Over Our Heads

salomeA blog post by theatre critic Lyn Gardner brought me to a realisation this week.  Virtually every theatre-going experience I have in Hong Kong is dominated, literally, by surtitles – either in English, Cantonese or sometimes both. I have often wondered how the complexity of a play in one language translates into another for a live audience. Are my Cantonese speaking compatriots having an easier time understanding the nuances of King Lear than I am? I know for sure that my students read the Cantonese surtitles when the spoken language of a play is impenetrable to them or the dialect or accent is too strong. In her post, Mind your language: the trouble with theatre subtitles, Gardner notes that great translations make foreign productions accessible, that poor ones are a distraction and asks whether surtitles always a necessity in communicating meaning to an audience:

One of the pleasures of London theatre-going over the past 20 years has been just how many foreign-language productions it has been possible to see. Shakespeare performed in another tongue has been a particular revelation as the Globe’s 2012 Globe to Globe season amply demonstrated, although what made that – and it’s ongoing spin-offs – so pleasurable was the chance to see Shakespeare amid an audience whose native tongue was the language in which the play was being performed. If you want evidence that London is truly an international city, this is it.

HEDDA GABLER, director Thomas Ostermeier

HEDDA GABLER, director Thomas Ostermeier

But there have been plenty of other opportunities to see oh-so-familiar classic plays in other languages, particularly at the Barbican, where Thomas Ostermeier has made us rethink Hedda and A Doll’s House and Hamlet, and will shortly be pitching up with An Enemy of the People. The London international festival of theatre has also done more than its bit to bring the world to London. In many of these cases it is the arrival of surtitles that have really made foreign-language productions accessible to those of us who do not speak or understand enough to get by. Without them I suspect many such shows wouldn’t get an English-speaking audience.

I remember a time when if you went to see a play in another language the best you could hope for was headphones and intrusive simultaneous translation or a free sheet detailing the action in each scene.

Good surtitles are a real art. One issue with surtitles is positioning. Poorly sited surtitles are like trying to hold a conversation in a room where a TV is on. However much you try not to look at them, your eye is constantly drawn towards them, even if you speak the language. You end up relying on the text rather than looking for other clues, which in a great production of a play in any language are demonstrated in a myriad of ways from the positioning and space between the characters to the timbre and tone of what is being said. It’s possible to understand a great deal about a production from its look and sound, even if you don’t speak a word of the language in which it’s being performed. Too much reliance on surtitles turns audiences into dummies, a bit like those tourists you see at Stratford who follow the entire production with their nose buried in the text on their lap as if it’s only the text that matters and looking at the stage is not necessary.

Rakata perform Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega at Shakespeare's Globe

Rakata perform Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega at Shakespeare’s Globe

Poor surtitles can be a hindrance rather than a help, as I found at the Globe last week with a Spanish-language production of Punishment Without Revenge. In this instance they were simply describing the action and not particularly well: it’s enormously frustrating and sometimes bewildering to be told that someone is speaking in metaphor or telling a joke and not to be told what the joke is. I reckon that in this instance no surtitles – and a simple synopsis sheet – would be far better than surtitles that distract the eye from what is happening on stage and are way too blunt to add any value to the viewer. What do you think? And if you’ve ever seen any real surtitle howlers do share.

I have considerable sympathy with Gardner.  I have, on occasion, found myself at the front of the stalls, unable to read the surtitles (which are almost directly above me) and watch the stage action without needing a visit to the physio the following morning.  In some of our smaller and older theatres the surtitles are shown to the side of the proscenium and you end up looking like a spectator at a tennis match. I’ve also experienced the earphone and recorded translation version elsewhere in Asia when watching theatre – once I had to leave a Bunraku performance in Osaka after about an hour because of my ever-growing irritation with the mono-tonal drawl of the voice in my (one) ear.

UntitledThe comments section that follows Gardner’s blog continues the debate as does this post from BTI Studios, which talks about the difficulties of ‘captioning’ in the theatre. One theatre in Germany, the Komische Oper in Berlin, has the surtitles shown on the back of seat in front of you, as does La Scala in Milan (both opera venues you’ll notice). This is clearly a move in the right direction in terms of being able to view surtitles clearly, but of course, does nothing to address the translation issues or how they are used by a venue (as in the example given by Gardener at The Globe Theatre). It seems that any large city with cultural aspirations now stages an international theatre festival, so watching performance in a language other than your own is no longer an unusual or unique experience. Given this, I think it’s about time venues in particular, but theatre makers more widely, become a little more adept at making captioning work for the audience, both technically and artistically.

By way of a post script, and not unconnected, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK have just announced that they are going to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into Mandarin, as well as translating 14 seminal Chinese plays into English (although these have yet to be named). Quieting the cynic in me and over-looking the PR puffery about boosting business and cultural links between Britain and China, this could mean some exciting Chinese work being available in translation for the first time.

Old News

525531_511084732236163_1686059764_nA quick share today of something that recently caught my eye. British Pathé, to quote it’s own website…….was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, renowned for first-class reporting……Now considered to be the finest newsreel archive in the world, British Pathé is a treasure trove of 85,000 films unrivalled in historical and cultural significance. Spanning the years from 1896 to 1979, the collection includes footage from around the globe of major events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, science and culture.

