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Leading Light with…Mike Robertson – Part One

Mikey (1)

Lighting Designer Mike Robertson

Our Copywriter Adam speaks to Mike Robertson…

Over the past ten months, Leading Light has become one of the most popular features on the WL website and been read by thousands. For every interview, I have met with the designer and spoken to them face-to-face in order to hear about their journey and how they became one of the most renowned individuals in their profession. This month is slightly different in the sense that the interview is taking place virtually. I have been meaning to speak to Mike Robertson for some time yet his busy schedule has meant that he is never in one place for too long. However, from the sunny islands of Greece, he has finally found time to take part via the magic of the internet. And upon listening to his story, it soon becomes clear it was worth the wait…

Mike’s story begins in the early Seventies where he was adopted from Norwegian extraction and grew up on the east coast of Scotland in a small town called Arbroath. He states: “It is a historically significant town whose eponymous declaration in 1320 defined an independent Scottish Sovereignty. Sadly, when I was growing up there, it was a less hopeful place with industries dwindling, EU quotas ensuring that fishing was a diminishing strain of income and one in every ten high street shops being given over to charity. Despite this, there was still verdant woodland, fields groaning with an abundance of colourful produce and always the stolid and majestic sea. It was also the land of Angus beef and fish so fresh a good vet could revive it!”. Mike’s father and his close friends were all painters yet, despite his love of art, Mike insists that his own skills failed to “extend beyond stick men and clouds that looked like legless sheep”. It was during these early days in Arbroath when Mike was first introduced to drama and performance. He recalls: “My first taste of theatre came at school when I was cast in The Pied Piper as ‘Surf Number Four’. I soon realised that the performing lark was most definitely not for me!”. Whereas acting might not have been Mike’s passion, he did have other interests: “My biggest hobby as a child was building. Machines, structures, contraptions; most of dubious quality and some even rather pyrotechnic as my earlier grasps on electricity were more theoretical than calculated. It was the desire to create that was foremost”.

 

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A very young Mike!

Whereas theatre did not play a huge role in Mike’s upbringing, it was certainly there in the background. He comments: “Just south of our town is Dundee and the Repertory Theatre which was a powerhouse of production. One of my earliest memories is their sensational production of The Snow Queen. I remember it was all icy blue and full of people of indeterminate gender! It was mesmeric. The following week was Blithe Spirit in a beautiful Art Deco setting. One thing I do remember was the lighting. Even now, I can see the Minuette Fresnels on the floor and thinking wow – the lights don’t all need to go up into the air?!”. Arbroath itself had two theatres: a playhouse for amateurs and a 700 seater for touring productions. Mike states: “I joined the amateur society as a precocious 11-year-old and adored poking around the tiny flies and attics of the old building. A few years later opportunities came to actually light at the bigger venue. We had a semaphore colour change system which I thought was the height of sophistication. The approach to lighting around those times was pipe ends and buckets of face. I started experimenting in side light, back light and suddenly the whole visage was more interesting. That was noted and the flurry of approval gave me a shot in the arm. Whilst I was still very much experimenting, I felt I was onto something…”. It was also during this time that Mike realised the true impact lighting could have. However, this experience wasn’t inside a theatre but, rather, on a family holiday: “We were on holiday in Copenhagen when we came across a sequence of interactive glass sculptures which you could rotate in the sunlight and form enchanting colourful shapes. I may not be able to paint with oils, but with light…”

 

Younger-Mike

Mike during his Guildhall days.

During this time, Mike was continuing with his studies. He states: “I was a boarder at Merchiston Castle School for Boys which has the record of being one of the most eminent rugby schools in the world. That said, the headmaster was a visionary man and allowed us to individually excel in other areas. As luck would have it, the year after I arrived they started building a theatre and, following a suitable campaign of bargaining with the man, he must have conceded that my spare time should be spent working in there; for no reason other than to shut me up. It was a fantastic time and I really did have a ball. Academically I did quite well although I have no idea how as I never seemed to do much more than play with lights!”. It was also during this time that Mike would meet one of his biggest influences: Andy Collier at Strand. Mike recalls: “Andy was the kindest and most helpful man in the lighting game. He took such an early interest in my passion for the subject and never faltered in that for all the years I knew him. I’m afraid a lot of knowledge went with him and so I try and retain as much history of our craft to educate myself and preserve his memory”.

