Thu 7 Jun 2012
Si Min Chong
Andrew Bailey brings possibility to the proverbial table. He gives an idea a physical form. His input can define — and free — a production. Or, as he so aptly puts it, he creates worlds from words. Literal and metaphorical worlds. After all, art is about creating worlds. And designing for theatre is about the genesis of many, many kinds of worlds. It can be a world so familiar that seeing it presented onstage feels like a sucker punch to the gut. Or it can be a world wonderfully divorced from the reality you’re living in. Sometimes, it can a world that contains a very strange toaster. And it is the creation of such worlds that keeps Andrew going at his current stint with the Melbourne Theatre Company.
When did you know that you were going to be a designer for theatre? Was it what you have always wanted to do or did you fall into it?
I was exposed to theatre at a very early age, my father is a theatre studies teacher, so we were always around theatre. Whether it was helping Dad build a set at school, or seeing a large show in the city, I can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t a part of my life. I guess the decision to pursue theatre design happened through the natural evolution of my interests. I do distinctly remember getting to the end of high school and considering whether to do an interactive multimedia design course or performing arts. For better or worse, I picked the latter!
How would you explain your work to somebody outside of the creative industries?
Well, this is a big question. There’s a rather twee, but accurate quote that I like that describes quite concisely what a theatre designer does, “we create worlds from words”. Don’t ask me where I first saw that! Now this doesn’t strictly apply when you’re designing a dance piece or a devised work where the source is not text based. However, I think the sentiment is still the same.
The role of the designer is to work closely with a director to create a world on stage for actors/performers to inhabit. This could be a world filled with the pleasantries of an old English manor house (yawn) or a late 1960’s Soviet space station (awesome). A lot of what a designer does is informed by the play in question as well as the overall vision of the director you are working with. Some pieces facilitate a great deal of abstraction, some do not. One of the toughest things you face as a designer is creating a space that doesn’t dominate, but serves the show. After all, this is a medium that is very much about the actor on stage.
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson
What I love about theatre is that, like film, it’s a highly collaborative form. There’s this wonderful “Look at what WE did!” moment at the end of every production. Tell me more about what the designer brings to this process of creating and shaping a stage production.
A designer’s contribution early in the genesis of any production has a great impact on the show. While you are always servicing the vision of a director, you also have to make some assumptions of how the space may be used by the director.
There is a very fine line between creating a useful environment for the work to take place in, and overburdening a production unnecessarily with a “high concept” set. A lot of the skill in design comes in creating spaces that allow room for growth and change as the actors and director navigate their way through the work. It is always very collaborative, but also bound by some very finite terms, such as build timelines and budgets. It can be very rewarding when all of the disparate elements come together and work as a cohesive whole.
I know you’ve been working on a couple of plays for Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) right now, so can you tell me a bit of the work behind these productions?
We have just had the first show of the Lawler season On the Production of Monsters open, and are currently rehearsing the second production The Golden Dragon. I’m a bit reluctant to say much about On the Production of Monsters because I don’t want to give too much away. I can say that it’s a cracker of a production (unbiased, I know), a two hander, with really strong performances by Virginia Gay and James Saunders, solid writing from Rob Reid, and a great director, Claire Watson, steering the ship. All I can say is go and see it, there are some surprises!
The second piece, The Golden Dragon, is quite a stylistic departure for MTC. It’s a play that doesn’t conform to many of the conventions of a standard text. Actors essentially play themselves as well as multiple other roles, and speak stage directions. The Golden Dragon has been an interesting challenge, to create a space that can facilitate the pace of this play, while giving an audience a glimpse of the world this piece occurs in. I hope that we have achieved this through the creation of an abstract environment that can facilitate multiple looks through the simple manipulation of lighting or where an actor stands during any given scene. Again, don’t want to give too much away!
Throughout your career, have there been moments when everything has just clicked and you’ve thought, “Wow. I’m so lucky to be doing this.”? Can you give a couple of examples of when the work has been particularly humbling in its wonder?
There was a moment very recently, during the set build of On the Production of Monsters where we were testing the toaster used during the show. Spoiler Alert: This is a very special toaster that can fire a piece of bread 5m into the air! Like schoolboys, myself and one of the tech guys, Alan Hirons, looked at each other and said “We’re actually getting paid to do this!” Moments like that, however simple, make most of the hard work worth it. In the end, it’s often a great privilege to be able to do what we do.
For more information on MTC’s current work, On the Production of Monsters, click here.