This archive has now been digitised and made available on Youtube. A real gift for theatre makers who want to include historical footage from around the globe in their work. The archive, which covers the most important and significant political, human, and cultural events of the 20th Century, even charts the development of mechanics in theatre. From 1945 and 1932 respectively:

Scenographers everywhere will be thrilled. The archive even has it’s own Facebook presence. Having done a bit of exploring, it seems its easier to search for the content of the footage you might need on the Pathé website itself, locate the title of the video/s that contain it, then search for those titles on the Pathé Youtube channel.

Nothing To Be Sniffed At

aromaramaNow and again you come across something very different in the world of theatre and today I would like to share an article from the Clyde Fitch Report, by dramaturg and biological anthropologist Dillon Slagle.

In it,  Slagle interviews David Bernstein, who is a Scent Designer, an emerging field in theatre. Now this isn’t necessarily a new, 21st century thing. Indeed, American playwright and producer David Belasco toyed with the idea back in the early 1900s but it never really took hold.

Can You Smell That Smell? It’s Theatrical Scent Design

Theatre has begun to embrace a new type of designer. Their work is invisible, but, if done correctly, it can have a palpable impact on the performance. I interviewed David Bernstein about his work in the burgeoning field of scent design.


Dillon Slagle: On a basic level, what is scent design?

David Bernstein: I split up scent design into two categories. One is an ambient smell or scent, which is scenting the theatre or the performance space as the audience is walking in. It’s part of the initial impression. It’s more like an installation, so it serves to transport the setting, or to make it “other.” The second is more like scent cues. Rather than scenting the space when you walk in, it’s the introduction of aromas to coincide with the action on stage.

You can read the rest of the Q & A here and another interview with Bernstein here. It’s an interesting concept, and I guess with immersive theatre all the rage at the moment, it will have a place. Me, I think I’ll just stick with smelling the grease paint.

Staging The Screen

An interesting little share today from Ideas Tap. As new technologies expand the possibilities of design in live theatre, whole new fields are opening up. In this interview by arts journalist Naima Khan with Kim Beveridge, digital artist, there is some interesting insight in to the role and the processes behind the art.

WALL OF DEATH: A WAY OF LIFE with National Theatre of Scotland

WALL OF DEATH: A WAY OF LIFE with National Theatre of Scotland

Kim Beveridge on video design

Kim Beveridge has created video for productions at the Royal Court and the National Theatre of Scotland. Kim talks to Naima Khan about avoiding clichés.

What challenges do video designers face when working on theatre shows?

One common problem you face is being asked to work on a production that doesn’t necessarily have the budget to realise what the director and the company want to do. Ambitious projects are more and more common now as you can easily run video off a laptop. There’s not a lot of troubleshooting you can do if, say, your video’s not bright enough. You can’t give it more lumens [measurement unit for light] and you’ll have to communicate that to people you’re working with.

Physical spacial challenges are also common when you put video into a space where actors need to be lit at the same time. You have to work closely with the lighting designer so you don’t bleach out what they’ve created. With the right budget you can get it right but it takes experience and experimentation.



Talk us through your working process for Pests

The work I make is very figurative so I like to start with something real and then manipulate it and edit it down to fit the show’s needs. One of the things I always ask is: what is the role that video is playing in this show? What is it here to do?

In Pests, it was clear video was there to illustrate one character’s psychotic hallucinations. The other thing we had to nail were the elements that the playwright Vivienne Franzmann had written about in her script. She’d included fire (that was really pared down by the final edit), blood, which she wanted coming through the walls, and also the presence of men. So I wanted to find images that were actually frightening not Hammer House of Horror-funny because when you start to work with blood it’s easy to go down that road.

We were keen that the images had a real textural quality because they were going to be projected onto mattresses. So I spent a lot of time filming ink and synthetic blood being bled onto fabrics like silk, and cotton. We put the camera underneath a stretched canvas of the material and just watched it move and bleed.

How can video designers and theatremakers use video or projections in a way that is relevant while steering clear of clichés?

When it comes to clichés, the fact that I’m working in collaboration means that it if I make a choice that’s obvious or boring, someone will tell me. But there’s nothing I wouldn’t try. It’s about experimenting. It’s about trying to make things lean, not having projection unnecessarily and only having it to support something that isn’t explicitly written in the text.

I’d also recommend trying to be involved in the collaboration from the earliest stage. Don’t be precious about rough edits, bring them into the space early on so you can show what you’re doing and see if it works before you spend hours on the animation. Be open about what you intend on doing, trust that the people you work with will have good imaginations and they’ll be able to use your rough sketch to come to an agreement about how to move forward.

How did you get your first job in theatre?

I studied Time Based Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art so my background is doing video installation, sound and documentary. But I was always aware of spaces and I like projecting work in unconventional spaces. It was around 2005 that I left art school and the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) started soon after. I was headhunted by them and hired to work on documenting the process in rehearsal rooms. What I learned was, if you do video and sound, your skills are really transferable and you don’t have to work in theatre design.

Pretty much immediately I started meeting loads of people who make shows and started working with them. It wasn’t long after that that Vicky Featherstone asked me to work on a large-scale production called Wall of Death, which was a documentary installation projected onto eight screens. Getting into theatre can happen quite quickly, it’s a lot about recommendations. I don’t have any business cards but if you get your name out there, things can start to happen.

Wall of Death

Wall of Death

How should video designers prepare themselves for work in the theatre industry?

There’s a book you should read called Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre by Greg Giesekam. You’ll learn about the history of it and it’s surprising actually how long people have been doing this. If you really want to get into video design, just start experimenting. Find your strengths and see how they work with something live. Document people or performers interacting with your videos. Find a peer group that includes actors, maybe cabaret artists or even live musicians.