At this point, Mike knew he wanted to pursue a career in theatre lighting. He applied for further education and, after a long conversation with Johanna Town (whose Leading Light you can read here), he decided to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Mike recalls: “The discipline at Guildhall when I studied bordered military! We worked mainly six days a week with short lunch and supper breaks every day from 8am in the morning to 9.30pm at night. It engendered such a work ethic that no professional engagement has ever seemed too drawn out. Even though most of the students knew the areas we wanted to target, the reality was that we were allocated to all departments equally. This was the best thing that could have happened as it gave us a working knowledge of every discipline which is the true empathy required to do your own specialism well”.

 

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The legendary Julian Slade who became a friend of Mike’s.

That said, upon graduation, Mike was prepared for the realities of life as a freelance theatre practitioner: “The drama schools were chucking us all out at the same time and the opportunities, as ever, were disproportionate to the sheer volume of us. I think London can be a daunting place at any time but particularly when you’re starting out. That said, some early knock backs are in fact essential if you are going to pace a long freelance life”. To find work, Mike got in touch with relatives in Bushey Heath and negotiated to stay with them while doing various summer jobs such as an ASM. He recalls: “I actually moved back to Scotland for a short time until one chilly morning I was overcome with the spirit of Dick Whittington and packed hastily before buying a one way ticket back to old London Town. Once again, I was at the mercy of friends to put me up. I then touted around for a bit before fate intervened: I was asked if I would like to be Assistant Director on a musical adaptation of The Comedy of Errors. The music was by the much beloved Julian Slade (of Salad Days fame) who became a lifelong friend and it was directed by the fearsome Anthony Besch”.

It was during The Comedy of Errors that Mike was to meet someone who influenced both his personal and professional life. He states: “My job on the show was mainly looking after the director – despite the fact I wanted to jump ship to the lighting department. The LD was Roger Frith, a legendary figure from Sadlers Wells and English National Opera. He lit it beautifully and was the most magnetic presence. Just as delightful was his wife, the actress Joyce Rae, who decided that the 21-year-old me needed ‘London Parents’ and she remains that to this day. Sadly Rog is no longer with us but those two were the seminal, central figures who started me out in the business”.

 

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Mike become involved with Theatro Technis in Camden.

And so under watchful eyes began Mike’s career in theatre. He took on various odd jobs on a variety of productions yet it was a brush with a certain Beatrix Potter to which he owes his first big break. He recalls: “Clare Fox got in touch to say that an actress called Rohan McCullough needed a technical bod to help her with a show about the author. I went to meet her in some funny old theatre space in Kensington and we hit it off straight away. Her partner was the iconic playwright Hugh Whitemore and I remember attending several parties at their place in Notting Hill. One morning, she rang me to say that they had been at a dinner the night before with a man called George Biggs whom she thought was part of the Great Train Robbery. Despite getting her wires severely crossed, George was indeed a highly significant figure in Maybox Entertainment (which would eventually become ATG). I arranged a meeting with him and, within half an hour, I was the new charge-hand sparks at The Phoenix Theatre in Charing Cross Road!”. Whereas the Phoenix would ensure that Mike would be kept busy for the next few years, he continued to light shows on the London fringe scene at venues such as the Kings Head, Islington, and the New End, Hampstead. He states: “One of the earliest shows I remember lighting was a Moliere called Two Precious Maidens Ridiculed – although I dread to think what it looked like! I also became involved with a group called Theatro Technis who were based in Camden. We did show after show and it was a lovely bit of retraining, particularly having the continuity of working on diverse pieces in the same building. You could refine methods, systems of light and ways of technically going about things without ever forgetting that this honing of technique was not in itself lighting design but, moreover, a sharper aide in achieving it”.

Click here to read Part Two.