Peter Mumford didn’t set out to become one of the most celebrated lighting designers of the past six decades. It just sort of happened. Studying stage design in university under Ralph Koltai led to various behind-the-scenes jobs, where Mumford found he had a knack for discovering the symbiotic relationship between light and space.
“When I left art school, I was very involved with using projection and film because of the experimental company I was working at,” says the designer. “It was pre-video days and in order to make that work, you had to use light.”
Today, artists understand light as a medium the same way sculpture or painting are. But back then, there were no specific lighting design courses. So, Mumford honed his talent working on countless productions in drama, opera, and dance. He still works in all three disciplines, often on several productions at the same time.
To begin his design, he pays attention in meetings and rehearsals to the dialogue, the movement, the setting, and the emotion of the piece. For the lighting designer, there are no models or drawings as there are with set and costume designers. It’s impossible to illustrate lighting in the same way, so Mumford can usually only explain his vision through words before starting tech rehearsals
“I’ve got to be quite careful about describing it because my creative work happens once we’re in the theatre," he says. "Lighting design can certainly be called almost the last creative moment in the process of making a piece. It’s the moment where you put everything together. Lighting design is, in that sense, the melding of performance with surface.”
His work has paid off in dividends throughout his career, but perhaps the ultimate honor came when he scored two Tony Award nominations in 2019, for lighting both The Ferryman and King Kong.
“From a visual point of view, I think King Kong was very successful,” says Mumford. In the musical, audiences see things like lightning strikes, moon light, and flashbulbs for entertainment sequences. Mumford calls this the “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” style.
It is a massive juxtaposition against the Tony-winning straight play by Jez Butterworth, where Mumford had cues in the production that the audience would not likely identify unless they were looking for it. He calls it “controlled naturalism.”
For example, The Ferryman featured an effect that lasts nearly 20 minutes. “The long monologue [by Auntie Maggie Faraway] at the beginning of the second act is colors changing, lights moving very slightly, and adjusting focus to draw your attention where it’s supposed to be,” Mumford explains. “It’s quite cinematic actually, like zooming in on a camera or editing.”
Each show is different for a lighting designer, who is usually one of the last members of the creative teams to join in the technical process. On occasion, however, Mumford is one of the first designers contacted—something Mumford enjoys because it gives him additional insight and time to plan.
It’s a group effort once the team is assembled, collaborating and bouncing ideas off one another. “Theatre isn’t a medium which suits a singular approach,” says Mumford. Otherwise the entire production falls apart.
Even actors get involved in the process. Laura Linney, who stars in My Name Is Lucy Barton at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 29, was very active in the lighting set-up. “She wanted to work with the light,” says Mumford. “She’s an amazing performer to work with. She wanted to be in the right place creating the right image. The job of lighting in that was to create a lot of changing images and tell the story alongside her own storytelling.”
Lighting can even change within the same show when it moves to different venues. In London, My Name Is Lucy Barton was on a thrust stage (generally with seats on three sides) whereas the Samuel J. Friedman in NYC is a proscenium.
It’s hard to imagine what Mumford has time for besides lighting. In fact, on top of the Vienna production, his work on the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away recently opened at Donmar Warehouse in London, he’s working on two operas internationally, and he’s planning a dance showcase at The Wallis in Los Angeles celebrating choreography by Jonathan Lunn.
Having just moved to the isle of Kefalonia in Greece, the designer still finds time for relaxation, though. He drives a motor boat to the beaches, he fishes in the summer, and he’s growing grapes in his own vineyard.
But even as he tackles new projects, he still returns to previous designs. One of Mumford’s proudest achievements is the longevity of his work in Madama Butterfly, most recently seen at The Met, and originally staged by the late Anthony Minghella in 2006. It’s being revived at Vienna’s Wiener Staatsoper, and while the designer plans to keep the essence of the show, he’s been looking at it with a fresh eye.
“Technology changes very rapidly in the lighting world. It’s not really interesting to simply reconstruct the numbers, so it’s not going to just be shipped from the Met. Otherwise, what’s the point?”