You could also go straight to people who are already working in theatre and ask them about work experience or courses. For example, there’s a great company called 59productions, which did some amazing stuff for the London Olympics, and one called Forkbeard Fantasy who do really cool experimental stuff, they also incorporate puppetry and animation. I don’t think you should worry about the industry too much. If you’ve got talent, and the guts to contact these people, they’ll help you through it. If they can, they probably will give you their time.

The Faces Of A Master

Bianlian_FotorIn my school we are in the process of writing a new curriculum for our younger students and one of my roles has been to gather together materials for an online course to compliment and enrich the taught classroom practice. This week I have been working on a Mask unit and it suddenly struck me that there was one particular practice involving mask that would be perfect for that course and one that I have not explored here on Theatre Room. 

Biàn Liǎn (变脸) or Face Changing has a long and traditional history in China, first appearing in Sichuan Opera during the Quing Dynasty, almost 300 years ago. Opera in China, it needs to be understood, takes many forms, depending on where it originated. Here in Hong Kong we have Cantonese Opera, as I have written about many times before. However, Sichuan Opera is a little different to most traditional forms. It tends to be more ‘play-like’ and less constrained, with more entertaining elements to enliven the performance. These included sword fighting, fire eating, beard-changing and Biàn Liǎn. Now if you live outside China it is unlikely that you will have ever seen Biàn Liǎn. It is a closely guarded art form and taught only be a few old masters, although it is seen more often today in other Asian countries. Before I go any further, have a look at this:


It isn’t surprising that information about Biàn Liǎn in english is quite limited, but you can get a decent understanding its history and how it works here and here.

MTMyNTgyODAxODQzMjVfMQThere a number of rumours surrounding Biàn Liǎn which I quite like. Firstly that the secret of Bian Lian leaked out during a 1986 visit of a Sichuan Opera troupe to Japan. Indeed, the Japanese are big fans of the face changer (and see the video below). Secondly, that Biàn Liǎn is one of the traditional arts protected by Chinese secrecy laws although officials of the Ministry of Culture of in China have stated that this is not true. Thirdly, Hong Kong Canto pop star Andy Lau offered to pay Bian Lian master Peng Denghuai 3,000,000 yuan (which is about US$360,000) to learn the techniques. Although Lau did learn the from Peng, both deny any money changed hands. If it did, Lau wasted his cash as he seems not yet to have mastered the art. All three of these rumours are touched upon in a South China Morning Post article from 2010, which you can download here The Secret Art. The SCMP also have a video interview with another Biàn Liǎn master, Wai Shui-kan which is worth a watch:

One more video, from NTDTV is another interesting source:


Although I have not had the pleasure of seeing a full Sichuan Opera, I did see a Biàn Liǎn performance in Nanjing a couple of years ago and it was breath-taking. A captivating, magical theatrical feast.

A New Design

Having written last week about immersive theatre, I am going to continue today with a connected theme. Immersive theatre, as well as the experience, is largely what it is because the visual elements it contains, be they the building or place itself or what is placed there. In other words, it’s design. Now it strikes me that the term theatre design is a little redundant when describing the immersive space and indeed this seems to be bringing about a change in how we perceive either the role of a theatre designer or theatre design itself.

9783899861365Increasingly, theatre design is becoming scenography; the theatre designer,  the scenographer. I had been aware of term, although never entirely sure of its exact meaning, but as is often the case, it seems to have been popping up with more frequency in things I have been reading and conversations I have had. A colleague used it this week to describe one of his areas of specialism. So with my interest piqued, I got digging and have been quite fascinated by what I have found.

To begin with, scenography is defined thus:

Scenography is the art of creating performance environments; it can be composed of sound, light, clothing, performance, structure and space

Nothing particularly new there, one might think on first reading. However, it is the bringing together of all of these elements together that is different. Traditionally in theatre we separate out the design roles – stage, costume, light, sound and so on. Throw into this mix the varying role a director can play in the design process and maybe even the dramaturg, and we get quite a complicated web of people and roles making contributions to what we eventually end up looking at and experiencing on stage.

Scenography is becoming quite common in Europe and indeed, theatre designers are designating themselves as scenographers. However, it would seem that in the US the term has not been adopted with the same passion. On her website Stephanie A. Schoelzel, herself a scenographer, describes heated debates over the use of the term and the unique differences between US and European theatre in this regard. It is an interesting read on a number of fronts. Another description of Sceneography and its origins is from Imagined Spaces, the Canadian National Arts Centre in Ottawa is also informative.

Josef Svoboda

Josef Svoboda

Imagined Spaces is a superb resource site for anyone interested in scenic design, with hundreds of beautifully rendered stage designs. In his article on Imagined Spaces, What Is Scenography, Michael Eagan states that scenography emerged from the Prague Quadrennial and talks about Josef Svoboda, himself Czech, as the godfather of modern scenography.

It was at this point in my research that I began to feel a little ignorant. Svoboda is clearly a giant amongst designers and scenographers, but I had never heard of him. When he died  2002, it was estimated that he had designed and/or directed over 700 theatrical and operatic performances.

When I sit alone in a theatre and gaze into the dark space of its empty stage, I’m frequently seized by fear that this time I won’t manage to penetrate it, and I always hope that this fear will never desert me. Without an unending search for the key to the secret of creativity, there is no creation. It’s necessary always to begin again. And that is beautiful.

Josef Svoboda.

You can get an idea of the scale of Svoboda’s work in the following two videos. If you speak Czech or French there are more in-depth videos on Youtube about the  man and his work.

