Ever wondered how Marlon Brando’s face was dimmed just at the right moments in scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Godfather’? Or how Horatio Caine always manages to find a crime scene in the dark hours of the night in the sunny state of Florida in ‘CSI: Miami’?
Barry Conway, the new Technical Director of The Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, Ireland’s latest stage management and technical theatre school, has taken up this new position to tell you exactly how.
Based on the grounds of Trinity College, The Lir is opening its doors to students interested in all things stage and theatre related. Industry professionals will teach eager students everything from stage lighting, to costume management, to acting for the stage and screen.
Conway discusses his career as a lighting technician on some of Ireland’s most prestigious theatre productions, his tips for making it in the business, the different challenges faced when working on TV and film productions and just what he expects from his new position as Technical Director of The Lir.
Barry, what exactly does a Technical Director do?
As Technical Director for The Lir, I will be responsible for scheduling and looking after the technical side of The Lir Academy, which is a stage management and technical theatre course. I'll be teaching a certain amount of courses myself and I will also be running the venue when it functions as a venue with the technical staff I have with me.
Is Theatre Technician a module within a course or a course within itself?
It's both, stage management is the key focus of the course to train stage managers but across that it has a full range of technical theatre, from lights, to sound, to props, to costume and wardrobe and all of the other areas that are involved.
Will students at The Lir be putting on their own productions?
Yeah, the idea of the course is that it runs regular in-house productions that the acting students act in, and the technical students will be looking after the technical side, with industry professionals like directors and designers overseeing it.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I started out in UCD in the Drama Society called Dram Soc, and when I joined on fresher's week, I just kind of got very involved in the society. I did a bit of acting and then I got involved in the tech side. In my first year I ended up becoming technical manager, and kind of stayed with it for a couple of years. It didn't make me into the archaeologist that I was hoping to be by any means, but after that I got a lucky break as a guy I'd been working with on a show told me that this new Fringe Festival was looking for volunteers. So I volunteered with the first Dublin Fringe Festival, and my career developed a lot with them. I stayed involved in theatre for a couple of years, I worked in venue tech, got more into lighting, and ended up finding a full-time job with Arena Lighting after two or three years at the Fringe Festival. I've never really looked back since.
Were you required to study the craft of lighting or cinematography?
>I learned it on the huff, I learned it by the designers I was working for and the technicians I was working with. So I pretty much learned from everybody that was around me and I learned by watching what was going on around me.
What kind of productions did you supply when you worked with Arena?
I was working in their requiem department so we were supplying everything from ‘Eurovision’, when it was in Ireland. We supplied similar stuff for some of the bigger conferences going on, and some of the music in The Point, and then a lot of the theatre festival stuff, which is where I suddenly got this access to a whole world of lighting and it really opened my eyes to how big the world of lighting was. Then I started going over to the trade shows in London and I was just realising that I was part of a huge world that was kind of worldwide, and the after that I went and joined a new company called the Electric Light Company and I stayed there for about three years doing rentals. After that I went back to freelancing, mainly in theatre but also in corporate.
In your role as a lighting technician, do you have some say in how a scene should be played out? Are you required to read the script, sit in on rehearsals to see which direction an actor is taking the scene?
It depends which role you play. When you're a lighting designer you very much have a say in that, when you're working on technical you might be more involved in the practical setting it up. The lighting designer certainly would have say in terms of reading the script and being at rehearsals, but every hint of how a light looks on stage all the time is down to a lighting designer's plans and how they work with the director in terms of making the whole thing come to light.
Have you ever used non-traditional methods to create light? You hear of people using tinfoil, other paper-based material, even glass, to create artificial light?
I have, when I was working with Rupert Murray, (the lighting designer for Riverdance). Due to the lack of budget and space, he used little bits of tinfoil folded up hanging off catgut to create stars at night. The effect was amazing and it cost about €4!
Do you have any techniques that you use yourself?
For some of the some I've worked on, we use fluorescent tubes, a lot of the stuff I use now tends to be newer technology, like LED lights and a lot of moving head lights.
How does working on stage compare to working for the camera?
I find it's a very different work day when you do film lighting and when you do theatre lighting, because theatre lighting is all in the build up to the show, you put it in before the actors get there, and then you have the whole period where you focus it and you programme it and then once the actual show is up and running, there's very little that you can do. It's done, and apart from the odd tweak here and there, you walk away from it. Whereas when you're working on film or TV, you'll take a shoot, if there's a change that needs to happen it happens right then and there, and you re-shoot it again or move onto the next thing, so they're two very different styles of working to achieve the same thing.
