Seven Days, Seven Plays

In response to our collaborative process on Rise: Macro vs. Micro, Joshua Gadsby and I interviewed each other and wrote an article for The Society of British Theatre Designers journal, Blue Pages, discussing our responses to the building, and the challenges of sustainable design.
Imbedded are also some designs from the process. Enjoy.

RISE: Macro vs. Micro
Written and Performed by The Old Vic New Voices Community Company

Directors: Rachel Briscoe, Joseph Hancock & Jess Daniels
Designer: Naomi Kuyck-Cohen
Lighting Designer: Joshua Gadsby
Producer: Joanna Mackie
Assistant Designers/Makers: Alice Cousins, Becky-Dee Trevenen, Chloe Dunscombe, Jess Banting & Rosemary Maltezos
Production Electricians: Ben Jacobs, Hector Murray, Iyce Haights Kariuku, Lara Davidson & Liam Tranter.

In April 2016 Old Vic New Voices commissioned a project of pop-up performances to showcase seven short new plays by community writers in response to our relationship with the environment, particularly on the theme of our micro actions vs. macro consequences. The result was 7 plays that explored various hypothetical futures and conversations, such as a world without clean air in which people survive on weekly oxygen tank top ups (Clean Air), a fraught conversation between seeds in the Global Seed Vault during which we hear hints of a world disaster (Seedlings), and a future ruled by 3 siblings in disagreement, who have the responsibility of divvying out the world's dwindling resources (Friendly Bombs).
The plays were presented in a promenade journey across The Old Vic Workrooms in Bermondsey, an expansive disused school building, and culminated in a debate on the same themes. It was brought to life mostly in a week by the fantastic community cast and a small but strong creative and production team. The following is a dialogue between the designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Joshua Gadsby, the lighting designer, who talk about their process responding to the plays and the building, and question how design, particularly in fast turnarounds, can be made more sustainable.

Naomi: So, what was your starting point for RISE: Macro Vs. Micro?

Joshua: I was most interested in ensuring that there was some sort of visual through-line to link the plays, and a clear path towards the debate space, in which we could share thoughts and experiences. That became finding a way to immerse people and make them so comfortable in the world we created, that discussing big issues with a load of strangers wouldn't feel foreign. Tell me a little about the start of the process for you.

N: I was adamant that we needed a lighting designer. We were working with a lot of different spaces and light is equally as important in shaping spaces as physical objects.
There was also a part of me that wanted the design to feel bigger and more powerful than us, like environmental effects that can have a power over humans and which we are forced to confront, such as environmental disasters as a result of climate change, or excessive pollution.

J: The biggest challenge was the timeframe, when did things kick off?

N: We didn’t have the luxury of multiple meetings so it was the first meeting that set off our initial direction. After which, I made a mood board that could be used as a tool by everybody to get on the same page. At this point we sat together and looked at the plays...The response was primarily conceptual, we created instinctual keyword responses that framed what those plays were about for us. We then suggested images to each other, then I created the renders from those suggestions. How was using those renders for you in terms of process?

J: It’s not a way I enjoy working most. It can be much more powerful when conversations about light and design can develop together constantly, but because I knew your work well, I understood that there would be a chance to shape and enhance those ideas.

N: I suppose they were a little like an early white card model, in that it’s boxing in a few ideas that will naturally develop. Conversely, when we were in conversation with the directors around the building, I felt like you didn’t have to say much, and yet I understood your creative direction.

J: That’s got a lot to do with my approach of acquiring a comprehensive context before I set about designing.

You as a designer, really enjoy devising and collaborating and having a hands-on relationship with the work and in many ways this was the reverse. How did you deal with a text in such a detached form?

N: It was similar, but in this case, it was a hands on relationship with the building and themes of the plays, whilst still having a very conversational relationship about the text with the directors. It used a similar instinct to the devising process in that it was very fresh and happened in the space.

J: What was the specific challenge of finding a visual link between the plays, and why?

N: Upon first read, I felt that in each of the plays there was an element that remained unaddressed by the characters, but which the audience could see, like the growing environmental issues to which as a society we are not yet attentive. We discussed everyday objects that multiplied and mutated in response to our excessive harm to the environment, which led to starting with an installation based design. We felt we could put objects into spaces that didn't necessarily have to be referenced by the text, so they became symbolic of the ignored environmental issues. I think naturally when you do that you’re not just illustrating the plays you’re creating a parallel language.

J: A visual narrative as well.

N: Exactly. We created this visual narrative with the directors, from the plays' dystopian settings and conversations. By creating that base reality through light and a consistent visual language, we allowed the play texts space to stand out and flourish, with the visual journey acting like an underscore.

J: Do you think it was the right thing to do? Or more specifically was there anything you felt suffered because we'd imposed this rule upon ourselves?

N: I don't think there is a right and wrong. In this version, our agenda with the design and the experience of the event as a whole was that an audience could be plunged in and out of different spaces and it would feel like a collective experience. But yes, it also meant that the plays were designed within that frame as opposed to being treated as individual pieces, which I think would have been experienced as seven isolated plays that you see in different spaces. I don't think they would have spoken to each other as strongly in that set up.

J: The fluidity of the whole evening might have been ruined if you're being plunged into such different worlds tailored to each piece. It’s also far easier to be able to take on this work in a small time frame if you're working with one palette, and that was one of the keys to our visual success, that we were able to make clear choices with relative speed.

N: How did you want to respond to the plays in the context of a promenade experience of this building?

J: I knew it would be about quick images. The challenge was finding a way to present these images in the cleanest way possible whilst maintaining an honesty to the building. Being in the building was great, because every day we could really interrogate the space, so we felt very comfortable with its needs.

