Tom Wright: A Career In Lighting
By Anna Robb
Tom Wright caught up with TheatreArtLife to discuss his new company, Additive Lighting located in Melbourne, Australia. Tom talks about what brought him to Oz and how he has carved his career path in the lighting design industry.
“One of the most beautiful things about lighting is that once it’s done it’s done, there’s no real way of recording it other than photographs”. – Tom Wright, Director of Additive and Lighting Designer.
You have just started a lighting company. Tell us about your venture?
I and three mates just launched Additive. We officially launched on Thursday, so that’s a week ago. It’s been on the books for the last year and we’ve already done a few projects under the name. We wanted to get a few things in order before we launched to the public, put the website up and all that sort of stuff. We have space in a warehouse down here in Kensington, Victoria. It’s called The Facility and it’s shared with a few other companies as well. The space is massive. It’s owned by a set building company who’ve built temporary offices and we’ve taken over a little corner of the place. We had a party here and set up a bar, brought in loads of photos, brought in lighting and sound and just partied until the day was done. It was really nice to have so many industry people who know each other together – we don’t have that many occasions where we all meet up outside of gigs. I’ve noticed one difference between here and London – I think in London everyone gets together a bit more often to connect socially.
Were you mostly freelancing until you started Additive?
Yes, I’ve been a freelancer for almost 20 years. I did do a year and a half for a company in Sydney when I first moved over to Australia. When you move country you need to re-establish yourself and you have a chance to realign what you want to do with your career. It’s a tricky balance between taking jobs you want to do to show off your skills and making sure the money is flowing in. I learnt some hard lessons during that period. Then I went back to freelance and moved to Melbourne where things have really taken off. Setting up this company has been more like an extension of being freelance for me because I’m still my own boss, we’re all still our own bosses.
We get to choose how the structure works, take on projects that excite us and manage our hours in a way that keeps us fresh but still challenged.
What took you from London to Australia?
I married an Australian! My career, therefore, had to take a drastic change and there was definitely a drop at first, five years ago. At first, I was really worried about coming over and I took any production electrician job that I could. I was wary though that it could take five years until I got back into the same position that I was in when I left the UK. So I said I wasn’t going to do crew work. I wasn’t going to start from the bottom again. You can tell people, this is what I do (LD, Programmer) and you get to self-promote yourself a bit for that purpose. Slowly, you’ll get recognized as doing that job.
It was still tough going but people knew me from day one as either an LD (lighting designer), as a programmer or someone who sat front-of-house rather than onstage.
That’s a good way to set the bar high, so you’re not working below it.
“Financially that meant that I took a hit for a while but a big difference I noted between Europe and Australia is that in Australia, being a jack of all trades is quite beneficial. I do a lot more eclectic jobs here than I ever did in the UK. In the UK I was slowly moving away from theatre and doing more commercial events and Rock and Roll. While here, I get to do all of it now. I kind of love that. If you have done multiple different jobs back in Europe you’re held to quite high esteem here in Australia.”
Your wife, does she work in the industry?
Yeah. We met doing several arts festivals and she’s done a lot of production work in the past but her work in Australia has been predominantly in large public events and managing commercial activations. She now works for Parks Victoria as an Events Officer. Most major events that come through one of the parks in Victoria, she’ll have played a part, dealing with all the permits and that kind of stuff. She’s gone from working on the production side to now being on the other side.
Was it a mutual decision for you guys to move back to Australia?
We always have lived in Australia. There were a good few years before we started dating full-time, that included many periods of travel with me always coming to Australia. But it was never really a decision between the UK or Australia. I’ve been coming here for so long (I did my first Adelaide Festival in 2002) that I had friends and contacts here already. For me, moving here and setting up shop was always going to be a lot easier than Liz moving to the UK and having to start fresh. I was also really worried that if she moved to the UK, she would have had to basically come to England and then not have me around very much. My career at the time was very much touring around Europe, working with bands. I was hardly ever actually in the UK or in London. It didn’t make any sense, so for me to come to Australia was the logical choice.
