Chloe Lamford is telling me a story to illustrate a point about a strand of her work which is interested in “things that imitate life but aren’t quite right,” as we try to understand the way in which theatre design can create an atmosphere within a space, capturing the complex realities of life in a way which isn’t necessarily literal. The story focusses on a strange occurrence in a pub where a man drunkenly sang karaoke whilst a huge TV screen relayed images of bombing in Baghdad. “And that’s really weird, but that’s real and really ugly and I always think of it. I get excited by those moments.”
You don’t have to look hard to find examples of these moments within Lamford’s recent work. In her design for Headlong’s 1984, the windows of the seminar room she created allowed for a number of haunting figures to watch over the action, whilst The World of Extreme Happiness at The Shed featured a scene with dozens of creepy playdolls (“We need the masses! How can we make it look like lots of people with a cast of six? I know – we need a load of light-up baby dolls that talk!”). After a busy summer working on Open Court, deceptively simple designs for The Events and Circle Mirror Transformation, and work outside of London on National Theatre Wales’ Praxis Makes Perfect, Cannibals at the Royal Exchange, and The History Boys at the Sheffield Crucible, it’s unsurprising that Lamford sees her work as undergoing a period of change as questions arise about process and style. Next year, she will takes some time off to “regenerate” after winning an Arts Foundation Fellowship for ‘talented, emerging artists to explore new avenues or consolidate existing work’.
Lamford has just returned from Berlin, where she has been working on Katie Mitchell’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s extraordinary play Lungs at the Shaubühne. (Read Andrew Haydon’s interview with Mitchell for more on this production). The play sees a twentysomething couple discussing the ethics of having children in the twenty-first century against the backdrop of huge environmental change, and so the initial conversation between director and designer considered how to make the form reflect the content. “I read [Stephen Emmott’s] 10 Billion the day before I went to meet [Mitchell], and went ‘Oh my god, Katie, I’ve just read 10 Billion’. And then the conversation about the play jumped from there.” The pair wanted a way of making the production as efficient as possible, so decided to go off-grid using recyclable materials. The design sees the two actors peddling as they recount the lines, powering their own lighting, whilst four other cyclists create the power for projection and sound. “And then you can get really fascinated about the actor becoming exhausted while they speak the words of the show and what that does to their relationship. And I got really interested in space and put them side-by-side so it almost looked like they were racing each other and everyone’s moving but they’re not. There was a lot of depth in it, even though it was simple. When you find golden ideas like that is my big thing in life.”
In relation to this, Lamford admits that she “can’t to ‘straight’ anything” and that, after growing up in a fairly bohemian household with two dancers as parents, she finds it hard to think in a massively literal way, thus feeding into a slightly “looser” aesthetic when designing. A few of her recent sets have undergone huge shifts during the performance itself, which she describes as “theatre surprises. I like that theatre has to be a bit like that. Why make an ITV drama on stage? I’ve seen a lot of plays like that. Lots of people are scared of theatricality. I just feel that as a language surprises are great. I want to see things happen – like really happen – to my sets.” Instinctively, Lamford’s gut heads towards theatricality. “I love rigour, and an idea has to be incredibly well thought-through and earn its place instinctively from the text, but I have got a looseness about theatricality. You can’t use it gratuitously, and it has to be part of what the production is and part of where the director’s going and be ‘allowed’ within the text, but I’m always going ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did THIS?’”
Being a part of a collaborative creative process in any production is where Lamford is happiest, and all her work bounces off “that initial conversation with the director”. At this point in the process, she says, anything is possible and the only limit is the imagination. After this conversation, however, the process becomes more murky: “I design really intuitively, and I’m like a big sponge, so in the conversation I learn what the design will be from both reading the text a lot and also the conversation that grows really subtly, and I can’t really analyse what I do. I’ll have really big gut instincts about things. But sometimes people come to me and they’ve already got a whole thing. 1984 existed within the minds of Duncan [Macmillan] and Rob [Icke, the creators]. What Room 101 is like is kind of my gut, but the first room existed in their minds so I had to grow the play with them out of that. We had a lot of conversations before there was even a draft, and it’s sort of a fascinating process because you can’t see where we start and stop as a three.”
In the hope that the artistic, creative process may be illuminated – even minutely – by an understanding of what actually happens when designing a show, I ask Lamford to explain the literal process to me. Ordinarily, the play gets read before taking the job, and the ideas that come out of that first reading then get thrown around in the initial conversation with the director. Out of these discussions then comes some kind of shared world, which may allow for “a weird magpie phase” when the designer builds up a collection of images and ideas or may allow for heading straight to a model box. Then “you both sit with your head in the box for a while” before working on the model and drawing with assistants so the theatre can get on with making the set itself.
This manifests itself in very different ways, of course. Her work with Michael Longhurst, for example (World of Extreme Happiness, Cannibals and The History Boys) will often stem from ideas they’ve been interested in from past collaborations, allowing them to just play with ideas in a model box before the idea that it’s “set in a factory, even though it’s not set in a factory” clicks. On the other hand, director James MacDonald and she thought carefully about tiny details in the design for Circle Mirror Transformation, getting “obsessed with having four props in the whole thing”. Ultimately, no matter what the show, “you’ve got to have a lot of ideas. Some of them are going to be stupid and awful and some of them are going to be amazing. And if you can get an amazing one, keep going; they’re rare beasts. We’ve got to have big imaginations, otherwise what’s the point in being in theatre?”
After a brief discussion about theatre in other countries and the differences in cultural ecologies, I ask Lamford whether a designer-led theatre would be a good idea. She leaps at the thought: “YEAH! I think that’d be really interesting. Or for theatres to have designers in their building at least. Having a visual voice in a building is brilliant and I think it’d be amazing to have a designer.” Briefly, we contemplate the idea of a designer as originator in a process rather than facilitator, and Lamford suggests that there may be room for a shift in the way we currently think about how theatre is designed, noting that “It feels like the climate is right for using visual imagination as a starting point”.
How would Lamford describe her job, which has seen her create sets for opera, music videos and concerts as well as theatre (in another life, she says, she may have been a photographer)? “It’s hard to articulate what designing is, because I think it’s more than making scenery. I think it’s finding a bigger, more beautiful way of saying something.”
We come back to the notion of ideas and where they stem from, noting how personal they are and the ways in which they get stored in the deep recesses of the brain before jumping out again when they’re most needed. Often, Lamford concedes, her best ideas will be “in that first splurge”, but they may get left by the wayside for a while. “You’ve got to trust your guts, big time, and I think people forget to listen to them sometimes. But normally you have your best little moment – if you’re awake – when you first read the play. Ideas are very weird and they appear and disappear and they normally come back around. A really good one will come back. God, I hope I haven’t missed any.”
Main image. Atmen directed by Katie Mitchell. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
This is the second in a series of interviews on theatre design. Read Catherine Love in conversation with Tom Scutt here.