Interview by John Leventhall for the February 2013 edition of FOCUS, the Journal of the Association of Lighting Designers.
I first met Trui Malten at the ABTT 2012 Theatre Show. “I’ve worked in Europe and the US mostly,” she told me, hinting at her amazingly varied career. “This might make an interesting Focus article,” thought I, your occasional roving reporter for the LD’s bimonthly organ. So I waited...and waited.... for a brief respite between Trui’s many engagements. On a chilly January day we met after her return from The New National Theatre, Tokyo – ‘Peter Grimes’ and La Scala, Milan – ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and before ‘Le Roi David’ in Holland.
Over several coffees unfolded a career spanning three decades both happily and poignantly illustrating a real vocation in lighting and what it is to enjoy and suffer that obsession across the globe!
Read on, students and emerging LDs and even busy, top-flight LDs to contrast your aspirations and experience with Trui Malten’s engaging story!
JL: Tell me about your early training
TM: I’m Dutch and trained in Holland in the 1980s. Drama Schools had a strong tradition of ‘social agenda,’ using theatre for social and educational objectives. I became a drama teacher, acting and directing, gravitating to small scale, collaborative Amsterdam theatres. I learned to enjoy the collaborative process. Theatre is a dirty art, plastic and susceptible to putting your mark on it. You get so much further by collaboration than on your own.
How did you discover lighting design?
Doing ‘a bit of everything’ sparked off curiosity about light. How do you get ‘Control over the Light’? With nobody to ‘enlighten’ me this became a small obsession. So, not fancying the life of a sweaty technician, I applied to study at Yale University in 1988 on a postgraduate theatre design course where my role models were scenographer Ming Cho Lee and, vitally, Lighting Designer extraordinary, Jennifer Tipton, under whom I studied and began to assist in the early 1990’s.
What was your biggest learning from Yale?
What you learn ... hopefully not too late... is that such a course brings with it your future network and collaborators. Everyone at college should realise that. Your peers and teachers show you the way forward.
After graduation, assisting Jennifer Tipton turned out not to be such a great career move! I learned about her method, but working with Jennifer in the top echelon of US performance art produced few openings to that level of work for me, in my youth and inexperience. I wouldn’t have missed my time with Jennifer for worlds! But I learned you have to start practicing at an appropriate level to experience and age. So I struck out on my own at an altogether smaller scale!
So, tell me about your early career.
An important thing happened. At Yale I met my future husband, Giancarlo and we moved to New York, where he started teaching at Columbia University and later back at Yale. Giancarlo recognised my deep need to do Theatre and he became my greatest encouragement even in my darkest times. But in some ways he was the worst thing for my fledgling career as an LD!
I started working on studio scale productions, mostly for peanuts! I was quite under-employed until it dawned on me that my Yale network was there. Could anyone help me? A call to Ming was answered by his wife Betsy Lee. I realized she was the one that often matched up reputable directors with young designers. That led to meeting designer Chris Barreca whom I began to assist, drafting and model building and then my classmate Karen (Kirkham) Lordi, asked me to design my first show at the Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Muhlenberg, a ‘liberal arts’ college, presented me, a young Stage Designer and LD, with great opportunity. USA College Theatre is plentiful, has decent budgets, the time to do good work and attracts talented professional directors and designers. Charles Richter, Muhlenberg’s long-time Director of Theatre liked my work. So I started 5 years of regular engagements designing sets and lights. That was a happy period of creativity and collaboration. Perhaps, I should have thrown my net wider, but I was having a rewarding time and people appreciated my work.
Then you became pregnant with your first daughter. How was it after you had the baby?
I applied the old adage that ‘the show must go on.’ I organized an au-pair and the three of us hit the road! Having a baby became my daily reality. I had no problem multitasking and would be focusing and breastfeeding at the same time! Several students told me years later they were absolutely shocked, but also realised that they soon would have to enter the grown up world!
Where did you go next? (acknowledging Trui’s ironic smile)
I continued travelling with baby and au-pair. My fees about covered expenses and au-pair. I was working hard for very little. But Giancarlo continued to encourage me, while working on his own academic career both in Italy and in the US. We had several years of a crazy semi- nomadic life. Autumn and winter we’d work in the USA and travel to Italy for the summer. Then Giancarlo announced his appointment to professor in Rome. With two toddlers facing the start of school, we decided to move to Italy ‘permanently’. At first, I continued doing shows in the US but that gradually fell away; people move on and the venues couldn’t afford to fly me out for meetings.
So you retired to be a mum?
Certainly not! Picking up a network in Italy with no track record was hard. It took 18 months to learn enough Italian to meet people and talk business! I began to miss badly the process of creating shows and collaborating.
So your vocation was calling loudly?
I guess so. Without good social and professional contacts, I began ‘knocking on doors’. I was cold-calling managements, chatting-up performers and generally being a nuisance! After experiencing a pleasant creative period as one of the ‘Yaleys’ and the great environment of Muhlenberg, Italy was tough.
So how did you get work?
I met a choreographer who introduced me to a performer-producer, who ran a struggling, small scale dance company. Catapulted back down to small scale arts venues and outdoor, 18-dimmer rigs, I scraped along. Many technicians were hard to work with: some could neither cope with the simple suggestion of introducing dimmer patching nor having a female foreigner as the boss!