You studied stage management and technical theatre at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. What drew you into lighting particularly?
I remember as a kid in school – I went to an amazing school in Milton Keynes that had a fully functioning 500 seat theatre that accepted touring regional shows and small bands.
The school had three and a half thousand students – it was a campus that had a theatre that was used by the public. We used it just as much as the outside companies did. I remember working on a school production, sidling up to the guy who ran the theatre and he just took me under his wing. Through doing a few productions I learnt that I enjoyed the programming of lighting desks. I guess you always know whether you’re a visual or a hearing dude and lighting just always settled with me very well.
I love the physical aspects of lighting, the whole building of trusses and lights and all that kind of stuff. I never ever, ever thought I’d do it as a career, I was always going to be an architect. But a load of friends applied to be actors at National Youth Theatre in London and I went down for a day trip to London with them for their audition. There was a leaflet there saying do you want to come and become a stage manager or a technician at National Youth Theatre. I applied, there and then, and I was the only one who’d got in out of everyone. That was a bit of an awkward moment with all my mates.
But for me, it was always lighting. And I’ve played pretty much every role in that world. I never said I want to be a lighting designer, I never said I want to be a programmer. I’ve always said, I love lighting within the world of doing productions.
I don’t care what production it is really. I’m not selective of one genre over another, I just like doing it. Partly what we’ve also said with this company – we are not going to be defined by the jobs that we take, we are going to be defined by the fact that we’re doing lighting.
What is your lighting desk of choice?
grand MA – it’s become the daddy of all desks really. It can do everything and it’s the most expandable. For me, that’s important because I work on such a range of shows. I do these large conferences and corporate gigs where you’ve got desks and nodes dotted all over the place and you can network it so easily.
I think once you’re in that universe of a product, you tend to stick with it. I’ve tried other desks and I’ve got nothing against them. I think you’re either a good programmer or you’re not; you don’t say one desk is necessarily worse than the other.
You said you don’t really have a preference about what kind of lighting work you take but do you have a favourite?
I guess the biggest thing that draws me to any show is creating it from new. One of the most beautiful things about lighting is that once it’s done it’s done, there’s no real way of recording it other than photographs.
Though I’ve done a lot of theatre and a lot of musicals, I love setting them up – I hate touring. I’m not an operator, I’m not a tourer. I hate repetition. I get bored very easily. To me, if a show is new, that will interest me more than a show that’s already been up and running.
I do love rock and roll for its immediate response and because – although lighting obviously plays a massive part in all of those jobs – rock and roll’s the only place where it can almost stand on its own. The lighting can be just as equal as anything else that’s on stage. Especially with the up-rise of electronic music where what you’re actually looking at is one dude behind a desk. You can’t deny that lighting and video visually are what the show is all about. I love it when lighting takes almost a front role… you get to show off a little bit.
With your new company, how are you getting work? From reputation and recommendation?
Both I would say. All three of us have been in the industry for 20 years. I believe we’re all well respected and a lot of people have said that it’s kind of amazing that all three of us are now in the same room together. I hope that that builds a certain amount of trust, and through that trust, we get recommended. We’ve also each brought our own projects to this company and in that respect, we can improve all of those shows by just being able to bounce things around the office.
Is there a push to brand yourself as a group for marketing purposes? What is your plan?
Yes, we are. There are a couple of industry magazines here that I’ve got a bit of contact with from projects that I’ve done in the past. We’ll put out press releases every time we do a project. It’s always beneficial to everyone that when you put out a release, you mention the kit you worked with and you mention the companies that helped you along the way. You hope that through that spread of being associated, both with companies and manufacturers, that your own brand gets pushed out there a little bit further. We’ve just done this thing up on the Gold Coast called The Spiral which was this big installation for a shopping centre on the Gold Coast. The press release very much promoted the people who built it, promoted the equipment manufacturers, and it promoted us as a team of designers as well as installers. So all those individual people and companies have pushed that press release themselves in their own circles. You hope that through word of mouth your company becomes more recognizable.
We noticed on your resume that you received a stage combat diploma. Tell us more!
