Light & Space in 5 days flat – set design for devised theatre

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the hinged set elements designed to catch the projections

This set was designed and built in April 2016 for National Theatre Wales ‘Made in Bangor’ production.

The show was a piece of devised theatre created by four performers (Musician John Lawrence, Poet Martin Daws, Physical Theatre Performer Nikki Hill, Actor Catrin Hughes), Film & Projection Specialist Gwilym Huws, myself as Visial Artist & Set Designer, and Director Anna Poole.
We had five days to devise and create a piece where we explored the facets and evolution of the local identity in Bangor, N.Wales. This was itself a collaboration between National Theatre Wales and Pontio, Bangor, the new flagship Arts Centre built by the University. The idea was to explore, present and stimulate discussion around the identity of Bangor and how the new arts centre might serve that identity.

We were each asked to take part as people living and working on the area, and connected to its community, as well as practitioners each locally well known in our field.

The process of devising theatre always starts with physical warm ups and other fun exercises to loosen the mind and get ideas flowing. Very quickly we decided we wanted to go out on the streets and start talking to people rather than imagining what people thought. So, we took cameras and other recording devices, and with the energetic personalities of the performers soon had people chatting away and got some great footage of people in the streets. This formed the visual and also narrative basis of much of the show, but we also wove in additional local myths and personal elements. We discussed the dualities and conflicts of living in a post-industrial town (usual story with few jobs, poverty and the issues that go with it) but also a university town (wealth and privilege disparities), also being in a relatively remote backwater of the UK but also the edge of a National Park with stunning scenery and a long, rich history where people and the landscape intermingle with a few dragons thrown in along the way…
While the devising process started to evolve sections of performance, I was also exploring how this could take shape visually. Working closely with Gwilym we developed a series of elemental themes that accompanied the stories and wove in and out of the street footage. I made a series of zigzagging shapes out of cardboard and built a simple model with them in layers that looked a little like a mountain scene, or maybe clusters of rooftops. I demonstrated how we could project onto these and that the dimensional shapes distorted the projections in an interesting way. This became the basis of the set, constructed out of large sections of rigid white board that were hinged together and could be easily moved around the stage to create an extremely simple but very spatial set.
Projected onto, the whole performance space suddenly jumped into action. I kept all other set elements and the performers clothes white to also pick up the projections.
An interesting aspect of this particular production for National Theatre Wales is that they wanted a short block of performance (5-10) mins that would alternate with a session where the audience were invited to discuss and take part in giving thoughts and ideas. The products of each cycle was turned into a new set element, so as the play continued, more of the landscape appeared. People wrote on pieces of slate, and these were laid down on the floor, also onto messages in bottles that were floated in to the stream of shimmering fabric dropped from the roof, finally words captured from the first session started to appear projected into the set as those of us up on the lighting deck received (by smartphone) the phrases that people had offered from the sessions down below, and we hastily typed then in to a template we had set up ready to project.

It was these technical challenges we gave ourselves that were some of the most fun aspects of doing this particular show. I learnt a huge amount working so closely with a projectionist and it was nice that my ideas of how space and light can interact seemed to work so well with what is possible, even in such a short devising period. Collaboration is always fascinating, with all its ups and downs that like the set itself was a kind of symbolic landscape.

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