Wilhelm Disbergen on lighting, set and theatre design

Quite obviously, theatre cannot happen without the magic that goes on behind the scenes. The writers, directors, costume designers, make up artists, set designers. These are people who often go without credit and yet without them there’d be no theatre.

I’ve long been fascinated by theatre lighting and when I got the opportunity (through Bronwen from B Sharp Entertainment) to chat to Wilhelm Disbergen, the Managing Director of Yellow Bunny Productions NPC, ahead of Impact No 1 on at Joburg Theatre from 18 – 21 August, I keenly grabbed the chance. As per his website, Wilhelm Disbergen is a theatre set, costume, audiovisual, and lighting designer.  He has designed more than a hundred productions locally and internationally, mostly at the Market Theatre and South African State Theatre. Video clips posted on here are taken from Wilhelm’s website and there are more available there. 

Artscape Theatre Cape Town

As I understand it, (from http://work.chron.com/duties-lighting-designer-16573.html) lighting designers create the light plot or outline for a show. They create a lighting design that will properly showcase the performers
and the setting, varying the design throughout the production to meet the action on stage. Firstly, do you agree with this assessment?

Yes, every production is different. The story is different and things happen in different places. The mood is different. The production might be abstract movements or a story ballet.

How do you come up with the effects you are looking for / feelings you are trying to create?

The production dictates what I will be doing. Is it a realistic approach with an actual set, or is it a theme or mood or colour? Some productions are very literal, and some more about the body in space, line and movement.

Describe, if you can, the intricacies of obtaining a balance between working with entertainers and other theatre staff to achieve the effects you are looking for.

The crew is a team of people with skills that help in their particular way to assist in creating the production. Some are highly skilled artists while others are more technically abled. Some drive heavy stage lifts or fly bars and make sure no one gets injures by these machines. Each one brings experience and knowledge to any production and without them, big productions and design would be impossible.

Artscape Theatre Cape Town I’m fascinated by the way lighting interacts with the audience – reflections off jewelry, pans the crowd, etc. It can make an audience feel like part of the show. Is this something designers take into account?

It again depends on the production: Do we need to Razzle Dazzle them or do we want them to be quietly pondering whatever is being presented? Are they watching through a ‘fourth wall’ or do we want them to actively feel part and engage in the event?

Could you describe the different approach one might take to theatre design dependent on the various different genres? For example, I’m thinking that if you were doing something like Spamalot, for example, or the Queen It’s a Kind of Magic Show, you might take a completely different approach.

Dance and drama and opera and farce all have their own specific requirements and work best using particular codes and conventions. The interesting thing is breaking these conventions or using one set of conventions particular to a certain genre and applying them in another.

Do certain colours / effects / patterns invoke feeling and help convey a message?

Circular shapes, symmetry and soft pastels are great for even moods. Angular / linear shapes, assymetry and strong colours evoke similarly strong emotional responses

The Mandela at Joburg Theatre is an amazing venue and I’ve spoken to international acts who have said that the lighting and technology there is world class. Are you looking forward to working there for this event? Are you working on both lighting and set design for the event?

It is an amazing venue. Probably one of the best in the country. Yes I am doing both set and lighting. I usually do both.

You’ve worked a lot of theatres around the country. Do you have a favourite theatre to work?

Artscape is very nice but the Joburg Theatre is just the best.

What would a typical day as a lighting designer for Impact No-1 look like? How big is the team that you’d be working with and what roles would they play?

I probably will have a team of about 20 technicians and crew. Many of them have to lay ballet mats, reshuffle enormous and heavy curtains. Others will be preoccupied with lighting – getting the right light in the right place plugged in and working before focussing it in a particular way with colour being added last. Along with several assistants, the lighting cues can then be created, programming with a dedicated programmer, one light to the next…. One light at a time.

This is a collaboration between three dance companies, doing different works. Do you face any particular challenges working with three different companies?

I have worked with all three companies and it was my suggestion that these different companies that almost always work all by themselves, in a joint program. To break the barriers that have traditionally existed between competing companies, and unify them, without any agenda, in one evening of dance. This joint performance is a complete novelty and it is really nice that we are the ones bringing everyone together for the first time.

What would you advise any youngsters wishing to get into the industry?

Go and study. Whether at Technicon on at university or at a local drama school. There you will encounter things like lights and paint and wood and artists you may not have encountered elsewhere. Perhaps you like one thing more than another. Great. Focus on that and learn all you can about it. See as many productions as you can and learn from other’s mistakes and successes.



Book now for Impact No. 1 at the Joburg Theatre. 



Backstage At Sister Act

Watching Janice Honeyman and the rest of the team behind the newest production of Sister Act rehearse behind the scenes prior to the commencement of the show is something that I will never forget.

I’m used to seeing the shows – having the golden thread tweaked by the stars of the shows. So are, I would imagine, most of the arts supporting public. But after watching the Sister Act rehearsals, I realised  how little I actually knew.

SA 7I’ve been to Joburg Theatre countless times. I’ve been there when I was a child and it was the Civic – I’ve been there while it was undergoing its transformation, and I’ve been there many times in the past few years. You could say Joburg Theatre has become as familiar to me as the street I live in. But I’d NEVER been backstage at the theatre until this moment, and – it’s like a WORLD back there that the public never gets to see. You go back there and there’s a sense of mystery, an austere sense of creativity and professionalism as you walk along the creaking floorboards past the ladies sewing the costumes, over the wooden boards and groaning screens where men are building sets, to the rehearsal area, where professionals are at work. You can get lost in a world where makebelieve is made there (I know, I did).  This world to me is almost as magic as the world the team creates there. 

SA 5There is an inestimable amount of work that occurs on a production before the curtain rises and the opening scenes happen. Costumes are prepared, sets are created, music notes are practiced and practiced again. Every single finite movement, word, tone, action – is suggested, directed, fine tuned, and done again and again and again. To see Janice Honeyman doing this in front of the cast of Sister Act – and them reacting to it – was like watching a fine conductor before the finest orchestra – bringing out the tunes and tones and movements until it became a flawless masterpiece.

Naturally enough it may not be much good if you’ve got a world class director working with a cast who isn’t world class, and I can safely say that everyone behind the curtain that day was WORLD class.  And when you realise that you are watching Janice Honeyman (active in South African stage and theatre since 1974) directing legend of SA arts Kate Normington, it’s hard not to go into overdrive as a passionate supporter of the arts, and I decided to seize the opportunity to get Janice’s autograph – even at age 40, I’m a celeb gazer, and I went hat in hand to Janice to ask for her signature. She was happy to oblige and I got this memento of that fantastic occasion.

Janice HoneymanI’m a businesswoman as well as a celeb enthusiast, and I realised that the lessons taken from these professionals could be well applied in business as well as in the arts. Janice Honeyman’s approach is one which can be applied in any industry – consummate professionalism down to the nth degree, but added to this, she is NICE. I could sense the rapport she had with the cast, and the sense of respect that emanated from them as they worked with her.

Kate Normington plays the role of Mother Superior and I got to closely observe her rehearsing with the young, talented and very funny Candida Mosoma (Deloris van Cartier) who came through Idols and has starred in other productions such as Dreamgirls.


Sister Act opened recently to excellent reviews from both media and members of the public. If you haven’t booked already, do so now as this one is going to sell out.