Features Q&A and Interviews Published 17 February 2015

Mud, Magic and Big Ideas

In the latest installment of our series on theatre design, Emily McMahon met Jon Bausor to talk about his unconventional route in to theatre, the magic of muddy fields and the music of stagecraft.
Emily McMahon

Emily McMahon: In an interview you’ve explained that you came to theatre design by a kind of backward route. Could you explain how you came to the theatre?

Jon Bausor: It was quite a roundabout route. My family are all musicians, so I trained as a musician from a young age, although in my heart of hearts I knew I didn’t want to be one. I was more interested in art than music, but I wrestled with this all the way through my life up to the age of 20. I got a place at St Martins and at Oxford at the same time, one to do Art and one to do Music. I went with St Martins, and then after about a week I realised I was totally skint, and I couldn’t afford anything. Oxford offered this choral scholarship which meant everything was paid for and unfortunately that decided it for me.

Previous to that I’d got into the RSC. I was the worst actor in the world. I almost fell asleep on stage, and I forgot to go to one show entirely. But I got quite fascinated by the weird, sloped stage [of the Swan theatre] and looking out onto this picture that I’d never seen before as a human being, which is just looking out into the darkness, and feeling this energy looking back at you.

I didn’t want to be an actor, but that started this weird bug in me so that when I went to do a foundation course [in Art] my paintings were always to do with the geometry of space, and I was interested in things like the golden section and proportion in painting. My tutor at the time, a guy called Brian Appleyard, said “You know, you should be a theatre designer.” I didn’t really know what a theatre designer did and I’d met one at the RSC who’d just cut all my hair off and made me cry. But then I started reading books about it, and when I was at university a friend of mine asked me to design an opera. I saw in books that they made these models so I made this random scale model and started playing around with it like a doll’s house. I had no idea how to actually build it, so then I had to get down and dirty and started building it and making it and painting it myself and in the process managed to get paint on a 16th century chapel floor. At two in the morning I was scrubbing off this red paint which I’d got all over this chequered marble floor, and suddenly was like, “This is amazing!”

I didn’t know that courses existed particularly, and it was pre-Google,but I saw an advert for a job in the Guardian for a scenic apprentice at this set builders called Victor Mara, which at the time were the oldest set builders in the West End. I arrived and got this job with a load of Lambeth chippies who all spoke proper London, and I was this posh looking boy from Oxford who didn’t know one end of a hammer from the other. They basically took the piss out of me for a year and asked me to get everything from a glass hammer to a long weight, and I learnt how to build scenery. I met all these amazing designers like John Napier and Bob Crowley and, the one that stuck with me, I met Ian McNeil briefly when he was doing An Inspector Calls. I saw this design and I went, “I want to be a theatre designer.”

But I still think music has had such an influential effect on me. I think about design in the same way I think about a piece of music: it’s structure, and it’s progression from a to b and the phrasing and the development of theme and motif that you see in composition.

John Bausor's design for the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony.

Jon Bausor’s design for the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony.

EM: So the two influence one another. So that feeds into the next question I was going to ask you… I was going to say does your musical background inform your understanding of design and the way you approach designs, and you pretty much answered by saying about musical phrasing and motifs. I suppose the first thing you designed was an opera, so was the move into designing operas quite fluid or were there any problems with it?

JB: I really enjoy designing anything for music, I do a lot for dance, I do a lot for ballet: not too conventional ballet but more modern ideas. I think even when I’m designing Hamlet I think about things musically in terms of the arc of that piece. I don’t think of scenery in terms of solid ideas. It’s quite fluid and kinetic like a piece of music. I’m constantly seeing it shifting and I think that’s how my brain works. I think about things quite filmically. I see a flowing visual image that is more about viewpoints rather than anything else, like a camera moving from place to place. I think that’s a musical idea really, a feeling of the motif moving around an orchestra, rather than thinking about it as if you are following it very systematically through a book.

EM: I suppose it goes back to your original experience of standing on a stage with a completely altered viewpoint and looking out into an audience.

JB: I’ve never really thought about that connection. Sometimes I think from a performer’s perspective but I love the idea of thinking about multiple perspectives on a piece of scenery or on a stage. Often I try and mess with the configuration of a theatre so that you challenge the geometry of the space, but you also challenge that viewpoint, the POV, of the audience so that they are seeing something for a more interesting, or oblique, or challenging point of view.

I think it also comes from the fact that [after a year training at design course Motley] I went straight into designing fringe theatre. I went and essentially squatted in the Arcola. Mehmet Ergen and I basically made the Arcola so at that point it was still being built. It was an old warehouse and we’d be building dressing rooms and seating banks as well as building the scenery, and everything was flexible. It was so fluid it meant you were constantly challenging the weight of an audience and the weight of a stage and that relationship between the two. Which I think is fascinating.

And whether that’s you being aware of another audience member or whether that’s just being aware of the dynamic of the stage to the relationship of the audience, I think it’s quite a fascinating collaboration or conversation. I think it’s the same with music. I think about it from a performer’s point of view, sitting playing the cello in an orchestra looking back at the audience and thinking about that conversation, as well as the conversation with the second violinist. It’s still the same idea, in a weird way.

John Bausor's design for Lord of the Flies

Jon Bausor’s design for Lord of the Flies

EM: Absolutely. So building on your experience working with performance spaces when they’re in their infancy when you can still mould them, I wanted to talk about the Regent’s Park open air theatre and your experiences of working there. Lord of the Flies is coming back in September, which is an incredible set.