It then struck me to whom I had heard the term scenographer ascribed before. Robert Lepage is one of the greatest living magicians of the performance space and I have had the delight, pleasure and awe of seeing a number of his works. An utter genius and worthy of a post all of his own, so I shall save further discussion of him until then. However equating Lepage and his work with the role of scenographer, I understood the difference between design and scenography.  It also allayed my feelings of ignorance somewhat. For many years scenography has been the preserve of the academics – a theory of, roughly speaking, the meeting of art, design, architecture and space, and how they interact with the spectator and the spectator with them.  Starting to feeI immersive here? I can now also see how two of the most influential theatre designers of the 20th Century, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, influenced the development of scenography. 

9789299006313_FotorThere are lots of resources out there for understanding scenography and putting it into practice, but one of the best I have come across is TAJ, Theatre Arts Journal. TAJ is an online journal devoted to the study of  scenography in performing arts. Also, the Prague Quadrennial site is a veritable treasure trove of scenographic wonders. There is even a board on Pinterest devoted to scenography, curated by architect Marios Angelopoulos.

To close, I should point out that scenography is not simply an act of theatre making. It is much wider than that, stretching to cover exhibition design, museum planning and interactive public spaces amongst other things – all things that need to engage an audience.

Immerse Yourself

As théâtre du jour, the popularity of immersive performance keeps on growing. I have written here many times about its attractions and why it possibly draws the audiences that it does. Today I want to share a mixture of things that have come my way in the last week or so, all of which making interesting reading and listening.

Firstly an audio slide show published in the UK’s Guardian this week. Made by  and Felix Barrett, the director of Punchdrunk, explains how they dreamed up The Drowned ManClick the image below to have a look and listen:

The Drowned Man_DC.indd


















The second share today is also from The Guardian and written by Veronica Horwell, Casting Call For Buildings explores how site-specific theatre companies go about picking the right venues for their shows? Horwell looks at two current performances – again Punchdrunk’s Drowned Man and The Spectators Guild’s new show, Venice Preserve’d.

Casting call for buildings: on location with Punchdrunk and Spectators’ Guild

It’s easy to see why Paynes Wharf, near Deptford Creek in south London, is playing the lead in the Spectators’ Guild company’s production of Venice Preserv’d. It has an old Thameside maritime facade – a former boilermaking works – arcaded like the Doge’s Palace, next to a new flatblock in the manner of a campanile, and its developers put serious money into the production. And they offered guaranteed availability with a scheduled window in the site’s post-construction schedule.


For, as the guild’s producer Harry Ross and production designer Helen Scarlett O’Neill know from their work with Secret Cinema, the company that stages elaborate movie events, any big, workable, public space in London is hard to find. Should they dream of a place with character, let alone the right looks, they’re into the near-impossible. There is noSpotlight for immersive venues, no showreels for talented but unknown ex-warehouses. The agents do not ring.

Mostly, Ross and friends keep their eyes open and ceaselessly ask around. Ross, who as a cyclist has travelled at just the right speed to observe the built landscape, collects London buildings, holding in his head half the current suitable specimens, tunnels included. He can charm any watchman into letting him past the gates within five minutes, and will wander around the metropolis yelling queries up to blokes on scaffolding, if that’s what it takes.

Once spotted, though, a space can be even harder to secure. It can be done, especially if it’s a pro tart of a place for hire anyway, as with the former Farmiloe stained-glass manufactory in Smithfield, much used as a movie location before being taken over for the duration of Secret Cinema’s The Grand Budapest Hotel-related live extravaganza in March. But the turnover of acquisition, renovation, demolition, repurposing and new construction in London has accelerated so fast since property became the international investment after the 2008 crash, that places the site-specific event companies have stashed away as promising hopes suddenly sprout into multi-storey plutoflats.


That’s what makes Venice Preserv’d as an on-site production a novel venture for everybody – and is maybe the way that immersive theatre will have to go. The developers wanted the company and its production to show off the artistic potential of this great space behind the restored river facade. They’re looking to theatre to put some character into the wharf so that it won’t lapse into just another stretch of the executive luxury-flat cliffs now walling the Thames.

Director Charlotte Westenra has wanted to put on Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy for a long time – it being an entirely modern story about selling out, in every sense, in a privileged imperial city awash with money and betrayal, yet sinking fast. Then came this loan of what she feels is “a beautiful, significant space” that, both visually and contextually, correlated with her concept of the play.

I’d describe the production as location-referential more than site-specific. While Westenra exploits onsite advantages with glee – she will flood the central courtyard to simulate a bridged Venetian canalscape – she also looks out to a wider geographic “where” as a context for the old narrative. The audience can choose to come down to Greenwich pier by boat, as if on their way to a Venetian carnival, and, as they promenade the wharf’s tideside terrace or look through the space’s mighty windows, they cannot fail to see the uncaring, rising water and moneyed Canary Wharf on its far side.

Venice Preserv'd

The site’s most overwhelming area is a lofty nave the length of the gutted old building, which O’Neill will dress with decaying lace. Although Westenra’s approach to Otway’s bitter power play will remain a semi-formal staging, in which everybody will view and hear the same scene at the same time, it won’t be a Punchdrunk company gig with each audience member stomping his or her own route with a request to “wear appropriate shoes” on the ticket. If the walls could speak at Payne’s Wharf they’d be talking about investment, dividends, futures. Most of them – other than that 1860s frontage – have no past to speak of.

