designs on australian theatre

keith gallasch: ralph myers, artistic director, belvoir

Ralph Myers

Ralph Myers

IN REALTIME 100, I GREETED THE 2011 BELVOIR PROGRAM WITH ENTHUSIASM. NEW ARTISTIC DIRECTOR RALPH MYERS’ LARGELY YOUNG TEAM OF DIRECTORS (INCLUDING SEVERAL WOMEN), A MIX OF RARELY SEEN CLASSICS (INCLUDING RAY LAWLER’S SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL TO BE DIRECTED BY OUTGOING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR NEIL ARMFIELD), NEW PLAYS, A DANCE PIECE AND TWO ABORIGINAL WORKS COMPRISE A SERIOUSLY INVITING PROGRAM. IN ADDITION, THE INCORPORATION OF THE DOWNSTAIRS THEATRE INTO THE OVERALL PROGRAM SEEMS A SIGNIFICANT OPPORTUNITY TO PHILOSOPHICALLY AND PRACTICALLY EXPAND BELVOIR’S PROGRAM AND REACH.

MYERS, IN OUR FIRST MEETING, CONFIRMS HIS REPUTATION AS AMIABLE, FUNNY AND SHARP. HE’S AN ACCLAIMED THEATRE DESIGNER, NOT A STAGE DIRECTOR [AS YET], SO I THOUGHT IT MIGHT BE INTERESTING TO USE THAT AS THE PIVOT FOR OUR CONVERSATION.

You trained in visual arts, specifically in silversmithing, but then you went to NIDA.

I’m a bit impatient and hasty to see a quick result which is why I thought I might not make a good jeweller. And there’s something great about theatre design and indeed the process of making theatre in general. It’s something that happens quite quickly, you get a big result quite quickly and it’s all kind of slightly junky, which I think appeals to my kind of sensibility.

The materials, the disposability?

It’s ephemeral—you only need to make it last for a season while achieving the impression and the sensation that you’re trying to generate in the mind of an audience. Jewellery making—and I’m touching my wedding ring as I say this—is about the integrity of the material. How many carats is the gold, how well is it constructed, how many hundreds of years is it going to last? What I like about theatre is the exact opposite of that.

In theatre, it’s the durability of memory, isn’t it?

It is and that’s a strangely fugitive thing as well. Memories twist and transform. Neil’s wonderful production of Diary of a Madman makes quite an interesting comparison between what theatre was like 20 years ago in Sydney and now. He’s pretty faithfully reproduced that 1989 production with Geoffrey Rush and the original team, the original designers. It’s marvellous that even though it’s not that old, it’s stylistically from another era.

There are times when you have to live with your designs a lot longer than a Sydney season. A Streetcar Named Desire going to the US must have posed interesting challenges.

It’s a slightly horrible thing to say, but the ones that have the longest lives are not always the ones you want to. The curious thing about being a set designer is that ultimately you need to serve the vision of the director. So sometimes you have to make a decision to put your taste and your sensibilities—and your fears—aside and allow the director to ultimately make the decision.

You were serving Liv Ullman’s vision.

Absolutely. And she is an extraordinary figure, an important artist of the 20th century. Who am I to tell her what to do? I’m working on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the moment both as set designer and as artistic director of the company. We’re finding a way for that to work. And it does work because Simon Stone the director is very clear about his ideas and vision. So it’s not muddy.

There are a number of strong directors around who could be labelled auteurs, who arrive not just with a play but also a design concept for the designer to realise rather than invent.

You get directors who know exactly what they want and the task is making that work within the space and the parameters. And there are always an infinite number of details to resolve. I don’t mind that. I’ve been in situations for instance with Benedict [Andrews] where he’s led the process very much—I’ve realised an idea that’s come to me from him very much fully formed. On the other hand there have been other situations where the idea has been largely mine and it’s evolved in conversation. Barrie Kosky is another example. He has very strong ideas about what he wants. To be honest I find that the better directors know precisely what they want or latch onto an idea and allow it to be followed through to its logical conclusion. When I was working with Neil Armfield on Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes for Opera Australia, I’m fairly sure Neil came up with the idea of setting it in a church hall. I built a model of it and very quickly we realised that it would work. Then he allowed me to realise that very much on my own. So there’s quite an element of trust and understanding.

Your father was an architect, your mother a visual arts teacher; I’m very interested in the architectural quality of your work. It seems to me that some designers have a better architectural and spatial sense than others (whose work might resonate, say, with contemporary visual arts or technology or interior design). In certain of the shows you’ve designed the architectural quality is pronounced—those huge floating rooms in The Lost Echo (STC) or the room that revolves in Measure for Measure (Company B), that modernist superstructure hanging over a very ordinary, aged apartment in Streetcar Named Desire (STC), the grim in-the-round basement world for Blackbird (STC), the hall in Peter Grimes. They all struck me as very three-dimensional, very substantial. For all that ephemerality, they felt eerily solid.

I’m interested in solid things. My mother was an architect before I was born. I’ve always been around architects. I suppose if you come from a family of tailors, you look at what people wear. I am interested in people and space. I’m flattered that you think my work seems solid. The thing you’re fighting in theatre is that nothing is solid really. It’s all made out of bits of cardboard.

How do you feel about The Wild Duck? Do you engage with the actors and the director about the way the space is being used and inhabited?

I try to attend rehearsals as much as I can. I really like being in rehearsals. And of course the more you’re there the better the design serves the purposes of the play. I’d like to be there all the time but you can’t always be. In all good rehearsal rooms, there’s a certain amount of cross-fertilisation. Actors will suggest something about the set and you can suggest something about how they do their performance (LAUGHS). In the end it all comes out in the wash.