Is there less pressure when you're working on stage as you only have to take into account the audience in front of you, whereas with camera work you have to consider all the additional eyes that are going to see it?
I think they're both the same in terms of pressure, but for very different reasons. When it's theatre the lighting used is much more finessed, because you're doing something for the human eye which is a thousand times more powerful than the best camera you could ever hope to buy. So you're putting very subtle things, very minute differences, whereas when you're lighting things for the camera, you have to be much more broad and general in the kind of lighting that you use, and you don't get down into such specific detail which you can when you're doing a theatre show.
How did you move from working on shows to lecturing?
The lecturing side came much more from the jobs I was doing, where I was training staff on the go. I had done some talks, different societies had asked me in over the years to do some kind of talks and workshops on lighting. I started to have to run training courses because some of the work I've been doing for the past eight years working in audiovisual required me to train staff as they came through, so I was training AV technicians into using lighting and that's kind of how I got into it.
Do you think it's a profession that can be learned or do you think you need a certain amount of creativity?
I think you need to have an interest for it, I don't think you need to decide you're naturally creative, because a lot of lighting is about problem-solving and logistics and cabling electrics. I think it appeals to creative people but it appeals to pragmatic people as well, and some of the best technical people I know are very much realists and pragmatic people, you don't necessarily need to be fully creative to be a big part of a lighting team.
What are the main things you want students to take away from your lectures?
We want students coming out of the course to have a really good grounding in a really broad range of subjects, so that whatever they decide to do when they leave the course and they go on in their careers, they'll be geared to do a huge range of things. They'll be very much trained in stage management, but if they want to specialise in other areas they can because they’ll have a good grounding across the whole theatre technical industry.
Is The Lir the first place to offer all this in one place?
I think The Lir is the first place to run it so attentively. It runs a very much a full-time course and it's got a brand new custom high-tech building which is what I think separates The Lir out as a place to go. The course itself is a Level 8 which I'm not sure if that's available anywhere else in Ireland.
What kind of equipment will you use on the course?
We have a fully kitted out workshop with everything from metal work to wood work tools. We've a costumes and wardrobe area, we've a full stage space that has an AV system, a full lighting system, and a full sound system, all of which are have been looked at by some people in RADA and are as up-to-date as you can get. There's also a smaller dance space, and inside the main space we have motorised systems so students will get a real flavour of all different types of theatres that they may end up working in, and that's all contained in The Lir building.
Have you ever had any live light disasters?
I've certainly had a couple of hair-raising moments. One of my favourites being a huge show for the Dance Theatre Festival in which we were having problems with the venue equipment. We were really under a lot of pressure to get going and in the middle of the first show the stage manager said 'stand by LX 15' and I said 'standing by', and he said '15 go' and I hit the button, and the stage went black.
I'm sitting in the middle of the audience, because that's were the lighting desk is, and I'm txting on my phone very subtly to the guys in the dimmer room, and I'm looking at the stage manager who's absolutely calm, he said 'stand by LX 15' I said 'standing by' and he said 'go' and I pressed it and all the lights came back, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. And the incoming lighting director who I'd been working with said 'we programmed a blackout during your lunch break did I forget to tell you?' And that's what happened, they programmed an entire blackout so the lights were supposed to be off!
Why do you think students looking to get a start in the industry should go to The Lir over any other training academy?
I think the one thing The Lir offers is a full-time hands-on course, which will probably be second to none. You're working in a venue, in a teaching environment; you're getting as much of a real-life experience as you possibly can while having teachers with you the whole time. So I think the level of learning that's available is really intense and really high, so when students come in they should be able to be really well prepared and really knowledgeable in the craft kind from a standing start. Plus they'll also have an introduction to some people who can give them work placements.
I think it will give them a really good head start and because it's such a broad course, it will give students the chance to figure out what it is they love. I found I loved lighting from a very early age, but I think a lot of people when they start out, and particularly when they're only coming out of school, may know they love a thing but they don't necessarily know which thing they love. The Lir will give them a chance to try a whole range across the theatre and find which thing it is that really suits them and they're most passionate about.
I'm very excited to be taking the job and I'm really looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a big challenge, I think it's going to be a lot of work, but I'm really really looking forward to getting down to The Lir and to getting to grips with it.
Barry Conway is taking up his new role in The Lir in July. The academy is fully booked for the 2012/2013 programme. Applications for 2013/2014 are available from www.thelir.ie . See
IFTN Diary for all upcoming training dates at The Lir, including acting courses and lessons in Shakespeare.