Get Felix Barrett, head of Punchdrunk, immersive veterans, on the subject of listening to walls, and it’s a whole different story – mostly about the past. He has known since his first student production in 2000, in a Territorial Army HQ in Exeter, all the highs and woes of the quest for unlikely performing spaces. He knows Deptford, too – he put on two shows in the old Seagar distillery, now a mighty block of “lifestyle living” just a drinker’s spit from Payne’s Wharf.

Felix Barrett of Punchdrunk

He’s full of admiration for the guild – “They’re going outside? First thing we do in a place is overpaint all the windows black”. But he doesn’t envy them the site, no matter how painlessly secured, because for Punchdrunk, building a narrative means narrating the building. For that, it needs not a beautifully embalmed corpse of a place, let alone a place that’s mostly newborn, but “a good dirty body of a building”. Or anyway, a building on its last breath, as many of his have been over the past 14 years. The first time he gains entry into a secured desired venue, he has to be alone, because “you have to listen, ask the buildings: what do you want? Tell me what you want.”

Westenra wanted to do her cherished show and was grateful for a supportive, expansive space as setting: Barrett doesn’t cherish anything so finished as a script, just a dozen two-word ideas, as many again in one sentence, and a well-developed few that run as far as a single paragraph. None go further until he can hunt and hold his site. It’s getting more difficult in London. Rare are the developers, he says, “who realise that dormant space could be a positive creative force”. Or that Punchdrunk could give a death-sentenced building a last hurrah (Faust in a former archive in Wapping Lane, The Duchess of Malfi in a doomed pharma HQ in Docklands), rather than a squalid slide into graffiti before the cranes move in. Now there is also competition from proliferating event companies and movie shoots. The economics have changed. The old Paddington mail sorting office, elaborated internally into “Temple Studios” as home to Punchdrunk’s most recent production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, took three years to run to ground and secure, and was the first site where the company has had to pay properly for use.

How did Punchdrunk find it? Like its predecessors, by a combination of time, luck and legwork. Barrett used to draw a circle on a map, calibrated to the distance an audience might travel, then divide it into blocks. A-Z in hand, his team walked every alleyway, always looking up (“the hidden gems are above your eyeline”). The building should ideally be reticent, reclusive and exude a sense of danger: “The day we found the building for Faust, after nine brutal and bruising months, we could feel the electricity run through the fence. There was a big sign, DANGER: DO NOT ENTER … We went in.” (Punchdrunk never took the sign down, despite the misgivings of its National Theatre backers.) When Punchdrunk was invited into the safe, alive space of the Battersea Arts Centre, a former town hall, the first task was “to kill it off, a stake through the heart” before the right show, which turned out to be The Mask of the Red Death, could crawl out of its demunicipalised woodwork.


After Punchdrunk field trips, the team usually worked the phones for weeks, and got nowhere. For every hundred spaces that might fit the bill, only one was available for work – until, so often, it was out of the game. Three times Barrett came close to securing a hospital. (He would have liked to put on Faust in hospital wards, grief and loss flowing along every corridor – corridors are all plot.) Every time, in the end, pffft. Eventually, he learned that, “You can’t dream about the perfect space for the ideal show because a show may be almost go after three years” – then comes the NO – “and when you secure another building, it has to be a very different show”. Right now he has seven possibles waiting for a green light, and 50 that could happen, but their stories will have to be scored to what he hears on that first interior walk, “the beats and rhythms of the space, crescendos, diminuendos, staccato”. Punchdrunk is about being site-sympathetic, rather than site-specific, though. In New York, its backers wanted Faust, but Faust was outside the available venue’s range: it performed Sleep No More – Macbeth – brilliantly.


Barrettt’s own role is always Prospero. He says he is in the sandcastle business. Almost everywhere Punchdrunk has ever commandeered, all those not-so-gorgeous palaces, has since been replaced with cloud-capped tower blocks. So for the first time, the company now keeps proper records of its plays, including the buildings’ own stories, against the inevitable time they, too, vanish into thin air, shortly after the play closes.

My third and final share comes from one of my students, Mia, who as just written a comparison of the working practices of a number of immersive companies including, Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train and dreamthinkspeak. As part of her research she contacted the companies and got this great little Interview with Tristan Sharps, Artistic Director of dreamthinkspeak.

Invisible Light

EP-140329286.jpg&MaxW=558&imageVersion=defaultA few days ago a show opened in Sharjah, a tiny emirate that forms part of the United Arab Emirates. Called Clusters of Light,  it tells the life story of the Prophet Mohammed and for anyone who knows about Islam, there is an obvious difficulty here – Islamic convention forbids the portrayal of the Prophet in human form. None the less what has been produced is a truly spectacular piece of theatre, drawing on the latest technology, expertise from around the world, a cast over over two hundred and performed in a brand new outdoor amphitheatre, the construction of which took only 3 months.

1715289621The whole event has been on an enormous scale. According to The Gulf News, The Al Majaz Amphitheatre, based on a traditional Roman design, cost US$32 million to build, can seat 4,500 people, has 400 animated lights, 120 sound speakers, and 21 projectors as well as a  hydraulic stage.


The opening performance is no less impressive in its conception and the time scale in which it was created. Clusters of Light has been put together in less than 6 months, a time frame that would, I am sure, have any mainstream theatrical producer dancing with delight. The creative team behind the project are some of the most experienced in their field, with a history of staging, literally, some of the biggest shows on Earth. I will let writer Peter Walker and photojournalist Susan Schulman take up the story from here, in a piece published in The GuardianIslam the Opera.

