Bright Lights, Big City – Theatre of Illumination (Light Night 2014)

Credit: Omni Pictures
Credit: Omni Pictures

It is October 2005. A symposium of artists, writers, lighting designers, and theatre practitioners meet in the darkened hush of the Glen Morris Theatre, at the University of Toronto. They are gathered there to explore new ways of thinking about theatre. Urged on by the stark experimentation of French visual artist, Christian Boltanski, their aim is to ‘create a syntax, a theatrical structure using light, time and image’. Over the following days they will carry out experiment after experiment, searching for a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness between light and dark, between knowing and not knowing. They label their endeavour The Theatre of Illumination.

Summer 2014. Sat across the table, in the neatly organised studio space of Omni Pictures, (the Leeds-based production company he set up), Will Simpson looks blank before he shakes his head. He has had to do this a number of times in the last five minutes. Every attempt to pinpoint the ideas lurking behind the Theatre of Illumination, this year’s spectacular centrepiece for Leeds Light Night (3rd October 2014), has been met with a similar response. “I’ve never heard of any of those things you’re talking about,” he says. “But they sound interesting.”

Simpson chooses his words carefully as he goes on to explain. “We came up with a number of names. When you’re transforming a building with literally just a projected white-light show and surround sound, it’s completely abstract and non-narrative. The only way we were able to name something like that was to utilise words like theatre and illumination.”

The building in question is Leeds Civic Hall, designed by Vincent Harris in the 1920s, and Grade II listed. For Light Night 2014, this familiar Leeds landmark will metamorphose into something altogether more exhilarating, more mind-blowing. “It’s going to be on a loop, so there is this sense of a set time – of a show,” elaborates visual artist Julien Lasson, one of Simpson’s partners on the project. Recently relocated from Paris, where he produced visual effects for such maverick cinema talents as Leos Carax and Alejandro Jodorowsky. he and Simpson are more concerned with meeting the demanding visual challenges they have set for themselves. “Instead of trying to find fancy names for it, we’ve kept it suitably…” He pauses, searching for the right word. “Vague?” suggests Simpson helpfully.

The two men are extremely easy company; Simpson nurses a coffee, and occasionally nibbles at a biscuit, while Lasson sits framed by the Tron-like visuals which spiral and whir behind him on an outsized computer screen. (Later we will be joined by third project member, sound designer Tom Hopkins, who manages to be equally as affable, despite coming directly from a gruelling train journey.) The Theatre of Illumination is their first project together. “We’re all very much working in new territory,” explains Simpson. “The concept is us working on something together as a collective brain.” Julien nods in thoughtful agreement. “It’s us trying to be creative and seeing what fits. We want to bring a different movement, a different perception.”

Shown a clip of rendered footage, it is is easy to understand what he means. Imbued with an organic, sinewy beauty, the sequence begins simply evolving through a series of shapes before suddenly exploding into a vortex of white-light. “Slowly you’ll get a sense of losing the image of the full building, just drawing the attention to different parts quite quickly,” says Lasson. “It’s a good starting point: take the building, and the way we know it, and then, by quite subtly revealing and hiding it, make it come alive.” The effect is dazzling, and far beyond words. “We’re going to push it in terms of the visual,” states Simpson. “It’s going to be a spectacle. It’s akin to a fireworks display.”

As a freelance projection designer with a background in theatre and documentary film, Simpson is enjoying this opportunity to work on a much larger scale. “I’ve done a lot of theatre projection design over the years, played a little with projection in terms of mapping out a set, wrapping images around,” he says. “Doing a big architectural projection feels like it’s a natural step.” Intent on exploiting the more illusory potential of the medium, it is not a projection mapped project in the conventional sense (“It’s not bricks falling away, birds flying out of the window.”). Rather, the film-maker speaks passionately about theatrical spectacle, sonic topographies, science fiction – about creating something cosmic. “There is still a journey without a conventional narrative – the animation will do that – we’re going to take you through space and to many places…” he begins, before Lasson completes the sentence for him: “…travelling from one time to another.”

For Lasson, the project is a statement of intent, a white light calling card if you like. Grown dissatisfied with his work for cinema, where his name was just one of many that go to make up a film studio’s visual effects department, it was a solo commission to visualise a planned urban renewal scheme in the Paris suburbs that really got him excited. “They had just destroyed a big building and they wanted to show the inhabitants what it was going to become,” he enthuses. “It was really narrative, it was really basic, but I loved the medium.”

Avoiding the typical career trajectory, that would see him work on bigger – and more anonymous – film productions in London, instead Lasson moved to Leeds, where he came to the attention of Omni Pictures. “I wanted something that allowed me a little more creativity,” he says simply. “Working for big companies, it’s not very rewarding. At the end of the day, you’re just doing what they ask you to – no one really asks you for your opinion.”

Having also worked in the capital, Simpson agrees. “London is very intense and very disparate,” he acknowledges. He says he enjoys the North with its more cohesive cultural eco-system. “Generally you cross paths with lots of different people, and more frequently, so it feels a bit more connected in many ways. There is a big sense of community up here.”

As if to make the point, it turns out that Simpson originally met third member of the Theatre of Illumination production team, sound designer and composer Tom Hopkins, at a lecture given in the city. The two men hit it off immediately. Hopkins has been hard at work making field recordings in and around Leeds for the past few months. Augmented by input from electronica whizz Lee J Malcolm, these will form the basis of the soundtrack to accompany the show.

“When you start listening to the sounds that happen, it’s quite different to what you realise. There are lots of very interesting noises; a lot of quite horrible noises as well,” he says. Part of the electronic group New Build (which includes members of Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem), Hopkins is also an accomplished composer. His work on this project, however, is something of a departure: “There is a lot of material to play with,” he says. “Processing these field recordings into a musical collage, often you can find a rhythm – in the brakes of buses you get a nice pitch, almost orchestral – and you find these things that stimulate the imagination.”

Working with Simpson and Lasson has been an entirely organic process it seems. “Looking at structures and patterns that these guys produce, I’ll present something I’ve constructed, and they’ll do the same.” The flow of ideas is made entirely possible because there is no strict rhythm. “Tom calls it his psycho-acoustic audio experience,” laughs Simpson. Referring to the Millennium Square at the heart of the city, Hopkins explains. “It’s an interesting environment to be doing this in. It’s going to be played in the city where these sounds normally inhabit really. There’s already a soundscape going on. It should be interesting for the audience. What’s real? What’s in their imagination?”

When on Light Night 2014, Leeds Civic Hall is finally transformed into the Theatre of Illumination, one thing is certain: it will be light years removed from the rather more sedate ‘Momentous’ which formed the centrepiece to last year’s event. This is entirely right and proper: Simpson wants to challenge the audience’s perceptions and to have it explore its emotional responses to the piece. Not so much a Theatre of Illumination as a Theatre of Enlightenment, perhaps?

Theatre of Illumination takes place on 3rd October as part of Leeds Light Night 2014.