Bruno Poet is internationally recognised for his work designing lighting for theatre, opera, music and dance. He has worked on projects in the UK, Europe and the US.
Bruno has created some truly original and amazing lighting designs. We worked with him in providing 1,000s of classic filament light bulbs and other components for the production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London. Bruno kindly agreed to be interviewed for our blog via Skype while he was in Oslo. Despite his huge talent and reputation, he remains unfailingly modest and charming.
Bruno, thank you being interviewed today. We’re very interested in your career but can you tell us where it all began. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Wimbledon but grew up in Wolverhampton from the age of three. My father was an electrical engineer and a bit of a mad inventor, always carrying around lots of prototypes in his suitcase. He worked for Hornby trains at one point which was of course very exciting for me as a young boy. My mother was a swimming teacher. They’re still in Wolverhampton but hope to move to Cornwall very soon.
What were your passions as a child?
I loved playing outdoors, lego and making puppet shows and even liked to set up lighting rigs for mini-theatres. I’d often help out lighting school plays. I’m not comfortable on stage or performing but wanted to be involved somehow.
What were you like as a young man? Did you enjoy that time of your life? How did you get into theatre lighting?
I’m a fairly relaxed character and was back then. As a teenager my real passion was dinghy sailing and I spent every spare moment sailing, or repairing boats. I studied geography at Oxford University and really enjoyed my time there. I volunteered to help lighting student theatre there and got a real taste for it. I began devoting all my spare time to lighting various productions for no money. It wasn’t long before lighting designers Ben Ormerod and Paule Constable invited me to join them in taking shows on tour. Adapting their designs to different theatres was a fantastic opportunity, discovering new places really opened my eyes.
Travelling around the world seems very exciting. Do you enjoy being on the move and seeing new places or do you prefer home comforts?
I like that I get to do both, I’m very lucky. Part of my time is spent in city centres across the globe which can be wondrous but then I’m able to escape to my family in Cornwall. I live in Millbrook, a beautiful village in ‘Cornwall’s forgotten corner’ near the stunning beaches of Whitsand bay, where I love to walk, with my wife and daughter especially in winter when you have the beach to yourselves.
When you first started out, did you ever imagine you’d be lighting 16 consecutive seasons at the Garsington Opera?
No, not at all. It was a thrill just to earn a living from pursuing my passion, it’s taken me on quite an unexpected adventure.
You’re currently working on Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Miss Saigon. What’s been the most challenging part of this production so far and what have you enjoyed most about it?
Given how incredibly successful Miss Saigon has been in the past, the challenge has been to deliver something even more extraordinary than before. I’m confident it won’t disappoint. I’ve taken great pleasure from working with set designers, Matt Kinley and Tote Driver. Its a very relaxed atmosphere, we laugh a lot yet there’s a tremendous and unanimous impetus to do the best we can.
It seems you’re becoming one of the most famous figures in the theatre lighting industry. When did you realise you were so highly regarded?
[Laughs] I don’t know about that but it was a great feeling to be flown to Barcelona for Norma by Bellini. I was only 26 at the time. My first time at the National Theatre was also an exhilarating experience to say the least. Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director, is very supportive. He inspires everyone to achieve their potential, there is a strong feeling of support and camaraderie.
You recently received the Knight of Illumination award for Sigur Rós’ world tour. The lighting has been described as subtle, powerful and resonating with the music. Was is it easy to get lost in the creative process?
Yes, very much so. Whenever you’ve got music it makes the transitions, emotions and the structure easier to bring together. Music tells you what to do. Sigur Rós was particularly gratifying because there were no preconceived ideas or restrictions, I had the freedom to go for it.
Sigur Rós opened at Madison Square Garden in New York. What was that like?
Seeing them play was exhilarating in itself but to be there because I had designed the lighting for the show made it even more amazing. I knew the band and every moment of the music inside out. The pressure to deliver was huge, especially since there was no time for rehearsals. The relief of its success was immense. Paule Constable, my early days mentor and role model, was there to watch it. She loved it and that meant a huge amount to me.
Sounds like a sensational experience…
It was. The camaraderie and excitement of being part of such a fantastic group of people was overwhelming, especially Matt, the lighting operator, who played the lighting console like it was a musical instrument. Seeing the crowd’s euphoric reaction as the beams of light swept over the audience was unreal. You don’t often get 20,000 people up on their feet screaming in the theatre, this was something else.
It must be hard to single out your proudest moment. Are there any significant points in your life that particularly stand out?
I think it’s easier to be proud of others than proud of yourself. I often admire the teams that make the shows happen. Any first night of a show gives you that buzz. Having said that, this isn’t always the case, sometimes you think ‘Ooh that could have been a bit better’ but the risk of it going either way enhances the jubilation when it does all come together.
I was thrilled to get the Olivier award for Frankenstein. I was working at the Monte Carlo Opera House at the time and couldn’t be there to collect it. Jonny Lee Miller collected it for me. That was pretty special, but he wasn’t given my speech so had nothing to say! I watched it online at the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo with my friend, the opera director, Francisco Negrin, then had to go straight back to rehearsals. It made my parents very happy and their friends finally understood that lighting design is actually a proper job!
Loving your work and the people you work with must improve the quality of your life…
For me, it really is the best job in the world. I love the variety that one month I’m in Buenos Aires lighting an opera, the next I’m doing a big west end musical, after that a brand new contemporary ballet and then a Shakespeare at the RSC. I get to meet and work with hugely talented people all over the world. My duties are also very varied, I have one foot in the creative artistic side and the other in the geeky technical side. I can make pictures and tell stories with light, I suppose it’s art for someone that can’t draw.
That’s a lovely way to look at it; transient art.
Exactly, its ephemeral. The moment can’t really be photographed or videoed, it only exists as a fleeting moment in a live performance, it serves the eye and the heart, not the camera. If you think about sunshine, candle light, firelight, cloudy days… stage lighting should affect your emotions in a similar way.
Are there any parts of the job you’re not so keen on?
Its a tradition on the first night of operas for all the creative team, the director, designer, set designer, lighting designer, choreographer all to go up and take a bow. I’ve done it many times and I’m used to it but prefer to be at the back clapping the cast. I’m in awe of the performers’ grace and courage. I would also like to do fewer jobs each year so I have more time at home with my family. I’m working on saying no, but it doesn’t come naturally.
In 2011 you received an Olivier Award for Frankenstein. You asked us to provide the filament light bulbs and other lighting, it was one of the formative events in the growth of our business. Were you surprised by the incredible response or did you have an inkling it was going to create such fervour?
Knowing Danny Boyle would be directing and Cumberbatch and Miller would be starring I knew it was going to be a big show from the start. The early design meetings with Mark Tilsbury and Boyle infused me with energy and there was definitely an underlying feeling of exuberance. The first line of the script described the creature opening his eyes for the first time and seeing daylight, we knew that if we could portray this well then it was bound to create an impact. Pulsating bright filament light bulbs were the ideal translators.
So what’s next on the agenda for you?
Right now I’m working on Don Giovanni at the Oslo Opera House. I started designing the show a year ago and over that year I’ve had various meetings with the Director, Thaddeus Strassberger, and the designers of the show. The last two weeks is when we join the cast on stage and bring it all together. Everyone works very hard, an average day is between 14 and 16 hours.
Bruno, thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you today. We look forward to seeing more of your work in the very near future.
Bruno Poet has his own website here with information about his work and reviews of his projects.