National treasure: LD Mark Jonathan heads up the lighting department at the Royal National Theatre


As a child, Mark Jonathan cast himself in the role of master electrician for his own Victorian toy theatre. "I made the lights out of black cardboard tubes and flashlight bulbs, with colored cellophane candy wrappers on the ends," says Jonathan. "Wherever I was, I was always building another theatre and driving my poor parents mad." Translating his childhood passion into a career, this 40-year-old Englishman has served as head of lighting for the Royal National Theatre in London since January 1993, and designs lighting on a freelance basis as well.

"At the National, no two days are alike," says Jonathan, who supervises the lighting for a complicated repertory schedule in the National's three theatres: the Olivier, Cottlesloe, and Lyttelton. "We might have eight or nine plays running at the same time, as well as transfers to the West End and tours in the UK or abroad," he notes. He needs to be responsive to the different needs of the lighting designers working at the National, yet at the same time exercise budgetary control over what the designers do. Jonathan also schedules the technical rehearsals and allocates his department's resources.

Jonathan worked with England's National Youth Theatre as a student in Surrey, a region south of London, and after graduating from high school served as stage manager and later as chief electrician for the Shaw Theatre in London. "I delayed going to college year by year, and never went, really. I go now, but to teach," he says with a touch of irony. "I worked my way up the tree by learning on the job. I got a very good grounding in many areas but specializing in lighting."

Early on, Jonathan started designing for such theatres as Stratford East, Royal Court Upstairs, Hampstead, and the National Youth Theatre. "I had quite a lot of experience by the time I was 22," he admits. "Then I went to Glyndebourne as a production electrician." Jonathan started at Glyndebourne, England's prestigious summer opera festival, in 1978 along with designer Paul Pyant, and followed in the footsteps of Andrew Bridge and Howard Eaton. "It was my dream to work there," says Jonathan. "They do such wonderful productions at such a high standard. And Robert Bryan was the resident designer there and one of my heroes in lighting. In the 1970s he lit almost everything at Glyndebourne."

While Jonathan spent every summer through 1992 at Glyndebourne, he spent his winters with his other passion: teaching skiing in the Alps. "I skied down the slopes singing opera, and read ski magazines in the summer while lighting opera. It was the ultimate lifestyle." He also worked as the overseas tour manager for 55 resorts in Austria. "I learned about communications and training, which have given me an enormous grounding for the job at the National with its emphasis on management," he says. "It gave me experience I wouldn't have gotten in the theatre."

When his schedule at the National permits, Jonathan still designs for theatre and opera, an occupation he finds useful as well as fulfilling. "As a designer myself," he says, "the other designers at the National cannot pull the wool over my eyes." He recently designed his first ballet, David Bintley's Far from the Madding Crowd, for the Birmingham Royal Ballet and a tour that included the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

"The ballet is set in the late 19th century, with a wonderful set by Hayden Griffin," says Jonathan. He notes that the ballet, set in all seasons of the year, at all times of the day, and full of emotion, was "a lighting man's dream." The courtyard structure of the set had sliding doors, slatted wattling, and screens. Jonathan used layers of gobos to help "push the lighting through the wattle, and allow for the feeling of light to come through." He also projected sunsets and clouds on the cyc, and for a storm sequence added photo flashes and fork lightning. "The music and the choreography were very homogenized," says Jonathan, "and gave me great inspiration."

Jonathan also designs on his home turf at the National, with the UK versions of Skylight among his recent credits. "Richard Eyre, the director, wanted the light to seem like it all came from the practicals. So that when an actor turned on a light, it really went on," Jonathan recalls. To compensate for the low light levels, he subtly stretched the light so that the audience didn't perceive a change.

"As a designer I hate to be pigeonholed. I like to work in a lot of different styles, and I respond to the needs of each production in terms of the design," Jonathan says. In contrast to the subtle lighting for Skylight, he used a big rig on a truss for The Barber of Seville at the Holland Park Theatre outdoor opera festival. Here, the receding daylight also played a role. "As the daylight fades, you have to have the cues balance accordingly," he explains. Jonathan would focus from midnight to dawn so he could see what the cues looked like in the dark. "It was a race against time," he says, "but I enjoy that kind of challenge."

At the National, Jonathan is also responsible for equipment maintenance and the replacement of a large lighting inventory. "After 20 years on the South Bank, and 10 years before that at the Old Vic, some of the gear has been through quite a workout," he says, pointing out that the lighting equipment is used 52 weeks a year, and is refocused two or three times a week. Jonathan is currently supervising the refurbishment of the systems in all three theatres, from rewiring to new dimmers, and working on a long-term lease agreement with Vari-Lite that will add automated fixtures to the Cottesloe's rig, which is flexible to accommodate various stage configurations.

"I like lighting when it is beautiful. If it can be simple, I like to leave it that way," he says. "Without the actors and the sound, the lighting doesn't really exist. One's lighting only lives for the performance."