@Fest The art of collapsibility

The art of collapsibility

It’s a build-up and break-down business, up one moment and down the next, and emergency rebuilds become routine. This is the changing world of set design, where work and effort disappear into thin air in a matter of minutes. And when it comes to set design, some of this year’s Festival productions are going all the way.

Vortex, for example, makes use of 24 fans, connected to each other around a circular black stage, to bring human-like motions to plastic bag figures – a science so precise that a change in the fan blade’s diameter would throw it off completely. Just as interesting is Brett Bailey’s use of humans as subjects in Exhibit A, which centres on the objectification of the black body over the past 200 years.

“It’s about creating a world in which the actors can play,” said Ubom!’s guest director Rob Murray. The company’s Through Blue uses minimal props in surprising ways to add to its play’s political undertone of transformation.

“One of the main things about a set is that it can’t be there for its own sake,” said Patrick Curtis, set designer on Mies Julie and production manager at the Baxter Theatre. “It is only there to enhance the story that is being told. As such, everything has got to have meaning on stage.”

Different designers and directors have different processes regarding the construction of set design, Curtis said, and these usually involve collaborations between stage managers, lighting and sound technicians as well as cast members.

“The biggest stress as a designer is wondering whether you made the right decisions, and if it’s going to work. And you’ve got practical fears of whether you got the measurements right
and if it’s going to fit through the door,” explained Curtis.

He walks around around his set. “This one has real concrete slabs, which seems insane, and most people would actually paint it on boards. We felt we wanted the feel of this hard stone underneath. Those are called practicals…The fan is a new thing. I’ve never used a fan before. It’s actually going to move on stage,” said Curtis.

Challenges include tight budgets, time, space, touring, storage, stage hands and safety. “You’re trying to foresee as many challenges as possible, but there is always stuff that comes up on the floor,” added Murray.

Other obvious obstacles, according to Curtis, are the “long, long, long, hours”. At this stage of the production, 16-hour days are quite common. “Once you’ve got it off and opening, it tails off rapidly,”
said Curtis.

After all the running, hours and issues, the set comes down, is packed up and moved. According to Curtis, sets are sometimes preserved if there’s a possibility for a further run; if not, the materials are taken back into stock and used in other productions.

“It’s an evolving process, and you’re always working on refining it,” said Murray.

Smiling as the stage is set, Curtis said, “One of the nicest things is that it is new every time, it’s a different experience every time. The performances are different. In this case, there is a new challenge and
a new way of doing something on every production.”

-Pierre Potgieter-

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