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    Rick Fisher: over there, over here Essay

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    British theatre people don’t get much busier than American lighting designer Rick Fisher, who this spring at last gets to make the splash in New York that he has been making in London for some time. His vehicle’stephen Daldry’s acclaimed Royal National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls, the J. B. Priestley revival which has galvanized London for the past 18 months and opens April 24 at the Royale on Broadway. In conjunction with Daldry and set designer lan MacNeil (son of PBS-TV newsman Robert MacNeil), Fisher turns a 1945 theatrical warhorse into a politically charged expressionist nightmare about the (literal) collapse of one social order and the emergence out of the wreckage of another.

    While some English commentators rolled their eyes when they heard the National was reviving Inspector, Fisher and company suggest that there are no dated plays, only dated approaches to them. In this neo-Gothic staging, the play becomes not just a metaphysical thriller but a pertinent comment on the Thatcher years and beyond. It’s a fierce indictment of a selfabsorbed, privileged class dining while England decays; and Fisher’s spooky, foreboding lighting sets the essential tone from the start.

    “I’m very proud of my work on it,” Fisher, 39, says now of a project that went through rough patches on the way to becoming a hit. As he recalls, “It could have gone either way. There was the legendary first preview where it just didn’t work and everyone freaked out. Everything felt out of balance, and the performances didn’t take over and assert themselves. It took a long time for the company and the production to feel neither was swamping the other.” The aim, he says, is “for a huge production where the play completely wins, and it all works together. By the time we opened it here [at the National], I knew it was major.”

    Fisher sheds light on his own illumination of the text: “The only person who has a shadow in the show is the Inspector; in the opening appearance, he casts a big shadow of himself on the house.” The Birling family residence, meanwhile, is very cozy and warm and rather jolly, but as soon as they come to the outside world it changes to a colder world of blues and greens that is much more deathly.” His technique relies on the kind of sidelighting used in dance to gain a tight control of the space. “One of the nicest compliments someone said about Inspector was it looked as if it were lit from within. That means you never have trouble seeing people, but you still have a sense of the barrenness and the darkness that goes with the overall stage language.”

    Out of breath

    An Inspector Calls is merely the current calling card of a designer who has seemingly been everywhere of late in British theatre and opera. He, MacNeil and Daldry teamed up again last October for the National Theatre debut of Machinal, achieving what many saw as a second coup even if, to this observer at least, their joint aesthetic on that occasion swamped Sophie Treadwell’s play. Far more revelatory has been Fisher’s work with director David Leveaux on Pinter texts old (Betrayan) and new (Moonlight), and his exuberant contribution last summer to young director Matthew Warchus’s West End Much Ado About Nothing, starring Mark Rylance and Janet McTeer. Indeed, for a while last season virtually every London opening seemed to be his-from Peter Shaffer’s Gift of the Gorgon, since mooted for Broadway, to Terry Johnson’s Royal Court Hysteda, about Sigmund Freud.

    “Out of breath is what it’s got at the moment,” Fisher says with a laugh of his career, having moved to London from Philadelphia in 1975 and scarcely looked back since. “I was doing freelance stage managing, lighting and sound, and the lighting was what seemed to get noticed. I used to lock myself in the theatre and hang the lights and if I didn’t like what I’d done, I’d move it. I never intended to be a lighting designer; it was only about six or seven years ago when I realized that was what seemed to be in the cards.”

    In London, he says, he responded at once to an attitude towards theatre that made it easier for people of his generation to both do, and see, work. “I would go to the theatre and there were people like myself in the audience, whereas you go to the theatre in America, and there were people like our aunts and uncles. And as much as we dearly love our aunts and uncles, we don’t want to work 80 hours a day to provide entertainment just for them. You want to work for your peers.” The pressure, too, on designers in London was of a different-and preferablesort. “My suspicion in New York is that you’re always as good as your last show,” says Fisher, who first worked on Broadway in the ill-fated transfer of Serious Money and then again on Lincoln Center’s Some Americans Abroad. “If the show isn’t a hit, people will shy away from you, as if you were tinged with failure. It’s all so much more about money because there’s a lot more capital resting on every show.”

    At this point, Fisher can afford to pick and choose, and speaks of “trying to get more relaxed about work and not booking myself up too much.” Still, following the Manhattan Theatre Club debut of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Three Birds Alighting on a Field, he is set to re-team this spring with that play’s director, Max Stafford-clark, on a new Sue Townsend play, The Queen and L In May, he and director Phyllida Lloyd, his colleague on both Hysteria and the London production of Six Degrees of Separation, open a new Pericles at the National.

    In England, he’s found the proper environment to sustain a lasting career. “In America, the lighting I’ve seen is often so wonderfully detailed, so perfect and neat. But the problem is you don’t do as much work as you would like so every time you do a project, it’s got to be the summation of your artistic being; that’s a lot of emotional baggage to put on lighting or sets. Here, each show is another piece in the body of my work. It doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of my life.”

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    Rick Fisher: over there, over here Essay. (2017, Nov 07). Retrieved from

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