It was quite a challenge, even for the crack team of theatrical experts summoned from around the world: less than six months to produce a hi-tech musical extravaganza about one of the most renowned figures in human history. Oh yes, and the title character can’t appear on stage.

But somehow it happened and on Sunday night a lavish production about the life and teachings of Muhammad, Islam’s main prophet, intended as a rejoinder to more militant interpretations of the faith, premiered at a specially built £20m mock-Roman amphitheatre in Sharjah, the small emirate adjoining Dubai.

The show had to be assembled in months by an international team that includes Piers Shepperd, technical director of the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and the man who made Danny Boyle’s creative ideas happen on stage. Now he has done the same for a show whose scope is roughly equivalent to Islam: the Opera. The 90-minute production, Clusters of Light, has the ambitious stated intent of rebranding the religion internationally.

The story is told with a cast of about 200, including some of the Arab world’s most celebrated singers, such as Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, and the Tunisian tenor Lotfi Bouchnak, with spectacular animated scenes projected around them.

Clusters of Light

An inaugural run in Sharjah will be followed by mooted tours to Malaysia, Turkey and even Paris. There are tentative plans to translate the libretto, by a Saudi poet, into other languages with a view to attracting non-Muslim audiences.

From the beginning, the production faced one particular challenge: under Islamic convention Muhammad cannot be portrayed in human form.

The first step for the team, according to Richard Lindsay, the creative director, was to watch The Message, a 1977 film about Muhammad’s life that showed the story from his direct perspective, conveniently keeping him off-screen.

“As we weren’t making a film, we didn’t have that luxury,” said Lindsay. “There’s only once in the show we refer to the prophet, and then we represent him as a source of light, which is accepted. For the rest of the time we didn’t need him in the story, as it revolves around him. The show is about what he’s doing, but it doesn’t actually need to show him.”


The production is lavish to an almost Bollywood extent, with images projected to a huge screen behind the cast, forming the background scenes, sometimes animating to interact with the on-stage action or provide images such as a falcon seemingly soaring above the audience.

Gavin Robins, the director, with a background in the somewhat different world of the Eurovision song contest and stage productions such as How to Tame Your Dragon, describes it as the most technically advanced show he has worked on, and one of the most dramatic. “You could describe it as a romantic thriller,” he said. “When we first rehearsed the scene about the prophet’s death, the entire company was genuinely weeping. It’s a gift to be able to take that energy from a cast.”

Shepperd said his involvement changed his view about the religion’s take on several subjects, for example the position of women.

He said: “If you look at the popular misconceptions about Islam, that isn’t the case at all. It’s great to be working on a show that explores those kinds of things.”


Whatever the intended message, the broader cultural context is arguably slightly more complex. Sharjah is sufficiently traditional to possess a set of “public decency rules” that prohibit, among other things, men and women being alone together in public unless they are married or related. The author of the libretto, Abdulrahman al-Ashmawy, has reportedly written a poem criticising attempts by women in his native Saudi Arabia to be permitted to drive. However, the man ultimately overseeing Clusters of Light, Philippe Skaff, said he welcomed Sharjah’s ambitious scheme from the very personal perspective of a Lebanese Christian: “As a Christian Arab, if anyone feels threatened by extremism, it’s us. It’s very comforting to see a work like this commissioned.

“At the start of all this the sheikh told me, ‘If we don’t do this, if we don’t spread the real message of Islam, we’re letting the extremists take over. This is our way of responding to them.'”

In an article for The National, the Bahraini composer of Clusters of Light, Khalid Al Sheikh says it is a story for all nations and times. Interestingly, Al Sheikh worked with German composer Christian Steinhauser and the music was recorded by the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg. Another piece in The National, also by Afshan Ahmed, gives an idea of the complexity of, and technology behind, the staging.

During the rehearsal, a 12-tonne cube slowly appears from behind white scrim. A computer-generated grid pops up and in seconds is replaced by animated images of a marketplace.

“This is not a cinema screen where you have one big projector,” says Hai Tran, the head of technology at Multiple & Spinifex Group, a Sydney-based creative projects company that produced the show. “This involves projecting from all over the arena to get the whole environment looking right.

“The cube is very dynamic. We use it as a stage and it also turns into the Kaaba during the show.”

The commercial for the show (below) gives a very clear picture of the epic nature of what has been produced.


Now it has to be said something on this scale, and created in this timeframe, can only be achieved by a nation with a lot of money and the ability to hire the best the industry has to offer, but you can’t but applaud the vision. Also, as Peter Walker comments, the broader cultural context of the project might raise a few eyebrows elsewhere in the world, and perhaps this can’t be ignored. Having said this, I think if found myself in Sharjah tomorrow I would probably – no, almost certainly – find myself in the audience.

Moods and Doodles

As a practitioner of theatre I have always created work in pictures first – both with the actors and with the set. A couple of years ago a visual art colleague watching some site-specific work I had created commented, with some surprise, that we clearly both worked in the same way, driven by a visual aesthetic. Obviously this is only one part of the creative process involved in making theatre, but is one I love –  in another life I think I would have liked to be a set designer.

I was intrigued to read, therefore, in an occasional series in The Guardian, an interview by Georgie Bradley with Colin Richmond, a UK-based theatre designer entitled How do I become … a set designer

How do I become … a set designer

Good communication skills, an ability to network and willingness to start out making the tea have got Colin Richmond a long way

Colin Richmond conjured up fantastical uses for pegs when he was a child. His carpenter father would make miniature theatre sets out of leftover wood while Richmond covered pegs in “Borrower”-sized clothes.

