Obituary: Chris Ellis 1950 - 2019
Thursday, 28 November 2019
chrisellisChris Ellis, who passed away on 8th November 2019
UK LSi is sad to report that lighting designer Chris Ellis passed away on 8th November 2019, aged 69. Born in Gloucester, on 23rd April 1950 to Doctor John and Mrs Mary Ellis, Chris Ellis lost both of his parents before he turned seven. He became ward to the Reverend Eric and Mrs Vivienne Gethyn-Jones in Dymock, spending a happy country childhood with a brother and sister that the couple had also adopted. From age eight to 18 he attended the Dean Close boarding school in Cheltenham, where he discovered a love of the backstage world - and the skill, which would be useful throughout his career, of persuading people to pay for new lighting equipment. In this case, the school bursar was convinced to buy four new Patt 23 spotlights.

With his ambition to be a commercial airline pilot thwarted by asthma, he decided instead to try making a career in lighting. Accepted by the BBC for their engineering programme, he discovered that it would be 15 years before he could specialise in lighting for them. Offered a job at the local Cheltenham Everyman theatre, he persuaded the BBC to keep their offer open for two years while he went to try the world of theatre lighting. He never went back.

After Cheltenham, he moved to the New Theatre in Bromley, then to the newly opened Hull Arts Centre, then in early 1971 to the Leicester Phoenix. That meant he was the person the City Architect turned to for advice on the new Haymarket Theatre which was then in planning. Ellis worked to ensure that the theatre would have a good lighting provision, including one of Strand’s pioneering MSR memory consoles complete with stalls control to allow him to sit with the director and designer as a show was made. He moved to the theatre as its chief electrician and resident lighting designer when it opened in 1973.

It was at the Haymarket that he first worked with director Michael Bogdanov, forming a working partnership that would continue for both of their working lives with shows at the National Theatre, the RSC, at the Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, for Bogdanov’s own English Shakespeare Company, in the West End with the musical Hair and elsewhere. He also lit some of the earliest productions of a young producer called Cameron Mackintosh, co-produced with the Haymarket. And Leicester gave Ellis his biggest commercial hit, the musical Me and My Girl, which enjoyed successful runs in London and New York.

While at Leicester, Ellis began being asked to light productions elsewhere, lighting his first West End play - Lloyd George Knew My Father starring Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft - in 1971, and his first for the National - The Magic Drum - in 1977. But with a family to support, Ellis felt uncertain about relying solely on the income of a freelance lighting designer. For a long time he therefore remained based at the Haymarket, becoming production manager in 1980 and then ultimately, with the theatre in financial trouble, stepping in as CEO in 1990. In that capacity he ensured the backstage staff were retained, and that the theatre re-established the kind of programming enjoyed by local audiences, turning a big deficit into a good surplus over the next year.

From then he focused solely on lighting design, his shows including many at Leicester (ranging from the play Dolly West’s Kitchen to the musicals Merrily We Roll Along and Hot Stuff), the epic Big Picnic in Glasgow, operas for the ROH, ENO including a series of acclaimed productions for director David Pountney, Scottish Opera, WNO, Opera North and many overseas companies, numerous shows in Derby, Chichester and at Kilworth House, Forbidden City - the opening show at the Esplanade in Singapore, Pinocchio in Milan, Jerry Springer The Opera and the long-running Soul Train on tour, plus High Society, Rent, Taboo, La Cava and others in the West End. He was also a trusted pair of eyes for performers such as Ute Lemper and Elaine Stritch. His involvement with theatre in Leicester continued through the opening of Curve in 2008, for which provided advice on the proposed new lighting installation and then lit the opening show, Simply Cinderella, and several subsequent productions.

Throughout his career, as when he first specified the equipment for the Haymarket, he was quick to grasp the opportunities that new lighting technology offered and to incorporate it into his work. He also expanded his work into architectural and exhibition lighting, with projects including the National Centre of Popular Music in Sheffield and the Printworks entertainment complex in Manchester. A speciality in lighting churches had the added bonus of letting him indulge his passion for playing church organs.

Chris Ellis’ lighting was rarely afraid to make dramatic statements if required, always aiming to help support the story of the show, the performers telling it and the beauty of the set. He preferred to work with a show’s scenic designer from as early as possible, to ensure the set would take light well and to suggest further ideas that light could bring to the production. He was unafraid of offering opinions if he thought they would help the show, always in the spirit of making a better show. He was also fascinated by the work of other lighting designers - and enormously supportive of those who worked with him, a number of those noting the encouraging messages they would later receive after he had seen their work on other shows.

In 2015, he kept his promise to his wife Gina that he would retire at 65, the couple moving from Leicester to the West Country. It was there that he was diagnosed with cancer and that he remained through several years of treatment, passing part of the time writing a memoir of his life in theatre. He is survived by Gina and their sons Tim and Ben.
(Rob Halliday)

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