N: Design couldn’t have been so embedded in the building if we hadn’t been in it almost constantly. When you are looking at flat images you can’t point to certain corners and you can’t position your body in relation to what you are framing and know exactly how big something needs to be.

J: When making work in which an audience aren't passive, you have to be there in the space to feel the impact of design elements you are placing there. The more we were forced to confront the reality of the building, the more we were able to understand what the design was.

N: We were putting ourselves in a giant model box and designing it together as we went. Then it was then about looking for what the building could offer up to the visual brief to help shape it.

J: That all links in with the dramaturgical context we created in the visual narrative; these characters have all ended up inside this building and the world is decaying around them, so the palette of materials was very much things that wouldn't be out of place if that building had been decaying for fifty years. I think one of my favourite uses of the building's materials was the deconstructed chairs...

N: This tree-like structure was for one of the plays that was set on a park bench and came from our conversation about finding the building's version of a public park. That led to us asking throughout our other choices – “if this is what we want to put in there in terms of supporting that piece of writing, what is the building’s response to that?”

N: How were you site responsive in terms of light? I'm particularly interested in questioning theatricality in such an nontheatrical space.

J: Any light that had a theatrical twist came from something the building was giving. The most theatrically lit room was Seedlings, in an abandoned industrial kitchen, lit with a lot of sharp cross light, which was very beautiful, simple, and effective. And that was because when we went into that room, we found it so interesting architecturally. It didn't need to become a different place, it was a room that had a lot to say, so it was about shaping what was already there. Then the two corridors, upstairs and downstairs, were a mix of theatrical and practical light. Interestingly, when you were in the upstairs and downstairs corridors you had a sense that there was a massive space hiding out somewhere, behind the mysterious doors leading off in every direction from them.

N: On both levels the corridors lead you on this route that snakes round in a curve but never come full circle…

J: I think that audiences going to this event were always aware that there was another level to the experience, a debate, so I wanted to directly reference that. Internal windows and doors that lined the central corridor were whitewashed and we shot light out from the inside of this hidden central space where the debate would unfold, which formed lovely long textured shadows out into corridors and stairwells. You'd be walking along these already quite shady corridors around this strange exterior to the central space and you weren't quite sure if you were seeing moonlight or a mysterious other worldly light.
Though some images were theatrical, we also decided they should all be static, fixed images, to allow audiences to ‘happen’ across the world we created with a sense that it was permanent, which allowed them to buy into a theatrical image as their new base of reality.

N: We spoke during the process about the building having its own eco-system dramaturgically. So as well as this other-worldly light, physical example of that were the growths of real moss and hanging ivy, which had a strong and familiarly natural smell, fighting against the concrete and glass building,. Those elements were also a reflection of nature surviving and humans living with the consequences of their own man-made destruction in the plays.

J: An important consideration for us was how to approach making a body of work that discusses environmental issues in a short turnaround, and with sustainability as a big challenge in the process.

N: Being truly sustainable can feel like a hefty commitment as it can require extra procedures, which is by no means an excuse. Whilst that may have fed into our choice of using materials that were already in the building, there were also design choices to be made where it felt natural that they should be artistic led, but we had to consider its afterlife. Something that I kept asking myself was 'When does the effectiveness of this design choice override the waste that it is potentially going to create, and how can we reduce that waste as much as possible?’

J: This production was about sparking off that debate with an audience, so there's an argument that this work would engage and educate people to be more conscious about waste.

N: By creating an experience in which they feel affected by the plays and the overall visual journey, and continue with that engagement in their everyday lives.

J: So is it ok to have five bin liners full of non-recyclable waste, if you change two people's outlooks? Where do you draw the line? How many people vs. how much waste? I guess all you can do with that is make the most educated choices to ensure that you're producing as little waste as possible, but knowing that the waste you are producing is the byproduct of somebody else's education.

N: Some choices we made on this production include thinking environmentally about every material that would have to be thrown away, how and where we recycle as much of it as possible. We also tried to keep recyclable and compostable materials in their purest form to generate as little landfill as possible. I know you're still generating byproduct with recycling, but it’s about going through each of those choices and trying to reach the most positive impact possible for what you're doing.

J: There were also materials that were in no way recyclable, things that had past lives, and things that were going to have future lives as well.

N: Jo Mackie our producer helped us greatly with this, for example two new poly-tunnels we used are now with Surrey Quays Community Farm, who are using them to grow plants, having a positive environmental legacy and encouraging community gardening in the city. A really interesting question to consider early in a design process is the potential legacy of the design and how it could shape your process in unexpectedly positive ways.

J: I’ve been reminded that we really need to re-educate ourselves as theatre practitioners on how to make the correct environmental and ethical choices, because no one is going to make them for you or force you to do it. Although we are two designers that trained recently, we didn't have that environmental training in our education. So what do you think can be done rebalance that?

N: You have to make it a habit to do the research, and that has to be on the agenda of everybody involved, not only designers and production managers. It can be for a show about something other than environmental issues, but if that show has a positive effect on the world, on people's interest in the world and others around them, that has to be considered alongside the waste it may generate. So it becomes more about how you can reduce the negative impact as much as possible. We all need to get educated with the basics, to encourage people to start doing their own research on a project-specific basis. Consider it one of the limitations of your brief on that work. We are always limited by time and budgets, but we can also chose to be limited by our environmental impact. Every project we come to requires new solutions that sometimes we share with others, and I think learning about environmental solutions is another part of what we should share with each other more.

J: Mmm, keep up the conversation.

N: Yeah, keep up the conversation and let’s keep educating ourselves…


Naomi Kuyck-Cohen