In this excerpt of a longer interview in the play program, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper, one of the country’s most celebrated designers, explains his artistic process, the challenges of abstraction in theatrical design, and why the lighting of STC's production of Cat will be, “like nothing Tennessee Williams would have ever seen on stage”.
What were you looking for in your first reading of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
I try to be neutral when reading a script for the first time. When I do look at them, on subsequent readings, it’s often a process of filtering. You don’t want to simply follow directions, but if you are going to depart from the page you need to be very clear about what you are departing from. You abstract at your own peril if you don’t truly understand and engage with the starting point. Someone like Tennessee Williams is incredibly – you could say descriptive, or you could say prescriptive – of things like light, and I don’t want to follow that slavishly. So it was less what I was looking for, in that first reading, and more what I was looking to avoid.
When you eventually gave them your attention, were Williams’ lighting directions very different to the ideas that came to you during your first ‘neutral’ read?
This is not about ignoring the playwright’s intentions, the idea is to honour them whilst fashioning them into a new production. Williams describes the room in slavish detail, right down to the furnishings, as well as describing the light in the room as it alters throughout the evening. What we’ve done is taken the idea of a room and removed the walls. As you reimagine that room, sans-walls, so you reimagine the light within that room at any given point in time, but always using, as a kind of touchstone, what the intention behind Williams’ stage direction was. This isn’t about throwing the directions out of the window, it’s a process of reimagining them in a very different context.
Can you describe how that context is different?
The lack of walls is the obvious one, but we’ve also been very slippery with the time in which we’ve set this production and everything that goes with that: social mores, modes of behaviour, the kind of language people use, particularly when they’re under pressure – all of those things get a little bit slippery, and that includes the light.
Light in theatre as a cultural conceit can be dated almost to the decade. Generally speaking, the way plays were lit in the sixties is significantly different to how they are lit now, and the way we light plays here in Australia is significantly different to how plays in America are usually lit. We are more European influenced; if you had to pin it down it’s predominately the influence of German theatre on a lot of Australian theatre-makers in the last few decades. In my case, you could say it’s my cultural roots. The way I light Cat is nothing like what Tennessee Williams would have ever even seen on a stage.
Can you give an example of a way in which you’ll be lighting this production that would have been alien to Tennessee Williams?
By his terms, and I stress by his terms, there will be an almost complete absence of colour in the light. For Cat he prescribes all the now slightly clichéd things about fading golden sunlight filtered through shutters or lace curtains falling across the space – there won’t be any of that! To take an American painter from that time, you could say it’s much more akin to Edward Hopper’s view of the Deep South, had he ever painted it, than it is of Williams’ more romanticised version of it.
There are some clear climactic moments in the script. How are you using light to help build momentum towards these moments?
We’ve taken what is a very straightforward stage direction about fireworks and translated that into a more theatrical light form. Tennessee Williams, in all of his specificity, has orchestrated a rising swell of fireworks in the background of a scene but, as per Tennessee, they are upstage, outside, seen only on the gallery. The purpose for which he inserted them is to build towards the climax of the second act.
In our version we translate the fireworks into a far more present, onstage event, initially flickering ephemerally, which could be evocative of the light from distant fireworks. This grows and grows to a climax that is much more of an assault on the senses than any kind of politely distanced fireworks seen through windows, could ever be. It’s a good case in point in illustrating the process of abstraction.
This article is an excerpt from a longer interview published in the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof program, which also features a director's note from Kip Williams, an essay on the troubled life of Tennessee Williams, photographs and sketches from the rehearsal room and plenty more.
Pick up a copy from the Roslyn Packer Theatre foyer for $12, or pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 29 Apr – 8 Jun 2018, Rosyln Packer Theatre
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