are cancelled/will not have the planning time needed so may be scaled down. 

Regarding next projects I am hoping to work on a more last minute basis because one mistake I have made in the past is saying yes to small projects/1 day in the middle of the week bookings as a technician, only to be offered a full on lighting design role nearer the time.

Sometimes I can find cover for the small projects or one off bookings but other times I feel like my planning too far ahead has sometimes backfired on those last-minute opportunities that come up along the way.