'You have to keep emailing and creating worlds,' says Colin Richmond, 'get ideas on paper even if you don't have work.'

‘You have to keep emailing and creating worlds,’ says Colin Richmond, ‘get ideas on paper even if you don’t have work.’

“I loved going to the theatre for a bit of escapism. After I had seen Starlight Express I came home and made a model version of the set from memory,” says Richmond. He also recreated Gotham City at the age of eight.

Richmond, 32, from Ballymoney in Northern Ireland, wanted to be an actor. He had a string of school production credits to his name when he was cast as a member of the Jets in West Side Story, performing with the Ulster Theatre Company. “The set was this massive scaffold structure and I thought it was interesting how an environment changes you as an actor. And it made me realise this was the part of the process that was so appealing to me,” he says.

Richmond then attended the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama,  where he took a three-year theatre design course. It culminated in a final-year show with all the pressures of a professional production. “It’s a hardcore three years of hardly any days off. It begins with sculpture work and developing the imagination and building up good skills,” he says. “We had a puppetry project to do, which we also performed in to understand the other side of the process. The second and third years are when you specialise in costume or set design.”

After his course, Richmond moved to London to become as an assistant to Bob Crowley, the designer of Mary Poppins and The History Boys, whose main assistant at the time was a friend of Richmond’s head of design at college.

Getting a break through someone you know is common in this line of work, although getting one job does not automatically lead to another. “You have to keep emailing and creating worlds, get ideas and designs on paper even if you’ve not got work. You have to be relentless in knowing who is doing what and where.”

Fresh from college, a designer can expect to be an assistant with tasks including the necessary evils of tea making and photocopying, but perseverance and a bulky portfolio will help you climb the ranks.

Richmond has recently worked on the RSC’s Wendy and Peter Pan, where he designed both the costumes and set. “You’re only contracted up until press night and then you’re free to go.” Walking around the warehouse of a set at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, Tinkerbell’s fairy dust is everywhere, Captain Hook’s ship is being recharged in the wings and the plurality of the show’s scenes are inconspicuously layered.

Richmond believes in challenging the audiences: “Letting the audience use their heads to add to the story is a way to give them that escapism or realism. I’ve seen the most overdesigned sets that left nothing to the imagination. However it does depend on the show.”

Frantic sketches and doodles are part of the designer’s work, but a lack of drawing skills won’t set you back. “References, mood boards and montages are equally as effective,” says Richmond. Up until the set is constructed, the concept goes through different model stages, working at a scale 25 times smaller.


Good communication skills are vital for a good set designer. They are always feeding back to the director and therefore need to be able to articulate ideas and have strong people skills. “At the end when it all comes into fruition it makes every part of the process worthwhile. The schedules are exhausting but you’ve got to keep doing more because it doesn’t pay well,” says Richmond. “You’re either a prince or a pauper in this industry.”

One of the great things about how large producing theatres now market themselves is that they are ready to promote all aspects of their production process. As a result the design of a play is often shared, along with other key aspects of the production, as the video above of Richmond’s work on the RSC’s Wendy and Pater Pan shows. Here is another, this time of the work of Bunny Christe, the designer of the UK’s National Theatre production of Emil and The Detectives, adapted from the 1929 novel by Erich Kästner.


Violence By Design

One of the smash hits on the London stage at the moment is  Coriolanus. It is one of Shakespeare’s more violent plays with big, bloody battle scenes, riots on the streets of Rome and battles on the Senate floor. This current production, starring Tom Hiddleston  has been roundly applauded.


Obviously one of the things that this production does well is violence and death, most spectacularly, it would appear, Coriolanus’ own death. Given my comments recently in my post, Dying On StageI was intrigued to read an interview with Richard Ryan, the fight director on the show, who was talking to Frances Wasem in The Telegraph. In it, Ryan talks about how he approached the job:

How to choreograph a theatrical fight scene

’ve worked for 20 years in theatre and film as a fight instructor and stunt coordinator, but I trained as an actor, so in many way, working in theatre always feels like coming home. My part in the production is to create an exciting fight, which has energy and pace, develops the characters and the plot – and to do it all safely.

The fight director is involved from the very beginning of a production. Wherever possible I like to sit in on rehearsals to get a better sense of the world the director is trying to create. For Coriolanus, Josie (Rourke, the director) outlined the contemporary feel of the play and talked about the Roman look. We had to merge those two elements in the fight scenes. The director will tell me if they envisage a more visceral, hard-hitting or a swashbuckling-style fight. We’ll also discuss any specific plot elements that they wish to include. In Coriolanus it was important to establish Coriolanus as a warrior and Tullus Aufidius as a worthy adversary.

Richard Ryan, Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser rehearse a fight scene for Coriolanus Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Richard Ryan, Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser rehearse a fight scene for Coriolanus Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Research is part of how a fight is put together. I might visit museums to look at how a warrior, at that time, would have fought and moved. For Coriolanus, I looked over illustrations of Roman tactics and battles and discussed with Lucy (Osborne, the costume designer) a need for a range of movements (so that skin doesn’t chafe). We make sure the metal of the stage armour is lighter than real armour and the sword blades are made of aluminum, not steel. They would still cause damage if they came into contact with the body, though. We were lucky that Lucy got us the boots early on in rehearsals, as their weight and grip changed the type of choreography.

