Niklas Pajanti is an award-winning lighting designer whose practice ranges across contemporary art forms and performance styles including theatre, dance, opera, circus, musical theatre, comedy, events, exhibitions and public spaces. He has designed for leading Australian and international companies including Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir Theatre (Angels in America; The Wild Duck), Melbourne Theatre Company, Malthouse, Chunky Move, Victorian Opera, Brink, Ilbijerri, Dance North, Dancehouse, The Eleventh Hour, Ranters Theatre, BalletLab, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne Festival, Sydney Festival, Adelaide Festival, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Commonwealth Games Festival Melbourne. Niklas designed lighting for the theatre interiors of Fred Schepsi’s film The Eye Of The Storm.
Niklas is a graduate of Victorian College of the Arts (BA) and has a postgraduate qualification in Lighting Engineering (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).
THE STREET TALKED TO NIKLAS JUST BEFORE THE OPENING OF BOYS WILL BE BOYS
WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN LIGHTING?
I’ve always loved building fires and staring into the flames…
But really; I was a drama student in year 11 and 12 at Erindale College. Thanks to an amazing teacher, Paul Morton, I was introduced to the writings of Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and then I got a bit obsessed with Samuel Beckett. The often dark humour in these plays really spoke to me at that time. I was never interested in acting but I was really interested in how you can tell a story or how you can show a story unfolding. Light to me seemed like a very powerful tool, almost primeval, that I could use to literally show or not show the audience what I wanted them to see. It can accentuate emotions and the behaviours being expressed in the story we’re telling. I discovered I can show an audience how I perceive a story without the need to be on the stage talking. It’s a form of control and manipulation that the audience often isn’t aware of. I like that.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MOST SIGNFICANT INNOVATION IN LIGHTING DESIGN?
Historically I would say, for live entertainment the most significant innovation was the invention and then the development of the luminaire or lighting fixture. From putting coloured silks in front of a candle, to putting the candle inside a reflective housing to push more light toward the stage, right up to LED moving lights; the drive to build a better light source is the bedrock of lighting design.
In a contemporary sense I would say the movement away from hardware towards software is the next significant innovation. We used to need big heavy boxes of resistors and transformers to control light levels or a dedicated console bolted to the floor to control lighting cues. Now we can control large moving light rigs from laptops through local networks. The hardware is becoming almost invisible to a great extent. It’s all about zeroes and ones these days and your preferred App to remotely design and control shows with wireless technology.
HOW DO YOU USE LIGHT AS A DESIGN TOOL?
I control what you see and how you see it. My role as lighting designer can be described as visual dramaturgy. I create the dramatic composition in a visual sense rather than a literary sense. Through light I show you where to look, when, and I try to manipulate what you think about what you see, to help push the story forward.
HOW DID YOU RESPOND TO THE SCRIPT FOR BOYS WILL BE BOYS?
I felt ambivalent at first. The play is a horrible description and exploration of misogyny and patriarchy and how men always dominate or “win” in our current society. The lead character has very few redeeming features and seems morally corrupt and emotionally immature to me. There is a through line to the story that explores the right of women to behave like men. The problem is, that’s a really terrible way to behave and be in the world. So, I struggle with that.
The flip side to all this is the show has amazing songs to soften and accentuate the blows and the script is genuinely hilarious throughout. It highlights the problems we have to deal with today as people, regardless of genders or sexual preferences. We need to be better at being humans.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE IDEAS YOU HAVE DEVELOPED FOR THE LIGHTING DESIGN OF BOYS WILL BE BOYS.
The shifts between worlds are a big deal in this show. Cabaret clubs and offices. There are real memories and imagined events. None of the set locations are literal, as the set design is quite abstract, so I’m just trying to suggest locations through intensity, angle, colour and movement. Severe or harsh lighting in masculine worlds. A male dominated office. Strip clubs. Gentlemen’s clubs and bars. Background colours that looks a bit yucky to accentuate the ugliness onstage. Steep angles and shadows. But hopefully there is also some beauty in these ugly images.
LIGHT IS OFTEN THE LAST LAYER TO BE ADDED TO A PRODUCTION. HOW DO YOU DEVELOP YOUR VISION THROUGH THE REHEARSAL PROCESS?
