LIGHTING designers can make or break stage shows these days, and it has become such a technically sophisticated and specialised area of work that the temptation to show off, to dazzle for its own sake, is very high. On the other hand, you need to be able to show off sometimes. Steve Whitson had all the technical ability and knowledge, but he was never just a technician and although he was never over impressed with his own knowledge, he certainly could show off if that was what was needed.
I met Stevie Whitson in 1990 when Robert Chevara, who was directing Bruno Maderna's Satyricon for Opera Factory, asked him to light it for him. I was immediately struck by his manic, hyperactive intensity and his ability to be reflective and self-critical - a rare combination. Whitson's mouth may never have stopped talking, brilliant, witty and crude by turns, sometimes all three at once, but he was thinking more than he was saying.
He had an extraordinarily wide range of experience in theatre and film, working not only as lighting designer in fringe and classical spoken theatre, ballet, modern dance, performance art, opera and mime, but also in all possible capacities, as actor, writer, designer and inspiring teacher. This fascination with all aspects of theatre, and indeed art, for he was also an accomplished photographer and sculptor, fed into his lighting design, so that he remained as interested in performance as he ever was in image or technology.
Whitson began life in Brooklyn, and his theatrical career at La Mama, in New York, in the 1960s. He had worked in Britain since the Seventies, and also all over Europe. High on his list of achievements was his work as drama tutor at the Oval House theatre, in Kennington. He lit three shows for me in the last two years of his life, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni for Opera Factory, and, partly due to his already failing health, in collaboration with Vladimir Lukasevitch of the Kirov Opera, The Fiery Angel in St Petersburg and later at Covent Garden.
Two lighting designers on one production could be a recipe for a great deal of handbag-throwing. Whitson had a handbag, but he never threw it without a purpose: he had a huge personality, but very little ego. In hospital, at the end, he was still shouting out improvements to the lighting for Opera Factory's forthcoming revival of Figaro, knowing that he would never see it.
He was an inspiring human being, who through theatre had an effect far beyond theatre on the many young people who attended his classes at the Oval House. Tough kids would come in off the street, thinking themselves very outrageous, and be amazed to meet Whitson, who was far more outrageous and who showed them how to be creative, an aspect of his work which I knew little about until I heard their testimony at his funeral.
Not many people can deal with Covent Garden and street life with the one personality. Stevie tried everything, and his loss at only 46 is hard to bear.
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