Loose Canons: Rachel Marlow

Prolific lighting designer Rachel Marlow shares the people, places and creations that have influenced her work.

Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.

Rachel Marlow is an Auckland based lighting designer who regularly works with the likes of Silo Theatre (Boys Will Be Boys), Last Tapes Theatre (Valerie, Earnest), Red Leap Theatre (Dust Pilgrim), The Playground Collective (The Intricate Art of Actually Caring) and Auckland Theatre Company (My Own Darling). Rachel studied Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington and Royal Holloway University of London. She enjoys collaborating to produce beautiful theatrical productions and light installations.

Marlow's latest production is Silo Theatre's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which opens on the 14th of September at Q Theatre in Auckland.

Light Show

When Auckland Art Gallery hosted Light Show, an exhibition of some of the most renowned light-based art in the world, it was like a dream come true for me. I spent a lot of time there.

There were so many pieces in that show that have inspired me. The works of Leo Villareal, Jim Campbell and Jenny Holzer spurred on my interest in pixels and a passion for creating LED sculptures. I have a real soft spot for Dan Flavin’s colour fluoro sculptures – the creation of strong lines and one strong statement. And I adore the atmospheric work of James Turrell and Anthony McCall. Light Show was an incredible opportunity to experience light in a new context – as an element worthy of standing on its own.

Concept and Brad

I want all my designs to have a point of view. A concept. A hook. At the same time a statement always needs to serve the work. It’s one thing to make amazing pictures on stage but it’s nailing context that gets tricky. It can take me weeks, months to figure out what a show is, what it needs.

I’m sure I wouldn’t get there if it wasn’t for my partner Brad Gledhill. We start most days walking with coffee and our dog Honey, discussing and debating lighting concepts for whatever project we’re working on.

“I don’t think that’s interesting enough” or “you’re overcomplicating it” and “yes, but you don’t have the budget for that” and most importantly “what if….” The morning walks at the start of a process often result in late nights leading up to a production – surrounded by soldering irons, drills, heat guns and reels of LEDs – as Brad makes an ambitious concept a reality.

Brad’s influence is in all my work, because – in actuality – it’s his work too.

Colour and shape

A couple of years ago Brad and I embarked on an ‘art gallery and theatre’ holiday in the US and Canada. This trip really cemented my visual taste – it was incredible to experience visceral reactions to some works and then feel nothing for others.

Experiencing the works of Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and László Moholy-Nagy has had a huge impact on my consideration of colour and shape in both my theatrical designs and light installations.

Josef Albers’ most famous work is his Homage to the Square series. He made these works for 26 years. He is a master of colour. When I’m looking for something to spark my brain I browse his Interaction of Colour – a workbook he created based on his time teaching at Black Mountain College.

Ellsworth Kelly – I love the grandness and simplicity of his work. The extrapolation of basic conceptual shapes into a long artistic career. He just makes great shapes.

Agnes Martin’s work is meticulous in its detail. The grids and lines she creates are delicate and subtle both in weight and colour. There is a beautiful juxtaposition that exists in her work between the lightness of details and the boldness of the whole.

We also managed to see a retrospective of László Moholy-Nagy at the Guggenheim. His layering of industrial materials and his experimental play with light, transparency, texture was a delight. His colour palette is stunning.

Also, at the MOCA in LA there is a room with eight Rothkos – eight! I never understood Rothko before this, and I don’t care how it sounds – losing myself in that work was a spiritual experience.

Collaboration and Henson

Benjamin Henson – also a spiritual experience. Well maybe not quite, but I’m sure he would love that pull quote. Ben is a naughty influence on my work. One of our earliest shows together was Earnest, a mashup of The Importance of Being Earnest and Cher songs set in an electric-green nightclub.

Now, it’s kind of an unwritten rule in theatrical lighting to stay away from green, so I was immediately on board this madness. Between the three of us (Henson, Brad and me) we created an emerald dream of a design. When I work with Ben I know I will learn something new, I will be supported and challenged, and I will probably see at least three bums.

It’s great to break rules in design. It’s even better to do it with collaborators who are clever enough to make new rules. For as long as I’ve been making theatre the best experiences, and the works I’ve been the proudest of, have been made with people and companies/collectives I genuinely love.

Making a show in a bedroom with Eleanor and Eli. Touring Valerie with the beautifully generous Last Tapes team. Virginia! Long chats with Alice Canton. Putting a boat in a cupboard at 4am with Thomas Press. Sophie and Dan. Hannah and Ralph. Ben and Carl. Sneds and Brooks.

Passion and the past

Light is such an intangible element. And lighting design for theatre is fleeting. Once the show is closed that work exists only in people’s minds. I love hearing stories of the history of theatre in this country – and how a moment on stage can still burn in a person’s mind.

The field of lighting design has a very strong history of female designers who have not only carved out a place for themselves but have shaped the landscape of theatrical lighting design. This is true both internationally and on our shores. It’s a wonderful legacy to be following.

I’ve recently discovered in 1: the podcast, which features an incredible interview from 1989 with some of the pioneers of American lighting design – Tharon Musser, Peggy Clark, Abe Feder and Jeff Davis, moderated by Ken Billington. They talk collaboration, discussing design with directors, and most importantly passion. It makes my heart soar to hear people talk this way about light – it’s how I feel, and it’s batshit insane that I get to play with light for a living.

Also – can’t go past a story over a wine on the stoop at Bats or around a barrel at the Basement.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play runs from 13 to 29 September at Q Theatre. Tickets available here.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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