Fascination with light determines career

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 May, 2009, 12:00am

When John Williams was taken to the pantomime as a boy it was the lights, and not just the show, that caught his eye. That fascination turned into a passion that has taken him around the world, from London's West End and New York's Broadway, to Hong Kong's harbour and its Symphony of Light.

Mr Williams is a lighting designer and the man invited in 2005 to make the city's Symphony of Lights show a reality. He is also the dean of theatre and entertainment arts at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, which means he spends most days making sure everything is running smoothly at the school, leading the development of course programmes, and teaching his specialisation, lighting design.

'When I was a kid my mum used to take me to the pantomime at the Bristol Hippodrome. We used to sit up in the gallery and I'd be watching the lights as much as I was watching the stage. From a very early age I had this fascination with light and I knew I wanted to work with it in some way,' Mr Williams said.

Despite being determined to break into the industry, a lack of suitable training programmes convinced him to put his time to good use. He spent the first few years after A-levels working for his electrical engineer father as an apprentice. He also did casual jobs, such as electrics crew and follow spot operator, at his local theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, one of England's oldest theatre companies. 'I didn't actually go to drama school. In the early and mid '70s, at least in Britain, you couldn't go anywhere and take a degree in lighting design or even a diploma. It just didn't exist,' he said.

When a vacancy for a trainee lighting technician finally materialised at the Bristol Old Vic he jumped at the chance and within four years was promoted to head of lighting, a move, he said, was unheard of at the time for a company of that status.

'I was apprehensive. I didn't know that I could take on that challenge. It's a very prestigious company, the Bristol Old Vic. It was a three-theatre auditorium, a big company. And every three to four weeks we had three different shows going into three different theatres and I was either lighting one show or supervising the other two. So it was quite a challenge and not always easy.'

He stayed with the Old Vic for another eight years, moving up the ranks to associate artist. It was during the later years that he also started working freelance, lighting shows for other theatre production companies, including those in the West End and on Broadway.

He had started to make his mark and in the early '80s was invited by three former Bristol Old Vic actors to become lighting director for their production company. The three were actors Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite and Daniel Day-Lewis.

'This was another early milestone for me. It was a great time and working with the company gave me one of my West End shows called When the Wind Blows,' he said.

Working with Adrian Noble, who went on to be the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Bob Crowley, who is now a multi-award-winning designer, also allowed him to cement his reputation, helping to get his work noticed. It was the success of these shows, and what he said was a series of coincidences, that brought him to Hong Kong in 1987.

'A former dean of the academy, Richard Berry, had seen some of my London shows and knew of my work. The dean heard that I was interested in doing more work in theatre education and I was invited to Hong Kong to meet him. A year later I joined the academy as head of lighting.'

When he started in theatre he never expected to get involved in theatre education and he certainly never thought he would become dean. He did, however, have a passion for teaching and it wasn't long into his career that he started doing guest lectures at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the British Council in Belgium and Luxembourg. He has since taught at America's Yale University, Indiana University and California Institute of the Arts.

Mr Williams became dean in 2004 and his first years were spent remodelling the school and streamlining departments. His days, however, are not confined to a desk, and he still teaches and takes his students to work with him on external productions such as A Symphony of Light. The show is the world's largest permanently installed light show involving more than 3,000 light cues, and won him inclusion in the Who's Who for 2007-08.

After 35 years in the business 'there is still nothing like opening a new show', he said. 'The adrenaline, the expectation, the reaction of the audience, the thrill when you've been part of something special, successful and seeing it come to life.'

As for the future, there are two things he wants to do before he retires - successfully bring in the new theatre and entertainment arts four-year degree his school is developing, and light another long-running, big spectacular show like the two he has worked on in Thailand.

Bristol fashion

Knew from a young age he wanted to work in the theatre with light

Worked as a casual at the Bristol Old Vic before getting a trainee position

Was asked by three of the theatre's elite to join their production company

Would like to light one more long-running show before he retires'

Stepping up

Light designer

HK$30,000 up

Five years or more

Assistant light designer

HK$18,000 to HK$28,000 per show

Two to three years

Junior light technician/crew

HK$15,000 to HK$18,000 (per show but paid by the hour)

One or two years

Intern light technician/crew

Unpaid as it earns credit towards degree

First semester of year 2 or 3