Why We Tell The Story: In Conversation with Louise Cook

I first came across Louise Cook’s name when I visited the recent West End production of Dreamgirls. The whole show blew me away but I remember being stunned by how dynamic the lighting design was in particular. When I learnt that Louise was part of the lighting team, I knew that I wanted to reach out to her as part of this series. Since Dreamgirls, Louise now works on tours of musicals and travels all around the world. I caught up with her to learn more about what it’s like to work in lighting in the theatre industry.  

Name: Louise Cook

Role: Lighting Technician / Lighting Operator

Favourite Show/Play: I love going to see new musicals so it’s constantly changing. But currently it’s Waitress, I love the soundtrack!

Favourite Part About the Theatre: I think probably its ability to allow people to just shut off for a couple of hours. It’s quite refreshing to switch off your phone, forget about anything going on on the outside and just allowing yourself to watch a story being told live.

Q: For anyone who hasn’t been involved with working in lighting for a production before, can you describe what the creative process is like and what needs to come together to make it all happen from the text to the stage?

A: The Lighting Designer begins to think of initial ideas by attending rehearsals to see what needs to be achieved in each scene. Making notes on what the mood of the piece is, what the setting is or where the action takes place. They spend a lot of time discussing this with the Director, Costume Designer and Set Designer to make sure everyone is on the same page and everybody’s work will complement one another’s.

They then create a ‘Cue Synopsis’ which is a list of each Lighting Cue. It notes when the Louise Cook 2lighting will change, a brief description of what the scene will look like and any other notes. Along with this, the Designer also creates a ‘Lighting Plan’. This is an overhead technical drawing of the lighting rig. It shows which types of lights they want to use, where they want them positioned, what colours are going to be used and a ton of other details!

Once the set is built and the lights are up, rehearsals then become ‘Tech Sessions’. The cast and creatives move into the theatre. Desks are set up in the auditorium for the creatives who work away whilst the cast run through the show with on stage with all the technical elements, stopping whenever people need to work on specific parts of the show. This is the time the Lighting Designer will work with their team (usually made up of an associate, assistant and a programmer on the bigger shows) to create the desired effect on stage.

They work through their cue synopsis and to see if their initial ideas work. Sometimes cutting or adding cues, playing with the intensity, colours and movement of the lights. It’s also the first time all elements come together so sometimes changes need to be made, sometimes changes are still being made up until opening night! It’s a huge process and I don’t think a lot of people even realise all the work that goes on behind the scenes, I could go on for days!

Q: What was it like working in the recent West End production of Dreamgirls in particular?

A: Dreamgirls is probably the biggest show I’ve worked on so far and it was a great experience for me. It was my first role as an Assistant Lighting Designer so I definitely learned a lot from it. Not just about the role, but also about the whole process from the very beginning to opening night. It was a really fun show to work on.

I loved the songs, the story and the original cast I worked with were so talented! I remember the first time Amber Riley sang ‘And I’m Telling You’ in our first dress rehearsal. The rest of the cast came into the auditorium to watch her, along with all the backstage crew and creative team. She was the only person left on stage and everybody was on their feet straight away, cheering and clapping. I think then everyone realised that the show was going to be very special. It’s one of the only shows I’ve watched where there were three standing ovations in the middle of the show!

Louise Cook 1

Q: How did you first get involved with lighting and discover that it was something that you wanted to do professionally? 

A: It started when I was in High School from a love of my drama lessons! I’m a ‘hands on’ type of learner so I loved going to a lesson where I didn’t have to sit at a desk! I then started performing in musicals at my small local theatre. One time they put on a play I was too young for and there weren’t any parts suitable for me so they asked if I’d like to help out backstage. I ended up as part of the lighting team and it all kind of snowballed from there! I went on to study drama at A level, joined the National Youth Theatre and then went on to study Theatre Technology at Guildhall School of Music & Drama! 

Q: What are some of the challenges involved with working in the industry or something that you didn’t realise when you first started?

A: I think one thing that can be a bit challenging is the hours and the days we work. Most people have a Monday to Friday 9 – 5 job, whereas in theatre we work Monday to Saturday, sometimes even Sundays, and don’t start work until the afternoon and then leave at night. Which means you sometimes end up missing out on things because just as most people are finishing work, you have to go to work!

There’s also a lot of days where your schedule is constantly changing. There’s not always a strict timetable, sometimes you need to come in early to fix things I’ve worked from 10am – 4am one day, 2pm – 7pm the next and then 1pm – 11pm the next day! During tech sessions, the schedule is always changing and you spend a lot of the day in the dark which can sometimes be hard to focus. I will say though I love my job, it’s a really fun environment to work in so I’m always happy to go!

Q: It’s amazing how many productions you’ve been involved in and the fact that the role allows you to tour the UK and also travel to different countries. What has that experience been like for you and what have been some of your highlights or have there been any funny mishaps?

Louise Cook 3A: It’s been amazing, I’ve recently travelled all over the UK, Canada and Asia with Mamma Mia! I feel very lucky, not many people get paid to travel the world doing their hobby!

I’ve got so many great memories! In Toronto, there was a huge storm after the show one evening. We all had to run back to the hotel in the pouring rain in bin bags! The storm went on overnight and when we came back the next day the theatre was flooded. So we spent the next day running around with hairdryers and mops trying to dry things off before the show in the evening!

Every venue has been different with their own little quirks! In a few places in Asia the local crew didn’t speak any English so we had great fun trying to get the show up using a lot of pointing and miming! But it always got there in the end!

Thanks for reading! And a huge thank you to Louise for allowing me to interview her.

In the ‘Why We Tell the Story’ series, I’m looking to interview the variety of people who help make theatre magic happen. I’d love to interview a cross section of individuals from writers to musicians and casting directors. If you’d like to be part of the series or know someone who you’d like to be featured, please let me know in the comment section below! #whywetellthestory

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