JB: I love working outside. It can get a bit claustrophobic working indoors and I quite like rolling my sleeves up and getting a bit dirty. It enables you to retain that sense of touch with what you’re creating, and gives you the ability to change things organically or in the moment and respond to something site specifically that you hadn’t really contemplated until you’d got there. This thing doesn’t quite do what you want it to do because it’s made of mud, or that thing’s got a river running right through it: you end up having to play with the idea of creating realism that works within actual realism. You also have to play with the idea of creating proportion, and frame, and focus within something that is infinitely big and which you kind of can’t compete with a lot of the time.

You’ve got to find a way of focusing an audience on one performer, and that goes for both Regent’s Park and the Olympic stadium. A person seen from the back row of both audiences is tiny, but you have to focus all the energy of the audience onto their performance. You can do that with lots of different things, whether that’s playing with scenery or perspective or elevation, or by things hanging above that kind of compress things like a pressure cooker.

I suppose it poses weird challenges because you’ve got lions roaring in the background of Regents Park in the middle of Lord of the Flies. But I think it allows you to do something different. I think that theatre can be too beautiful. I’m not really interested in beauty or prettiness, I’m more interested in the idea of understanding the poetry behind an image, and also a little bit playing with the idea of deconstructing that image so you’re showing the audience the edges. I think it would be a stupid idea to even begin to build a stage that was so naturalistically perfect that you thought it was actually there, because we are in a theatre and we have got fake lights and masking, or edges that the actors walk off into. You have to have a dialogue between the edges of your stage and the edges of the audience’s environment.

EM: You mentioned the Paralympic Games opening ceremony. It’s obviously such a huge arena but there were moments of real, genuine connection, and even as an audience member at home, you were able to reach those tender moments in the ceremony. Had you ever thought you would be asked to do it? How did that process happen?

JB: To be honest when I was called in I thought I was going to be asked to design a hotdog stand. I was randomly reading this book, Grand Design by Stephen Hawking, and when they said it was for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics I wasn’t really prepared. So I started talking about the idea of the grand design, and I got quite interested in this idea of the microcosm of the world existing within the Big Bang, or within the pupil of the eye.

And we actually invited Stephen Hawking in as a result of this idea. As a designer, I think people misconceive that we normally get briefs from directors but we don’t. You basically sit and have what I call a friendly boxing match over your thoughts on the thing, the text, whatever you’re working on, and you dream up the concept that underpins it. And we managed to do that on the biggest scale that I could have ever imagined, hammering through these ideas one after another in this amazing process that was frightening in terms of the speed we to worked at. We only had a couple of months to come up with the whole thing.

I was constantly thinking about the idea of proportion of stage to performer, or how I could think about scenery as kind of machinery that is not unlike the machinery that helps someone with a disability manage to have a decent life in our world. It became quite fascinating thinking how to harness the ideas of technology within disability into making scenery for a Paralympic stage.

We had to invent methods that you would never see from a TV perspective: how somebody could get up a sway pole, for instance, without legs, or how you fly people across an arena, getting them on and off, and how would they be comfortable and how would they be framed within that scenery. Or the time that it takes a wheelchair user to get to the centre of the auditorium. And it meant I was thinking about things in ways I had never considered before, and it’s been a massive influence on me, that. I spend my life now walking around going oh, this terrain or this texture would be really complicated if I was in a wheelchair, or if I was blind. Or where would you put the signer in a signed, non-captioned performance of a play. It’s normally left to the last minute but I’ve already started to think about it early on. And it sometimes informs other things I’m doing: it’s fascinating.

John Bausor's design for Ragtime

Jon Bausor’s design for Ragtime

EM: Yes, I suppose there’s a real legacy in the work you’ve done, along with the work you’ve done previously with dancers and dancers’ bodies: the way the physical form moves, inhabits space, and how you costume that.

JB: Totally. And it’s that interaction between performer and scenery that I think is fascinating for me. I’m really interested in scenery being kinetic and being a living breathing object within a space. It doesn’t necessarily have to actually move, it’s the performer’s relationship to that scenery that is always moving. Whether it be through light, or through mechanical movement, or the performer being able to climb over that object, or respond to it. Just as a piece of costume works with a performer, so the scenery can’t inhibit, it has to enhance that performance. I’m inspired by visual artists like Richard Wilson, the sculptor who creates artwork that responds to the public environment but it’s also something that the viewer responds to, that intervenes with their space, so they have to also have to behave in a different way

EM: Definitely, that intrusion by performers on audience is something that can have a huge lasting effect on both. Mametz, then [a site-specific work by National Theatre Wales inspired by Owen Sheer’s poem on the battle of the Somme] was I suppose a very human piece, a very tactile piece. What was that experience like, designing Mametz?

JB: When I first went out to Wales it was pissing it down with rain and you couldn’t really see anything. I’d obviously come from London in my brogues, and was hacking round a Welsh field like an idiot from Hoxton and getting all muddy but there was something magical about that place, and there was an incredible barn. I was really interested in the idea of the journey of the audience though that. [Director Matthew Dunster] is not afraid of big conceptual choices. You can go to Matthew with a really crazy idea and he’ll go alright, leave that with me. And it was massive. The set was a mile and a half long. It became a kind of painting, or a sculpture, that we created literally piece by piece, we just built it organically. We were just throwing mud over everything and just building it there, and responding directly to it. It was absolutely bonkers.

I love working with directors who are truly collaborative and not in any way defensive about you being dramaturgical in your points of view, and being quite bolshie in the way that you talk about how something might be directed or your viewpoint on casting on or your thoughts about what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Sometimes Matthew doesn’t even go “Yes, that was a great idea”: he starts talking and has taken it on board and wants to run with it. He’s invested his own ideas in it and it’s become a bigger, more incredible idea as a result of that.”

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Emily McMahon is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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