Laura Kane, Toronto Star
There’s an old theatre adage that goes: “If you don’t notice the lighting, it must be good.”
Robert Thomson never followed this rule. And the 35-year veteran of theatre lighting design is surprised to be in the limelight, after winning the 2012 Elinore & Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre.
“I’m pretty astonished, I must say,” Thomson told the Star.
“As a lighting designer, we’re often not the first discipline people think of (to award). Lighting is so ethereal and hard to capture. It’s something that only exists in the moment of the show.”
The $100,000 prize is the largest Canadian theatre award and honours professional directors, playwrights and designers for excellence and exploration in theatre.
Previous recipients include playwright Joan MacLeod and director Kim Collier.
Thomson’s career began at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. He became known for his passionate involvement in the creative process, rereading battered scripts and watching actors’ rehearsals, taking influence from every gesture of the play.
“Every time I start a new play, I approach it as a journey that is very much like one of the actors in the rehearsal hall,” he said. “Sometimes, the notes a director gives an actor are more valuable to me than sitting down and having a discussion about lighting.”
A true theatre lover, Thomson went on to work with the National Arts Centre, Canadian Stage, Citadel Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, and the Shaw and Stratford festivals, where he has put in 12 consecutive seasons.
His award-winning design for Robert Lepage’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung has been seen across Canada and around the world. Recalling that production, Thomson said he simply felt lucky to be a part of it.
“The best thing about theatre is that it’s collaborative and I have been very fortunate in the people I’ve worked with,” he said.
To that effect, the Siminovitch Award contains a protégé prize, in which the recipient gives $25,000 of the award to one or two up-and-comers in the field. Thomson chose two young lighting designers, Jason Hand and Raha Javanfar.
Thomson is currently designing a production of Red, the moody, cerebral play about artist Mark Rothko and a young apprentice, directed by Martha Henry, at Montreal’s Segal Centre.
He said he doesn’t like that adage about lighting, because it implies all you have to do is illuminate the stage. Instead, he sees his role as creating a foundation for the script, direction and acting to take flight.
“One of the most important things we can do is create a vista that contains the emotional suggestion of something and then let the actors do their job.
“You do have to get out of the way a little bit,” he said. “And don’t be afraid of the dark.”