Francis Reid’s highly enjoyable memoir Hearing the Light delves deeply into the theatricality of the industry. The author’s almost fanatical interest in opera, his formative period as lighting designer at Glyndebourne and his experiences as a theatre administrator, writer and teacher make for a broad and unique background and an equally wide-ranging story of the technical side of theatre across the second half of the twentieth century. At the core of the book is the story of the extensive post-1950 development in stage lighting as an art form supported by new technologies.
Hearing the Light is not just the story of one man’s career; it is also packed full of stories and anecdotes familiar to anyone having worked in theatre, and it will certainly bring more than a few knowing chuckles to the reader. Francis Reid has an excellent archive, and the book includes many colour reproductions of original production playbills dating back to the ’60s and ’70s as well as production photos and images of the author at work. His story includes a sabbatical from the theatre whilst enjoying a boating break on the Norfolk Broads, although Francis the author was still at work and wrote a piece for Practical Boat Owner on low cost ‘waste’ pumps!
The second in ETP’s biographical series, Hearing the Light is a fine accompaniment to Fred Bentham’s Sixty Years of Light Work. Indeed there are many similarities as both authors have shared some similar experiences, including product development work for Strand Lighting.
This book is not a teaching tool in the way that Reid’s Stage Lighting Handbook and similar titles are, although the reader will certainly pick up some useful tips; it is a very enjoyable adventure through the technological advances of theatre and gives an insight into the life of a dedicated ‘theatric tourist’.
Autobiographies have many and varied titles. The cartoonist James Thurber wrote My world and welcome to it, which is forthright if you like, but Francis has chosen the infinitely more personal Hearing The Light – 50 Years Backstage.
In fact, the title springs from Francis Reid’s early days at Glyndebourne Opera House, when Carl Ebert set him on the path of thinking visually about changes within music. This was over 40 years ago and it is important to realise that it is only in the last 40 years that our chosen profession has taken shape. Francis’ career stands as a model for all that has happened to Stage lighting in the UK since World War II.
Despite claiming that he only took up lighting so the company could get a decent night’s sleep, it is clear that Francis was motivated by much more than that implies. His early work at Tonbridge Rep (as described in an early Focus) and Britten’s English Opera Group had prepared him for ten years at Glyndebourne, where he brought the lighting out of its pre-war decaying splendour to the point where a modern multi-preset desk was driving early thyristors and, most importantly, he was credited with Lighting by…
How Francis arrived at that point and how his career blossomed thereafter is contained in 15 chapters and over 250 pages, laced liberally with objectivity and a wonderful wry humour. Glyndebourne has chapter 4 to itself. Each chapter deals with a particular art form or part of Francis’ work. How many people know that he managed a key Georgian Theatre, The Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, bringing it back from the brink of closure? Or that he ran a boat hire business from a house on The Norfolk Broads, whilst operating the preset lighting board at The Theatre Royal Norwich, in the early 1970s? He is quite frank about the external forces that propelled his career hither and variously thither. Thurber’s title would be valid.
Of course Francis is famous as a writer and a communicator as well as a teacher and a lighting designer. His highly personal descriptive phrases are many. One that did not make the pages of this book is nevertheless my favourite. When he felt that a choreographer was having a disproportionate influence on a theatre director, he summed up her advantage as pillow access, neatly encapsulating a delicate situation with Queen’s English tinged with hilarious clarity.
A book from a lighting designer that does not show any examples of that designer’s work is a rarity these days, but Francis’ philosophy is that lighting is a four dimensional art, so drawings or photographs are but frozen moments captured from a dynamic progression. We can argue that nevertheless, photographs are often the best record we have for people who did not see the production and, indeed, our own photographic memory may not be four dimensional. Perhaps someone reading this has strong enough views on the subject to write to Focus on the subject.
I can testify that Francis is a delightful travelling companion. We flew to Showlight 2001 together. He is an old hand at the Norwich to Edinburgh run, so I was treated to a running commentary on the pleasures that awaited us north of the border whilst we settled into the comforts of the VIP lounge. His travels have taken him all over the world on teaching and other academic activities and with these travels have come international recognition and honours.
Francis’s friends are a worldwide fanclub, who will form the core readership of this eye-opening book, the record of a life well lived in the theatre.
Jim Laws, Focus