One of the tricks of being a good designer is to maintain as much flexibility as you can within the structures of how companies like this will work. All theatre and opera companies and certainly production departments will try to lock down the physical elements of production as early as they can because it makes it very much easier for them to do their job. One of the difficult things to say after the second preview might be: “Actually, it should all be pink” or “I think this is completely wrong. Let’s get rid of the set and do it on an empty stage” or “I think she should be wearing a wedding dress.” These things throw a spanner in the works, blow the budget and make it very difficult. But ultimately that’s what you might need to do: use the time at your disposal to make the production as good as you possibly can. Sometimes you can’t have the best idea three months in advance of the production or, in the case of opera, 18 months.

One of the things I’m conscious of as artistic director of this company is allowing it to remain pretty responsive, which it always has been. As a set designer this was the one place where you really could change your mind quite late which is a really fabulous thing. I think this probably comes from Neil’s chronic inability to make artistic decisions (LAUGHS). He’s left a great legacy for the rest of us.

For Measure for Measure you were working with projections and onstage cameras. You’ve made it clear elsewhere that you see theatre as a very different realm from film and new media—that’s not to say you’d exclude them. But that work provided a fascinating experience in terms of design, accommodating the revolving room that keeps transforming and the screens that frame it.

I’m often extremely sceptical about the use of audio-visual material in theatre productions because I think it can be a substitute for something that could be shown in real time or ‘real life.’ The figure on the screen is often much more interesting to watch than the onstage figure, because of scale. So your eye tends to be drawn there which starts to beg the question well why is there a figure there at all onstage? As you know, Benedict’s extremely interested in working in that way. As the designer for Measure for Measure of course I went along with it, made it work as best I could within the space, worked with Sean Bacon and in the end I think it was extraordinary. You gain something, of course, by the use of the camera to show a kind of detail that otherwise couldn’t be seen. That’s much more interesting than showing what you can already see. So Benedict’s focus on Mariana’s wedding—you know touching her engagement ring at the top of Act 3—or zooming in as he did in The Season at Sarsaparilla on a detail or moment that would otherwise be lost to the audience, is extremely interesting. It’s an interesting extension of that idea.

I suppose there’s not much you can reveal about your design for The Wild Duck at this stage. What would you say is the creative impulse for you in the production?

It’s extremely exciting. I don’t want to jinx it by saying it’s going to be good but Simon has a very sharp brain and a very good sense of what’s at his disposal in terms of the actors and the resources that are available to him after coming from a background in independent theatre where everything is slightly difficult to get hold of. Here things are more possible. That said, it’s quite a restrained production, not over the top in any way. He’s essentially taken the core story of The Wild Duck, those six central characters, the inevitable playing out of an action over a short period of time that happens in Ibsen plays, and stripped it of all the stuff around it, rewritten it and placed it in a very spare environment.

It all happens in one space?

It’s even more abstract than that somehow. It’s really no space at all. The adaptation has a kind of charm that’s often missing from the adaptation of classics—a kind of lightness, playfulness and charm that’s very easy to lose when you’re trying to faithfully adapt something. It’s a bit like—while being nothing like—Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde in that the way that people interact with each other doesn’t always reflect the great drama and import of the things that are being discussed. I don’t know how Simon manages to create that. He’s got a very playful rehearsal room. There’s a great deal of light. But it’s a horrific play. A 14-year-old girl in the end shoots herself.

Obviously like many before you, you’re enamoured of the Belvoir St Theatre space, and you’ve worked it before. Will you occasionally lease yourself out to bigger stages?

I’m working on a production for Opera Australia in 2012. That’s the only thing I’m doing outside at the moment. I’m designing for Benedict’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull for our 2011 program.

What have been the pleasures of putting this program together for you?

It’s an enormous pleasure listening to a whole lot of people speak very passionately and enthusiastically about the things they want to do. The difficulty, of course, is choosing which ones to take up. A company like this should be as open as it can be, as able to hear as many ideas from as broad a range of places as possible. One of the challenges for a company is that you can become insular or that you only turn to people you know or who you’ve worked with before, which I think is extremely dangerous. The other side of that is that you have to listen to a whole lot of bad ideas from a whole lot of people too. But that’s okay. So that’s a great pleasure. And then you make a salad out of it. And there are a lot of reasons why some things end up in the mix and others don’t but really nothing ends up in there that I don’t think is going to be good or interesting or hopefully both. I very much started the process with the ambition to not include anything simply for pragmatic reasons.

Like making big box office?

Yes and you never can anyway. From a few years of working at the Sydney Theatre Company and from many years around the traps working as a designer in lots of theatre companies, you see that there are things that a company does for legitimate and artistic reasons and there are other things they do to satisfy what they imagine the audience wants or what’s going to make money, all sorts of reasons. My one ambition is to not have one of those productions. We’re lucky we can do that here. We don’t have quite the pressures of the big state companies. It’s an enviable position. The trade-off for winding up the B Sharp program was that we were going to be able to do fully staged productions down there. The disadvantage was that we wouldn’t be able to do so many of them. My ambition is to build that up over time so that it has the same volume and energy that B Sharp had but where everybody is being paid. My big ambition is to employ more artists in general. It’s surprising how few people think that’s a good idea [LAUGHS]. But I think it’s critical for a city of this size, a city as fabulous as Sydney to have a lush and thriving artistic community. And I think you have to do that by directing money towards people to do it. We’re the third or fourth biggest theatre company in the country. I think we need to face that reality.

Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, directed by Simon Stone, featuring performers John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Ewen Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan, Toby Schmitz and designer Ralph Myers is playing at Belvoir Street Theatre, Feb 12-March 27; Belvoir, artistic director Ralph Myers, Sydney; www.belvoir.com.au

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 46-47

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2011
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