Early this year, we experimented for the first time with theatrical set design. Downstage Theatre invited us to design + build the set for Extremophiles, a production written and performed by Calgary/Toronto playwright Georgina Beaty. As part of that process, they organized a workshop for design experimentation, intended to build the bones that would eventually because a functional set for the performance.
We came into the Extremophiles Design Workshop armed with flashlights, boxes of LEDs and shiny materials, the skeletons of old projects, bags of tools and hardware, a few drawings and some faint ideas, but otherwise uncertain about the particulars of our roles and responsibilities. This was a new world for us – after all, we’re used to working as artists, not designers. We don’t fully understand the lateral hierarchies of theatre, or who exactly does what. We were excited and anxious to learn, to take a “holiday” from our regular artistic practice in the realm of the performing arts.
Any worries we had were almost immediately alleviated. The crew at Downstage Theatre, headed by Artistic Director Ellen Close, is generous and open. They had specifically approached us to join their team because:
a) Taking place in the far north of Canada in a near (potential) future, Extremophiles heavily features light, almost as a fourth character. Working with ‘light artists’ made sense.
b) Downstage Theatre believes in collaboration as a principle of inclusion, across disciplines, but also across more radical barriers (socio-economic thresholds, etc). The experiment is the point.
Hierarchies were flexible, permeable even. This is how we became not just the Set Designers, but the Sound Designers too, bringing in a theremin to play an essential character that straddles the line between set + sound. We were welcome to experiment between traditional theatrical roles, empowered by Downstage’s gentle encouragements.
Perhaps the most interesting part of working on a performance (rather than an installation) was considering a time-based narrative, and creating stage elements that responded to the momentum of the plot and the arc of the characters.
We thought about colour temperatures as specific intervals of time. Ultra-white light illustrated a stark, sterile environment – contrasting with the bubbly, vibrant character that occupied that light. Warmer colour temperatures referenced the setting sun, the onset of ‘eternal night.’ Rings of bulbs literally counted down the time between the beginning and the end of the performance. Amber drifted towards blue, and became black.
The design development process was an interesting one. Ellen opened up the experiment to a small room of people at the summation of the workshop, and that presence (of ‘audience’ rather than ‘viewer’ or ‘participant’) was another epiphany for us. While the difference is subtle, it is powerful.
Photos of the final set design to come!