I’m fortunate to work with people who consider the lighting very early on. So I develop my vision from those first meetings by asking a lot of questions of the director and the set designer and the costume designer. What kind of worlds are we trying to create in relation to the script? What kind of set or environment on stage will the actors be inhabiting. What will they be wearing? What colours will there be on stage? If possible I like to hear drafts of sound cues or scores to help get a sense of the aural worlds we’re trying to create because lights and sound more often than not work closely together in creating the worlds you see and hear. I then do research into any areas I’m not already familiar with and start dreaming of the possibilities while staying aware of any actual requirements. For instance the play might be set outside so I need to mimic sunlight or moonlight. But in what part of the world? The soft low angles of Scandinavia in Winter or the steep harsh unrelenting blast of Summer in Australia?
As I get further into the rehearsal process my ideas become more and more concrete and I start choosing what kind of lighting fixtures are required to achieve the effects I’m after, where can I position them in the grid or on stage, and what colours may be suitable in particular scenes. Finally I draw a lighting plan to communicate all this information to the lighting crew who are responsible for installing all my ideas.
HOW DO YOU WORK IN REHEARSALS VERSUS PRODUCTION WEEK?
In rehearsal I mostly sit quietly staring at actors and watching how the director works. I’m also staring at my laptop a lot filling in the practical data I need, writing in cue points, working out timings, taking note of actors positions onstage and their movements. I also do a bit of dreaming, maybe looking at Pinterest or doing Google image searches of related stuff that might inspire me. Basically I sit there trying to imagine how the show might look.
In production week I spend all my time staring at the stage and talking to the director and my lighting programmer. It stops being an abstract exercise and becomes practical and pragmatic and you have to work pretty fast as time is limited.
YOU HAVE WORKED ON BRILLIANT PRODUCTIONS FOR THE STAGE AND ALSO ON A FILM WITH FRED SCHEPISI. HOW MANY PROJECTS DO YOU TEND TO TAKE ON IN A YEAR AND HOW DO YOU SELECT WHICH ONES?
The most shows I’ve ever done in a year, including remounts and tours, was 14. I don’t work like that anymore. It’s way too busy and not much fun. I’m pretty happy these days if I’m doing 6 or 7 projects a year. One every couple of months with overlapping preparation. It’s good to mix it up too with text based theatre, contemporary dance or gallery/exhibition/installation type work. Working in a variety of styles keeps it interesting and challenging.
I tend to just say yes to the jobs I’m offered as long as my schedule allows for it. I find that way I keep meeting new people and create new opportunities for the future. The Fred Schepisi film (Eye Of The Storm) was like that. One of his production assistants asked me if I wanted a job and I said yeah sure why not. How hard could it be? Turns out quite hard actually. But fun too. Film is a different world to theatre.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Whoever I’m currently working with tends to inspire me. That might sound trite but when you’re working long hours in theatre you don’t always spend time looking at other art or finding inspiration out in the world. You’re too busy trying to make art with the people nearest you. Inspiration usually comes out of that work. In my spare time or on holidays I’m in art galleries and museums or enjoying architecture and designed spaces. I also love hiking in isolated places noticing the different qualities of light and colour in the natural world. It can be a great palate cleanser for the brain before the next session of sitting in the dark, staring at a stage.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?
Hilarious. Also check out their first outing; The Katering Show.
A cool exploration of the unreliable narrator. F**k Society!
Rick and Morty
Hilarious television. Crass and quite a bit more intelligent than it initially seems.
One of the few shows I’ve seen that explores depression in a realistic yet still entertaining way. Although some shows are hard viewing.
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
I’m reading this a second time as it is dense and beautiful. Bachelard makes the ordinary extraordinary in that weird romantic way the French philosophers do with everything they investigate.
Len Deighton’s spy series
I love spy thrillers and I love Berlin. These books are old and sexist and they describe a time and place before the wall came down that is gritty and urban and doesn’t exist anymore. Thankfully. They’re my guilty pleasure to read when I need a break from thinky books.
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Sci-fi books are great for exploring speculative futures and also for re-contextualising contemporary issues. I’m looking for a replacement since my favourite SF writer Ian Banks died a few years ago. Rajaniemi explores the unreliability of memory, time as currency, and existence as software, among many other ideas. Also, Lasers. Pew Pew!