The 2011 winner of Whatsonstage.com’s Best Set Designer award (for The Railway Children at Waterloo Station) has achieved a huge amount in the last six years. Here she tells IdeasMag how to design a successful site-specific set, who to approach for work and why you can’t beat a 3D model…
Site-specific design responds to the site – it doesn’t just plonk your design into a space.
When I was doing sculpture at Brighton I realised that my sculptures were getting larger and larger and I was starting to draw people either next to them or inside them: I was making a set for a person, rather than something for a person to look at.
Then, in a lecture someone mentioned theatre design and it was like a bolt hit me. After that I spent every penny I had going to see stuff. I hit the Brighton Festival – I saw dreamthinkspeak, a Brazilian dance troupe, I was buried in a tomb, I saw Minis catch out of an egg in a car park. Because Brighton is quite progressive I saw a lot of immersive and site-specific work very early on.
My first paid design job was for Alex Ferris at the Crucible theatre, with their youth groups. I’d just graduated and had been recommended by one of my tutors. One of my strengths as a designer was combining drawing work with digital rendering, because it meant I had a digital portfolio very early on. So I sent that over and then went up with my physical portfolio to the meeting and got the job.
I’m usually approached by directors or, more recently, writers who are looking to get their work produced, as well as production managers, artistic directors and associate directors. You can get an agent and they’ll find work for you. But you also need to look for new work yourself. Approach people who you’d like to work with and who you admire – the person is more important than the role.
I got The Railway Children [at] Waterloo through a competition that Damian Cruden – the artistic director of York Theatre Royal – ran during my last year of university. I couldn’t actually take up the commission straight away, because I’d just been given my trainee apprenticeship at the RSC. But, brilliantly, he let me go off and learn, so I came back to The Railway Children as a much better designer.
When I first started, site-specific theatre was much more niche. But since then everyone’s having a go. One thing I’d definitely say is never underestimate the space. You may have done a show at college in a studio and thought, “Let’s cover this in lawn,” and that’s great in a square. But, as soon as the audience is moving around a space it all just expands exponentially. You need so much more stuff to fill it. Also, with site specific you can’t control where people are going to look: up, in drawers, they’ll stick their head through doorways. You have to take all of that into consideration.
I still make traditional scale models. At Kensington Palace we made a giant upside down royal family tree, made of an actual upside down tree. I needed to build a model for that because I needed to know what it looked like as I moved around it. As great as 3D rendering programs are, sometimes you just need to make it yourself.
My process is never the same – whatever’s most pressing gets done first. However, even my distractions seem to be productive. Technical drawings are probably the things I put off for as long as possible. But there’s so much other great stuff to do – like spending weekends with tree surgeons, building huge sculptures for palaces – that it makes up for it. It’s the best job in the world.
In focus: How to design an immersive sensory experience
You need to substitute yourself into the mind of the audience. So much of designing an immersive or site-specific piece is about a transition of scale. The best scenic change I’ve ever done was 250 people going from a cramped, intoxicating leather-clad bar in The Old Vic Tunnels, through the curtains to a 40-metre tunnel full of snow. We had all this white light bouncing around and had kept the wrapping on the carpet under the snow so it crunched as you walked along it. As they walked through, I could head people saying “It’s so cold in here.” It wasn’t – but because we dispersed them so quickly over this big white space, that looked and sounded cold, their whole bodies hunched and changed as if it was actually freezing. It was almost filmic.
Images: Wagstaffe the Wind-Up Boy; Platform, Railway Children, Waterloo by Simon Annand, La Petite Mort.
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