I also talk to the set designer and lighting technician. Principally, I need to ensure that the actors can move around the stage, can see each other’s movements, and that they won’t slip or fall. The actors need to be able see the swords as they fight. Losing sight of the blade in a beautiful sidelight is dangerous. I’ll ask for areas of the stage, which see heavy fighting, to be reinforced. The safety of the actors is crucial, everything from the type of floor to the consistency of stage blood is thought about (in case the actors slip). If a piece of furniture is going to be slammed into, then you reinforce that particular bit of the set, so no one is hurt.

One can talk a good fight, but it’s in the doing that all the work happens. After discussion with Josie and armed with an idea of costumes and weapons, the next step is to start choreographing – and to put the fight on its feet.

I sketch out on paper what I think the floor pattern of the fight will look like, but that’s just for myself. The fight is crafted in the rehearsal room, with and on the actors. The actors might be left or right-handed or have an old injury that makes them hesitant. I base the fight on the story and what the actors can do. Their involvement is key. I need to create a fight scene that is exciting, but that’s also sustainable for the actors to perform eight times a week.

In rehearsals, safety is very important. I’m a fencing coach and black belt martial artist so I’m aware of potential injury. There are crash pads at the back of the room, for when an actor is thrown. I also have back pads, knee and elbow pads. In one fight, both Hadley Fraser and Tom Hiddleston are thrown as they grapple and the crash mat was used as they learned and became familiar with the mechanics of the throw.

So that swords don’t actually hit the actors we use a technique called “off-line”. The sword basically makes contact with the area that an actor was previously in. The actors continually watch for spaces to move into. There’s a structure to a fight, which is like a dance; the moves are done over and over until they are second nature. In early rehearsals you see an actor counting out the moves (one, two, three…), but by the time the show opens, they’re invisible.

Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Ensuring that the actor is able to convey their character in a fight scene is fundamental to my brief. In Coriolanus I need to establish Coriolanus as a warrior and Tullus Aufidius as a worthy adversary. We also need to confirm Tom as a leader, which is achieved through a combination of what he does, the way others respond to him and using stagecraft to ensure he is in strongest position on stage.

In the action, similar principles apply. Tom (Coriolanus) has minimal, but definite movements, whereas junior warriors would quite simply move more. We’d contrast a confident stillness for Tom, with a more edgy, nervous physicality of a less experienced soldier. Tom and I tried to develop an icon fight style, reflective of his vision for Coriolanus. We settled on a signature low stance, from which he launches into explosive attacks.

The energy of a fight scene should build. You do this by creating the illusion that the fight is picking up pace. You start the fight with the actors doing bigger moves – and reduce them in size as the fight gets more intense. You also reduce the number of pauses in the action, as anger builds. It gives the illusion that the moves are faster and more violent, that tempers have frayed. But it’s an illusion; the reality is it’s very controlled.

I had the good fortune to teach Tom swordplay at RADA. Then, as now, he was diligent, enthusiastic and physically fit. He also contributed ideas – and did so on Coriolanus too. Tom and I had been debating whether to “play” an injury, after he was thrown. I wasn’t convinced it would work. So, in a run through of the fight – with the rest of the cast present, who hadn’t been privy to our conversation – Tom landed from the throw and faked the injury. It worked wonderfully and the rest of the cast liked it, so I conceded that Tom was right. Tom had a broad grin for the rest of the day.

Not surprisingly this set me off on a research trail and I was quite astonished by what I found – mountains of information, societies, guilds, guides, schools and even lesson plans about stage combat. One article from Armour Archive deals specifically with sword fighting, Stage Combat 101.  Meron Langsner, himself a fight director offers loads of links to all things violent on stage. Brigham Young University Theatre Education Database offers four lessons and associated resources, including a great little Terms and Definitions document.

Then there are instructional videos like this one from Armstrong Atlantic State University Drama Professor, Pam Sears, revealing the tricks to the illusions of combat in theatre.


I also came across the interview from Stage Source in which four practitioners, Angie Jepson, Robert Najarian, Ted Hewlettstage and Meron Langsner talk about stage combat, fight choreography, and something called Violence Design which seems to be a relatively new term that covers everything violent on stage. It is 45 minutes long, but very interesting – click the icon below to listen

There are professional bodies, such as the Society of American Fight Directors and The British Academy of Dramatic Combat who train actors and certificate teachers. There are people who blog about stage combat, my favourite being I’m So Not Going To Hit YouThere are even Facebook groups, such as Girls Fight, which is set up to promote women in stage combat, of which there are few. It seems to be a male dominated profession. Having said that, there is a great little interview here with Alison de Burgh, who was the first ever professional female fight director in the UK.

1267614-kuhn-7-_wide-9391ed2429d5835b9a0681b2c8cf9d8908ce0e10-s40-c85What I started to glean on my quick tour around stage combat was that much of the training has its basis, not surprisingly, in the kind of discipline that comes with martial arts. This article and programme recording from NPR, In Japan, ‘Sliced Up Actors’ Are A Dying Breed, is about a Japanese actor, Seizo Fukumoto, who has been killed more than 50,000 in his career. Although largely on film, Fukumoto, is known as a Kirareyaku, which roughly translates as ‘chopped up actors’. His art is known in Japanese as tate, a stylized sort of stage combat that combines elements of martial arts, dance and kabuki theatre. You can listen to the programme by clicking this icon:

What is clear, and I always knew this of course, is that stage combat is highly skilled and potentially very dangerous if you are not trained properly. There is a scary list of when things have gone wrong here. So as we say in an increasingly litigious world, Don’t try this at home, kids!