Mildred Moyo left her home country of Zimbabwe this autumn to become the first black African woman to study on the MA Light in Performance course at London’s Rose Bruford College, and was Associate Lighting Designer on The Famous Five. This is her remarkable and inspiring story.
I was the first person in my family to walk into a theatre. I was 15; at that time there was no money for me to go to school and I went for long walks. One day I walked into the Reps Theatre in Harare, which was the only functional theatre in the city, for the first time. They were having a technical rehearsal and I was mesmerised. There were dancers in tutus and I loved the way the costumes changed colour under the lights. I’d never seen anything so beautiful and graceful. Nobody saw me, but I went back the next day and asked if I could join as a dancer and the instructor said yes. I was the only black kid, but I’ve been lucky that I’ve always found people who supported me.
Well, that didn’t last long – I had two left feet! So I thought, if I’m not going to dance, I will light the dancers. I just wanted to stay within that magical space. At the beginning, I was a gel cutter – my job was to cut the filters and fit them in the lights. I had found a purpose, and my opinion mattered. Within a few months, I was learning how to roll cables and how to use a follow spot. I’d try to find out what made all the different lights tick, how to create the effects and gobos, and learned how a lighting console worked; it was really fascinating.
Then I met Mike Harrison, who was probably the only qualified lighting designer in Zimbabwe, who became a mentor for about five years. He introduced me to a festival called HIFA – Harare International Festival of the Arts. Most of my growth came from that festival, because you’d be trusted with a venue that was hosting international dance theatre or opera, and you’d have to improvise. We don’t have nearly as much equipment in Zimbabwe; you have to find ways to make it work.
When I began at HIFA I was Mike’s technical runner, then the second year I got a T-Shirt and was working in a 1000-seater. The third year, they said they wanted to hire me directly and would pay me. I’d never been paid for a job before then, so I was super excited! Now I didn’t have to walk to the theatre, I could take a bus. By the fourth year, I was hired as a programmer; in the fifth year, I was hired as a designer and put in charge of a venue.
I was also working for an EDM club which was a drastic change for me, moving from the analogue lighting of the theatre to digital Martin lights. In 2011, I registered my company Phenomenal Power Solutions: as well as my theatre work, I had trained as an electrician so that I understood how to wire and power lights, as well as designing lighting solutions for households.
Lighting changed my life; when I look back, I could have gone on drugs, fallen pregnant, become a housemaid. It’s still very tough for girls, especially from remote areas; many marry very young, because there really isn’t anything else for them to do.
It’s been lonely for me; I have to programme, design, run the cables – everything. In Chichester, I see so many women doing lighting. The lighting designer Johanna Town, on The Famous Five, has a huge team around her. In Zimbabwe, there are so few opportunities and no schools that teach lighting or sound; all the volunteers are just doing it for the passion. So In 2019 I started a workshop for women interested in lighting; I was trying to see how I can contribute to society with my skills.
So what brought me to England? Back in 2012 I’d watched a video of This Is It, the preparations for Michael Jackson’s last concert; I was blown away by Patrick Woodroffe’s lighting and emailed him to tell him that I hoped to inspire others as he had inspired me. A week later, when I went to an internet café to check my email, he had replied! – and said that he hoped one day to meet and work with me.
In 2020 we went into lockdown and for the first few weeks I was devastated; I wasn’t sure if I would ever get back to my lighting career. I wanted to set up a global lighting masterclass on Zoom even though I didn’t have a laptop or WiFi in my house! I emailed Patrick Woodroffe and asked if I could talk to him about his journey, and he said yes. One of my friends offered me a laptop and turned a room in his house into a studio, and I had about 40 people who attended Patrick’s masterclass. Then Paule Constable also gave a masterclass, and others from around the world who were keen to talk about lighting and spread the word about our craft.
I also met Hansjörg Schmidt, the Programme Director from Rose Bruford College who told me about their MA Lighting course and I said I’d love to come if I could raise the necessary funds to secure a visa. I wasn’t able to go in 2021, but this year Rose Bruford emailed me to say they were giving me a full scholarship in Patrick’s name to waive my fees. I wept for two days. So then I had to raise £12,000 for my upkeep. Unknown to me, Patrick and Paule reached out to the industry and raised £5,000 towards my expenses. I just cried when they told me; nobody had ever believed in me before. So here I am. I’m still trying to process it all.
I always think about girls in Zimbabwe like me who didn’t have a good education or money to keep going; what is the way out for them? I feel that lighting is a profession that can be taken seriously and I have to seed what I can to inspire them. They believe they can do it, but there aren’t enough opportunities; how do they get the work, once I’ve equipped them with the knowledge? My dream is to build a lighting school in Zimbabwe one day, even a theatre.