Let there be light

By Sarah Lang
Photo by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #62
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Lighting designer and artist Marcus McShane talks to Sarah Lang about his work, living in a car, and saving the planet.

Marcus McShane sprawls on a couch wearing a pink cap and faded jeans. He talks around topics, and ends sentences with ellipses. “I’m a terrible waffler, sorry… I waffle a lot… am I waffling right now?” He is. But he’s also laid back, likeable, and very good at what he does.

Asked what he does, he simply says “designer”. He doesn’t mention that he’s considered one of New Zealand’s best and most prolific lighting designers. Over the past 12 years, Marcus has tackled 400-plus projects – around three a month. His 20-plus awards include six Wellington Theatre (formerly Chapman Tripp) Awards for his lighting design, five NZ Fringe awards for his light-based artworks, and two Architecture NZ awards for his work lighting buildings.

Marcus nods when people ask if he’s got enough work. Actually, he’s booked out two years in advance – with a little leeway for interesting projects that pop up – working mainly in New Zealand and occasionally internationally. He once helped a friend design and light a complex animation for an event at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Six months out, his schedule has few gaps. “Timeframes can be fluid, but it all works out. I enjoy the variety.”

Lighting design is much more complicated than I’d realised. In theatre, lighting designers work with the director, choreographer, set designer, and sound designer to create the onstage atmosphere, look, and ‘time of day’ (say, dusk). “Essentially, a lighting designer directs where the audience should look at any one time. It’s like being the Director of Photography in a film – you’re framing all the shots.”

He’s no longer the lighting operator/technician at the back of the theatre who gets a shout-out at the end. “I do miss the immediacy of being that guy.” The technician operates a console that controls multiple lights, according to Marcus’s design. When productions tour, Marcus sometimes fields late-night calls from the technician. “They might say ‘this space isn’t what we thought at all’, and I’ll say ‘send me photos’. Although I’m in my underpants in Wellington, somewhere else a laptop gets plugged into the venue’s sound system so I can Skype in and explain the changes I’m making, while people wait for me to edit the plot.” The lighting plot is a four-dimensional image of the show’s lighting – a bit like an architectural blueprint – that Marcus creates using design software.

He takes on the occasional concert, and was the lighting designer and lighting technician for Russian protest punk-rock group Pussy Riot’s shows in Auckland and Wellington earlier this year. “Pussy Riot was crazy, ad hoc fun. I never knew what they’d do next, so I was improvising with them and just going with it.”

What about his lighting design work for buildings? “That’s some of the best fun I’ve had. I dream about what a structure or space could look like at night, then, generally, water this down to practicalities.” His projects have included commercial buildings, heritage buildings and museums: sometimes the interior, sometimes the exterior, sometimes both – for example, Olive café and its courtyard. He decides which features to draw attention to. “If people don’t notice the lighting [design], particularly in architecture, you’ve done a good job. You’re trying to be invisible, in a way.” A favourite project was projecting a dappled pattern evoking a ‘sunlit’ oak forest on the vaulted ceiling of Old St Paul’s cathedral for an event; the church staff loved it, so it stayed there for months. Some of his lighting is kept permanently.

Marcus doesn’t see much difference between being a lighting designer and a ‘light artist’. ‘Everything bleeds into everything else.’ His widely-exhibited installations produce light, or are created through the manipulation of light, colours and shadows. In 2015 his work Sky represented New Zealand at the Prague Quadrennial international design festival. Marcus used a night-vision camera to track Wellington’s clouds, whose shapes were plotted on a grid then projected, in miniature and in real time, onto the ceiling of a ballroom in a Prague palace.

His most-exhibited work is performance piece Nag. Two people pedal bikes which power everything (such as laptops) that they need to do their own work in the exhibition space (which might be, for example, a shipping container). Marcus typed, with difficulty, while pedaling. “The more things you turn on – printer, lights, record player – the harder you have to pedal. If you stop, everything goes dark which is fun.” Nag uses washing-machine motors rewired as generators, and other dumpster-dived parts found in skips.

Yes, he’s a kind of eco-artist. “But I try not to rant about the environment to people. Being preached at by a vegetarian, bicycle-riding, anti-flying, dumpster-diving hipster-artist definitely turns people off.” He hasn’t owned a car for 20 years and still dumpster dives. “Once I found 96 perfectly good blocks of halloumi, which I could barely carry on my bicycle. Everyone in my flat gained weight.” Now Marcus and his partner – actor/writer Claire O’Loughlin – share 12 bikes and an apartment in the central-city Hannah’s building. Marcus lived on a yacht docked in Evans Bay on and off for six years. “Claire grew up on a boat, so that’s probably how I snagged her!”

Working largely from his kitchen table, and visiting locations, Marcus spends about half his time on lighting-design jobs and half on artworks. But the design work provides about 80% of his income. “That’s important now I have a mortgage.” He’s most productive between 8am and 10am, and (about twice a week) between 11pm and 2–3am. Marcus sometimes suffers from insomnia, which he finds aggravatingly inefficient, so when he can’t sleep he gets up for a bit. “That’s when I worry about the world. But I’ve got some hope right now, with the climate-change protest movement. I went on the kids’ climate-change march – the only time I’ve felt both old and joyous at the same time.”

New Zealand’s gross CO2 emissions equate to 16.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year. In 2018, Marcus kept his own greenhouse-gas emissions under 1.9 tonnes. If everyone in the world followed his lead, it would reduce global warming by about 25%, postponing the worst effects of climate change until, hopefully, humans manage to reduce emissions globally. So, last year, Marcus chose not to go on a Caribbean sailing holiday with Claire and her mother, because it involved long flights. Instead, he biked around New Zealand.

They don’t have kids – yet. Marcus was raised by a cash-strapped solo mother. From ages five to nine, he travelled with her between fruit-picking and other temporary jobs. Mostly they lived in their 1960s Morris Minor traveller, with a mattress in the back. “I thought it was all a big adventure.” They never stopped for more than eight weeks, so Marcus attended 14 primary schools. His parents had broken up before he turned one. “When I was 10, Mum ran into my father again and we moved back to Wellington. They’re still together. I’ve got a brother 15 years younger than me.”

Marcus did a Master’s degree in English Literature, and an honours degree in philosophy. “I paid my way through uni by working for a lighting company – mainly rigging concerts – and suddenly I had a trade. I enjoy making, fixing, fiddling with things. I like simple, efficient things that last, or can be reused.”

Also a writer, he has drafted a novel, and written many “short rants”: opinionated, sometimes funny, mini-essays. They’re all 101 words long because he liked the challenge, then the uniformity. His rants form the basis of the “101 Rants” exhibition he  curated to celebrate BATS theatre’s 30th birthday. Written mainly by Marcus, along with some other writers, the 101-word rants are displayed inside 30 energy-efficient lit-up panels in BATS’ bar and entrance area. Marcus swaps out the rants for other’s every week; the exhibition, naturally, was on for 101 days. In one rant, Marcus admits that “being Green I’m trapped with Labour” while Freya Daly-Sadgrove rails against Whittaker’s pink and blue “gender-reveal” chocolate. “Work is always stronger when other people feed into it and collaborate with you,” Marcus says. “I love that side of what I do.”


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