Rodney, one of the head directors of LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) – was a very well respected stage combat teacher. He would teach people how to do fighting sword scenes. As part of the LAMDA program, there were always a couple of weeks where stage management would go and do some of the courses that the actors would do and the actors would do the opposite. We trained with Rodney because as a stage manager you are expected to run fight rehearsals on shows. Even if it’s a small show, it’s your job to put that in the schedule and manage it. So, we always got taught a little bit about what was right and wrong. You had the chance at the end of that period to continue and do your stage combat level 1 diploma. I and this other guy in the course really enjoyed this so we did it. At LAMDA the night after the examinations there was a fight show and everyone who’d passed got to have their piece as part of the show. We were the first ever stage management couple to perform their piece in the fight show. No one in the college knew that we were going to do it and I will always remember that moment when we walked out. The audience went silent and then cheered like crazy. We may have been dreadful, we may have made absolute tits of ourselves, but I’m very chuffed with that and I’ve put it on my CV ever since.
In the industry, people tend to get first aid qualifications. Have you been certified and ever had to practically use your skills in the workplace?
I did a lot more of this in the UK. In fact, we were just discussing this morning that all of our first aid qualifications are out of date right now. I always push for it. I think it’s something that’s got nothing to do with our industry really but in life, people hurt themselves. One of our directors has a small boy and he’s talked about how first aid should always be part of what we do because it’s our job to look after each other regardless of where you’re working. I always feel that it’s important to do it.
Have I used it? There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to in situations where you see someone hit their head. I do remember a guy crushing his finger once. I think a lot of what you learn helps you in that kind of scenario, to be calm and go through the steps to get an injured person into the hands of the professionals.
You may not be able to do much good but if you can just talk to the person, help them to breathe properly, that can sometimes be just as important.
In Edinburgh, I remember an actor breaking his leg on stage and no one knew whether it was part of the show or not! I remember running down to deal with that and saying to myself – this is just going to be one of those moments where there is not much I can do other than just keep this person comfortable and calm.
What was the last show/event/concert you saw that wasn’t associated with your job? What did you think of it?
I had a run of several great shows just before Christmas actually. I went to see Coldplay and Keith Urban. I’d worked with Keith Urban doing the Grand Final (rugby league) over here so I went to see his show as a guest of the lighting director and was just blown away. It was an amazing show – not necessarily my genre of music but it was nice to see a really detailed and well programmed, appropriate lighting show. Next night I went to see Coldplay and it was a great performance. I think the sound was the most expensive sound system in the whole of Australia’s history and was beautiful for it, stunning. I knew the sound guy who took the design and made it work on the tour. He said that he’s worked with the band for years and because Chris Martin has been doing stadium-sized tours, almost exclusively for a decade, he’s become a master of that field. He is able to hold everyone’s attention so intently. I’d never seen them before so it was one of those moments when I said “I’m going to be a geek and I’m going to watch this show” – and it was amazing.
Can you watch a show without looking at lighting?
No. No, it’s impossible. I think by working in this industry I’ve ruined ever going to the theatre again really. I do appreciate when a show is good, I’m glad that I’ve still got the skill set, but I can’t sit in an audience and concentrate 100% on what’s in front of me. I’ll be looking up at the rig and looking at the audience. I’m always trying to figure out what’s going to happen next before it happens. I can’t help it.
Apart from the company that you have just opened, do you have anything else exciting lined up for 2017?
I’ve been lined up to do some more NRL (National Rugby League) events – I don’t know about the grand final – but I’ve been told I’m doing the State of Origin games for my second year. Now that I know how that runs, I’m excited about hopefully putting a bit more into it. We’ve got Asia TOPA at the Melbourne Art Centre which Ben (Ben Shaw of Additive) is designing and I’m going in as an associate programmer. Ben’s looking after the whole of the main venue so we’re getting quite excited about that.
I think seeing what projects we’re going to pull into the company, that’s what’s exciting now. I know there’s a couple of bands and international acts that are lining up – I can’t talk about those yet, but that will be interesting.
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