Comment, Hospitality/Leisure

Sex sells but, trust me, it’s all about the light

When I was a lad growing up in Sydney in the 1960s I often stayed with my grandparents in their flat in Elizabeth Bay. Being both ebullient and ‘different’ as a child (according to my mother), I would scarper off without permission and skip my way along the main street of Kings Cross, where I’d sometimes take a dip in the El Alamein fountain or play a game I liked to call ‘spot the prostitute’.

Lance Stewart is an award-winning lighting designer, actor, inventor and playwright. He has been active in the IES since 1990 as a member, committee member, lighting lecturer, keynote conference speaker and MC. His company, Creative Lighting, is based in Queensland Australia.

Of course the fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea what a prostitute was may have led me to mistakenly include office workers in my tally, though I was pretty sure someone dressed in a habit didn’t qualify.

In hindsight, I may even have been mistaken on that count: wearing a habit no more makes you a nun than wearing a suit makes you a gentleman, particularly if you’re walking the streets of Kings Cross.

Many years later I would have occasion to go back to those all-too familiar streets to install – you guessed it – titillating lighting. 

The Cross is famous for its unique blend of seedy strip joints and all things illegal, so it was no surprise that I landed gigs there; the sex industry arguably being just another branch of the entertainment industry.

On one such occasion I took along one of our more introverted workers because I thought his reaction to naked women would be priceless. And it was: the ladies not only made him blush and smile awkwardly, which made me laugh, it also introduced us both to the latest innovation in stripping: coin-operated peep show windows.

The El Alamein fountain in Sydney’s Kings Cross, where a young Lance Stewart would spot the future beneficiaries of his titillating lighting schemes

This was completely new, even to me, and stopped me laughing quick smart. Thud went a window as it shut, whirr went a window as it opened.

The trick with (thud) lighting a peep show, (whirr), apart from making yourself not think about (thud) who was behind those windows that were (thud) slamming up and down (whirr) and what they might be doing (la la-la, not listening, la-la la), is to have dynamic, colour-changing lighting which sequences with the beat of the music and, more importantly, keeps the light levels just dim enough (turn the music up, damn it!) that there’s not quite enough light TO MAKE OUT DETAILS (shouting to be heard over the music); BECAUSE WHEN NOTHING IS LEFT TO THE IMAGINATION BY LILY THE STRIPPER AND LILY IS NOT ACTUALLY ALL THAT ATTRACTIVE, IT’S UP TO THE LIGHTING TO BLUR THE EDGES A TAD AND, DARE I SAY IT, (show’s rigged, focussed and running, exit stage right, phew!) … gild the (fading) Lily.

“When nothing is left to the imagination by Lily the stripper, and Lily is not actually that attractive, it’s up to the lighting to blur the edges a tad”

Lance Stewart

You heard me: inadequate and distracting lighting can be used to lie. And why not? There is a multibillion dollar industry devoted to gilding our faded Lily. There’s make-up to hide blemishes and wrinkles, wigs to cover bald patches, implants to lift sagging dugs, perfumes and deodorants to fix stinkiness and all manner of clothes to flatter and disguise perceived physical shortcomings. Except when she’s naked of course: that’s when it’s up to the lighting to caress her just so, hint at this and briefly reveal that. Ah, Lily, you sexy octogenarian you.

And no good story about women of the night would be complete without the original Madame Lash. Yep, I worked with her too, in a ‘gentlemen’s club’ in George Street.

Having no idea who the act would be, it came as something of a shock when Madame Lash first appeared on stage and cracked her whip so close to my head that my ears rang. But that was nothing compared to the rest of the act that followed, as I worked away on the lighting desk, sitting way too close for comfort and occasionally ducking for cover.

“… that was nothing compared to the rest of the act that followed, as I worked away on the lighting desk, sitting way too close for comfort and occasionally ducking for cover”

Lance Stewart

Madame Lash was soon joined on stage by her submissive girlfriend and all manner of intimate things (best left to the imagination) ensued … cue dimmed lighting sequences set to Shirley Bassey’s Big Spender.

But the main act was yet to come: a naked man, with a penis extension hanging between his legs. Ugly – if you ask me – and clearly fake: the sheer volume of blood needed to erect it would have sent him into a coma. Or so I thought, until the submissive decided to fluff things up a bit, and even to use the thing, pulled backwards through his legs (towards me, eek!) to raise herself off the floor.

Wow, I thought. That’s some glue.

As the elephant trunk rose like a crane over a skyline, I raised the master fader to full intensity to get a better look and I quickly realised that the submissive girlfriend would be beautiful even under daylight whereas Lash might look more appealing with a moonlight scene. As for the man and his thing? That’s not glue, I thought. It’s not fake, I thought. And he’s not unconscious.

The moral of this story is that sex sells, and lighting lies, even if some of the more unbelievable parts of the show turn out to be real. 

After all, would I lie to you, honey?