pindan & linen

ruby langton-batty: costume and set designer

Roxanne McDonald, Windmill Baby, design by Ruby Langton-Batty

Roxanne McDonald, Windmill Baby, design by Ruby Langton-Batty

THE INSPIRATION FOR MY WORK AS A DESIGNER COMES FROM MY FAMILY, OUR HISTORY AND ARTISTS WHO HAVE INFLUENCED ME. I GREW UP SURROUNDED BY REMARKABLE PEOPLE WHO TAUGHT ME TO QUESTION, READ AND OBSERVE. MY MOTHER (PROFESSOR MARCIA LANGTON, FOUNDATION CHAIR IN AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS STUDIES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE) AND FATHER (DR PHILLIP BATTY, SENIOR CURATOR FOR ANTHROPOLOGY AT MUSEUM VICTORIA) HAVE BOTH PAVED A PATH FOR ME TO WALK DOWN PROUDLY. I AM DESCENDED FROM A PEOPLE WHO HAVE LIVED IN THIS COUNTRY FOR TENS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

My mother’s grandmother was Bidjara (although she spoke a number of languages like Yuwalarayi) and my great grandfather was Yiman. Their lives, under the Queensland government’s repressive policies, were very hard. On my father’s side I’m related to a woman who came here as a convict in the First Fleet for stealing ‘a bolt of cloth’. I’m also related to the Queen Mother through the Bowes-Lyon family—my grandmother actually received a small inheritance from the line.

Artists, filmmakers and designers from every imaginable background also inspire me. I admire the careers of Lizzie Gardiner and Catherine Martin and I learn from all production designers’ work I see. As a child I watched The Wizard of Oz, The Jungle Book and Blazing Saddles too many times to count. Living in the claustrophobic, straight-laced suburbs of Melbourne I would stare at the Tracey Moffat print we had in our lounge room (from her Something More series) and, like her, long for adventure. As a teen I would hire out every film featuring actors I liked at the time, such as Ewan McGregor or Audrey Hepburn. I admire the tongue-in-cheek take on colonialism of artist Yinka Shonibare, who re-created colonial scenes with headless mannequins swathed in period costumes made of richly patterned African Dutch wax print textiles. I love Kimberley artist Goowoomji (aka Paddy Bedford)’s use of colour, texture and shape in the expression of his deep relationship to land.

Research is the most important part of my designs. My aesthetic depends on the historical and cultural context of the story that needs to be told. I try to put my personal tastes to one side in order to be motivated by concepts and character, working in collaboration with the director, other creatives and the performers. I think it is important to approach the audience intelligently and assume that they already have knowledge about relevant subjects, in order to delve into ideas and I hope, present truths about ourselves. In my costume designs I try to establish a sense of character and place immediately for the audience. I want the character to appear on stage fully formed and my costumes are a big part of that. Being a designer is also largely about figuring out the practicalities of conveying an idea, balancing budget, time constraints and logistics.

The first show I designed after graduating was David Milroy’s Windmill Baby at Belvoir Street (2011), directed by Kylie Farmer. The protagonist, Maymay Star, returns to the Kimberley pastoral station where she worked and lived as a young woman. Actress Roxanne McDonald performed every character in the story. Kylie and I wanted to take the audience to the Kimberley with Maymay, and also create the feeling of visiting a grave. The set design was a painted backdrop and a hyper-realistic reconstruction of the decaying station. We covered the entire stage floor in fine red dirt (pindan), causing much difficulty for the technical department (there are still traces of it in the most unexpected crevices at Belvoir). Kylie explained that it would be culturally problematic to import actual Kimberly pindan so we decided to recreate it. We did this by mixing Sydney quarry sand, which is yellow, with synthetic iron oxide. All of the props were extensively researched and were chosen based on that research. Artist Belinda Williams, who has spent a lot of time travelling across Australia, painted the backdrop.

In my costume research I came across some very beautiful pictures of women who worked as domestic servants on pastoral stations at different times in history. I based Maymay’s costume on two pictures, one from the 1890s and one from the 1920s. In both, the women were holding washing baskets. What struck me was that they were essentially wearing the same dress: very modest white cotton (probably recycled flour sacks) in the fashionable silhouette of the time. I had a dress made for Roxanne out of very beautiful, expensive Italian linen in a simple, modern design. I wanted her costume to seem current and also reference the images of the station women so that visually she would merge into her memories of the past.

I am incredibly privileged to be working as a production designer at this time in Australia and to be part of a significant movement towards getting Aboriginal voices into the mainstream. When I think about how things were a generation ago, I fully appreciate the accomplishments of people like Bob Maza, Jack Davis and Justine Saunders. For me, an important part of creating work is to inform the audience and help them to digest and reflect upon complex issues in ways they wouldn’t normally be able to. The best way to do this is to make them laugh. An excellent example of this is Bran Nue Dae, the musical written by Jimmy Chi (first performed by the Black Swan Theatre in 1990) and adapted in 2010 into a feature film directed by Rachel Perkins. In an industry bursting with talented Indigenous people I am also influenced by people such as Wayne Blair, Stephen Page and Leah Purcell. I am connected to a line of people who had to fight to tell their stories: now I am able to tell my story without the fight. There is obviously still a very long way to go for Indigenous Australians, but our generation has a very different struggle ahead of it from what was required in the past.

There is often a community expectation that I will be able to represent Indigenous people in a broad sense. This is a challenge because it is unrealistic to expect that one person can or should stand for a vast group of people—like anyone I can only speak from my own experience. I find the best way to deal with this [challenge] is to call my Mum. I know that being successful is a matter of continuing to work hard and being strong in the knowledge of who I am. I am interested in and affected by a range of issues. I like to read and think about civil rights, history and feminism. I also listen to Beyoncé and love reading Vogue. Fundamentally, I just want to work hard and be a part of telling stories through design. I have a long list of people I want to work with, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It is heartening what is happening in Australian performing arts and knowing that I am part of an industry that is constantly growing and evolving.

Freelance set and costume designer Ruby Langton-Batty graduated in 2010 from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Production degree. She was costume assistant on the feature film The Sapphires, associate designer on I Am Eora for the Sydney Festival and worked in the costume department for Redfern Now, the forthcoming ABC TV series. She will design costumes for Beautiful One Day at Belvoir, Nov 17-Dec 23 and The Shadow King, a version of King Lear with Tom E Lewis at Malthouse, Melbourne, Oct 8-27, 2013.

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 11

© Ruby Langton-Batty; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2012
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