Much Ado About Nothing | Interview with Lighting Designer Niklas Pajanti

Walk us through the process of lighting design, from first concept to being in the theatre.

It’s a mixture of processes ranging from technical to artistic. It’s in an intermediate zone of outright being an artist and being a skilled craftsperson. In many ways, my job is to be a mind reader, I have to get inside the head of the Director and try and interpret how they imagine the show and then I work with skilled individuals who can help build those ideas in a realistic way, which for me, involves lights.

What type of lights are you using for this production?

There’s standard in house rigs that the venues we are going to supply and pre-rig and that will be mostly traditional equipment; mostly tungsten lights. All the touring lights we’re using are more modern technology; LED, moving heads, LED strip lighting that gets mounted in the set, LED colour changing lights to light the set from behind to make it glow. We’re using that because the technology saves time in terms of set up and control – I can use one light for multiple purposes; rather than one light being one colour, I can use one light for ten different colours and ten different positions and that makes it easier on tour.

How early in the production process do you start designing the lighting for a show?

Conversations start when I’m first employed by a company; the Director and Set Designer will talk to me about their ideas for the show and I start thinking about the lighting then. After the set presentation has been signed off, I really start getting to work and decide with the Director, Designer and the Sound Designer how the show is going to look and feel, how it’s going to sound, what sort of world are we creating. Then as we get into rehearsals and closer and closer to production week and opening night, I’m refining all my random ideas and choices.

What do you need to consider for a show that performs in 27 venues?

I have to come up with a design that is repeatable in every venue it goes to around Australia and can be set up and ready to go in about six and a half hours. That’s four hours of load in, one and half hours of tech time, then a break and then the show goes on that night. Those are my parameters; the technical, pragmatic aspect of my job comes first when touring like this, and once I work out how to solve that the more artistic side can happen.

How do you use lighting to build drama or tension in a scene?

In simple terms it’s through the angle that the light is coming at the performer, the intensity of that light, the colour of that light, the beam quality of that light. All those things tell the audience certain things. A flat, front light, hard-edge spot can be indicative of comedy or presentation or cabaret; a footlight coming up into their face at a low, severe angle is usually dramatic or scary. Audiences are wired to interpret different lighting states in different ways; different colours have different mood associations. I utilise all of these options to help the audience interpret what is happening. When I get it right, I’m saying ‘hey, look over here, don’t look over there, now feel this.’ I’m colouring in the story for them.

You’ve designed extensively for art, exhibitions, events, film and theatre. What is unique about designing lighting for theatre productions?

I think, because of the temporality of it, it happens and then it’s gone; it’s ephemeral. It only ever really exists in people’s memory. With theatre, I love that every single night we are in a sense gathering around the campfire telling a story. You get to escape for a while and experience the story. And then it’s gone.

Compare that to more technical work I do, like preservation lighting or exhibition lighting; lighting an old piece of art that needs to have x-amount of lux on it otherwise it will destroy the artwork. That’s a satisfying technical exercise but it’s very different to theatre.

Theatre is food for the soul, it’s storytelling. It’s a shared experience that I really enjoy.


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. His work has toured nationally and to Europe, Scandinavia, North America and Asia. For Bell Shakespeare Niklas designed lighting for The School for Wives. Other theatre credits include work for Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Belvoir, Malthouse, Ilbijerri, Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide Festivals, Dark MOFO and Victorian Opera. Some theatre highlights include: Wild Duck, Angels in America (Belvoir); Rupert, A View from the Bridge, Cosi (MTC); When Rain Stops Falling, Spring Awakening (STC). Niklas’ dance credits include designs for Stephanie Lake Company, Dance North, Dancehouse, Chunky Move and BalletLab. His extensive experience in exhibition and events lighting includes work for Melbourne Museum, State Library of Victoria, Commonwealth Games Arts Festival; and exhibitions for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which were also toured to the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Film credits include The Eye of the Storm. He is a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and has attended New York’s Broadway Lighting Design Master Classes. Niklas has won two Green Room Awards and has received numerous Helpmann Award and Sydney Theatre Award nominations for  his lighting design.