Kate Bonney

11th April 2016

Curated by Danna Solomon

This month’s featured artist is lighting designer Kate Bonney, who is based at Out of the Blue Portobello.

“Its heart, I suppose,” Kate says about what attracts her to a project. “Some lighting jobs are about spectacle and scale and toys, and that’s great fun when you get to do that,” she says, “but the theatre work that I love is storytelling. It’s always storytelling, and guiding people. Looking at a script or watching rehearsals, and working out, ‘What can I do to help guide an audience into feeling what we want them to feel, and seeing what we want them to see?’”

Although she originally wanted to go into graphic design, by the time Kate finished school she decided designing in three dimensions rather than two would better suit her desires and skills. “I realised I was more comfortable up a ladder than I was sat in front of a computer,” she says.

After graduating with a degree in Technical Production Arts from the RCS in Glasgow, Kate gave herself ten years to work as a technician to “learn her tools and trade,” and took on a post as assistant electrician at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. “I really missed Scotland,” she says of her time in England. “I’m not desperately patriotic or anything, but the Scottish theatre scene is quite a community because we’re quite a small nation; everyone knows everyone. When I crossed over the border…with no sort of nationalism in my head, I realised it just didn’t have that same vibe of people knowing each other.” After the Belgrade, Kate did four years in-house at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre as a technician. She identifies Pitlochry as particularly valuable experience, as that theatre is known for doing six shows in daily rep every summer. “That was really good training,” she says, “doing refocusing and maintaining the standard of the shows.”

Kate’s technical experience encompasses shows of all shapes and size. Two favourite touring shows that she mentions represent opposite ends of the spectrum of her work: The National Theatre of Scotland’s international tour of Black Watch, and the Scottish national tour of Wee Stories’ One Giant Leap, both in 2008. She says: “I went from touring arenas to Scalloway, [working] on a show that really was ‘wee.’ Have you been to Shetland? I really recommend it because it’s another world. Scalloway has one bank. And the opening hours of that bank are Thursday 10-12.” 

I ask Kate about what inspires her, particularly in the art she chooses to see: “Clever theatrical visuals,” she says, “that’s what brings me in.” She notes a production of Robert LePage’s The Far Side of the Moon she saw in college, describing in vivid and dynamic detail how LePage’s use of an angled mirror made the show’s single performer appear to defy gravity during the show’s final scene: “So what you saw in the mirror was a man gradually become weightless, and then float away into space. Isn’t that brilliant? You could see there was a man rolling about on the floor!”

This interest in clever and unexpected design extends to Kate’s lighting work. Kate lit Uncanny Valley, a children’s show about artificial intelligence that ran during the International Science Festival. About that show, Kate says: “it encourages children to think about the idea of, ‘what is a life?’ And what value it has. … We made people care about a plastic ball. And you can see it all, you can see someone speaking into a microphone, you can see it’s just lights flashing, but you can’t help but go, ‘Aww!’”

Kate has strictly been designing for about four years. Her diverse repertoire ranges from straight theatre to aerial dance and larger-than-life outdoor installation work. Recently, Kate has been exploring new concept projects and working with new mediums. She has worked for several years on the design team for The Enchanted Forest in Faskally Wood, which brings together diverse artistic collaborators to “bring people out into the woods at night and make them look up.” Kate also lit All or Nothing’s show Three’s a Crowd in January. “That was my first time lighting aerial dancers. It was almost like four dimensions, considering where I needed to get light in from. So that was a real learning experience, and I think it worked. I really enjoy the variety and I enjoy the challenges.”


Kate is currently working on the next Enchanted Forest, which is due to open in October. She is also applying for funding to travel to Bregenz Opera in Austria, which she believes will be a significant learning experience given the trajectory of her work: “I’ve started getting into this world of large-scale installation lighting, and then I’m also doing the theatre stuff, and that just seems to mash those two worlds together.” She and studio-mate Simon Hayes, who is also on the team for Enchanted Forest, are considering starting a company together to pursue further commissions for “outdoor, light-based art.”

Her shared studio at Out of the Blue is Kate’s first real workspace. “It’s totally amazing,” she says, “Just, the quality of life to have somewhere to ‘come to work’ and then lock the door and go home… I mean, occasionally I still sit at home and do admin in my pajamas, but, that’s a choice now… It produces better work. Time and space let you really focus on the product. The art.”  Kate also says that the Portobello space feels like a community to her: “There are usually people in the workshop, or artists downstairs… Just people going around and that’s brilliant, feeling like a small thing that’s part of a bigger machine. … We often all find ourselves in the kitchen at the same time, and have a chat.”

Kate and Simon sublet from Francis Gallop, another theatre designer who shares the space. Working in a space with other artists seems to suit Kate. She says, “It’s so much easier to work with another person. I think creatively, you get more than double with two people because you bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce. And it’s just more fun.”

Out of the Blue’s lease in Portobello is up at the end of June, which means that the tenants may need to find new space to do their work. For Kate, finding a new studio is absolutely essential. “I think it was a little bit before Christmas [that we found out]. It’s sad because we’ve got settled, and there are three of us. I wasn’t sure I could afford it, but I’ve proved that I have to afford it. As a proof of concept, it’s been a good thing. … Every so often we have a little panic… But something will turn up, it always does.”

Out of the Blue is currently doing everything possible to find new space for Kate and the other Portobello tenants to occupy from July.

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