Then designer Steve Strawbridge, another Yaley, asked me to help with liason with the Italians and I became associate designer on the transfer from New York to Naples of The Souls of Naples, starring John Turturo. That was a contrasting experience that introduced me to the great theatrical culture of Naples. We had a wonderful time working with a very professional crew that took great pride in their craft and tradition.
What happened after Rome?
We moved to Florence and I started all over again ‘knocking on doors’. I worked two years for a festival company, Fabrica Europa, as technical coordinator for dance . Then the Artistic Director of the Compagnia Krypton, Giancarlo Cauteruccio asked me, as a challenge, to design his Ubu Roi. His background was architecture and he would make stunningly beautiful pictures but was difficult to work for. But I never gave up and designed his shows for 5 years, back in the lower budget world. That was a great place to learn to make choices. Using limited equipment to make as much effect, colour and variation of the light as you can, even sometimes at the expense of some illumination. Through Cauteruccio I got to know Matteo Bavera the artistic director of Teatro Garibaldi in Palermo who deliver a wide range of art and performance and got commissioned to do new shows, relight some and tour internationally.
How would you sum up your time in Italy?
I had a lot to cope with. I did theatre because my life had always been saturated with theatre – this is what I do. But there were many challenges professionally and personally, many prejudices and gender issues and it was hard to make money.
As a woman and an experienced LD and Set Designer, how do you prove your right to be there and command appropriate fees?
I have a simple view. Be extremely professional, pick your battles, have a thick skin and a great sense of humour! In Italy the LD profession doesn’t exist to the same extent as in Northern Europe. You always have to prove yourself and maintain your credibility. A good learning experience.
What helps with that?
Well, when I walk into a theatre, after 30-plus years practicing, I understand where I am. That counts for a lot. The Dutch and American Theatre School system taught me collaboration to serve the text and not to serve your ego.
What about the gender issues?
My ideal crew is a mix of men and women. Packs of men tend to get competitive, with bickering and jealousy and sometimes bits of actual disappearing, to cool off! A mixed crew is altogether calmer and more mutually respectful. My favourite theatre is Utrecht with female technical directors who ensure everyone learns all skills and rotate work and responsibility. That’s a great leveller!
So as a woman LD, do you feel your experience of your art and professional relationships have been shaped by gender?
Oh yes! My career has been defined by my gender and the gender-related choices I have had to make – being a mother and being a female designer amongst Italian electricians! You make your environment. Mine is, I hope, made better because I choose to be pleasant and totally professional in all dealings. If that means being particularly ‘charming’ then I feel free to use whatever personal tools are available to me. Men use aggression, women use sex appeal. I don’t want to make a big deal of it. I do resent some of the challenges that only women experience – travel restrictions and masculine prejudices to name but two. In the UK I am a proud member of Women in Entertainment
because it is important to support each other in a male- dominated industry and to draw wider attention to those very real issues.
What’s happening at the moment?
Giancarlo got a professorship at Cambridge a couple of years ago – so we’ve moved again! And again I have started ‘knocking on doors’... at least this time I speak the language! I re-contacted my Yale network. Jennifer Tipton and David Finn both asked me to assist on two different Romeo and Juliets at La Scala. Preparing those shows I bumped into an old classmate from Yale, Simon Bennison, who has been at the ROH for years. Slowly but surely things are moving. I could use a good agent though, to help push ahead!
I like being Assistant to LDs or Associate LD almost as much as doing my own shows and I’d like to do more Associate work in the UK, obviously. I’m looking to find new collaborations and new companies. I feel some of my best experiences might be just one or two years in the future!
Not considering retirement then?
Jennifer is over 70 and shows no signs of retiring! I’ve got a long way to go! I’ve been lucky enough to have Giancarlo’s support, encouraging my career and in the tough times financially. It means I have been a bit of a ‘Gentlewoman Adventurer’ but I can’t see myself doing anything else! My career is extensive and I’ve been all over the map, literally and artistically. I aspire to use that experience more and let myself be exploited less.
I don’t know a designer that hasn’t been exploited - it happens all the time, despite yourself. Is some low-paid work better than no work at all? Is a West End or Broadway show credit worth half of the fees of an out-of-town show? Producers play on the image of designers as ‘children’ who love their art and don’t
think about money. But they count on your professional pride and sense of responsibility to deliver brilliance when the audience walks in. After you’ve sweated over the obstacles, and the crew do you yet another favour, the producer appears and says, “I knew we would make it! Wonderful !” And when that turns out to be a producer who never intends to pay... that’s what I mean.
What’s important when touring in Europe?
Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork – don’t leave anything to chance or local judgement! Tour your own board and value your grand master fader lever! When you’ve got just 4 hours to hang, focus and transfer cues and last week you had all 1kw conventionals and today just 2kW conventionals and movers, is it cheating to run the entire rig at 85%?
What would be your advice to emerging LDs?
To a woman: Pick your battles and remain professional... always To a man: Have female technicians. It will change your crew for the better!
Trui, thank you so much!
A pleasure – I hope some readers may get inspiration from my messy career and that there’ll be more good conversations at ALD meetings!