Features Q&A and Interviews Published 30 January 2014

Es Devlin: The Point of Convergence

In the third of our features on the art of stage design, Dan Hutton talks to Es Devlin about her process, about portals and her responsibility to the audience.
Dan Hutton

Those who have seen American Psycho at the Almeida will distinctly remember a moment when assembled guests at Evelyn’s house strike a series of poses in super-quick succession, giving an impression of a nouveau-riche flickbook being speedily rifled through. After the event, however, it can be difficult to find this image anywhere but in the mind’s eye, as media photographs of the performance only capture a singular moment.

Designer Es Devlin, however, is showing me a doctored picture which truly captures that moving image, layering photographs over the top of one another to give an impression of slick, sexy fluidity. She takes photographing her work seriously, and it gives more of an impression of the performance than all of those already published put together. “I’ve got people who say ‘I love your work’, but they haven’t seen it,” Devlin tells me, “They’ve seen the photos on my website. You think you saw my work, and you have, but only as a take-er of photos and a put-er of them on my website.”

In fact, the likelihood is that you have seen Devlin’s work in some capacity, even if you weren’t aware it was her vision behind the design; years of work on plays, operas and pop concerts came to head as she designed the eclectic visual feast of the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony. “It’s taking that Greek idea of a ritual and taking it to the grandest, most ambitious scale. Because whatever you want to say about what any of those ceremonies actually are – the meat of them – just the event of that many people all deciding to take part in something at the same time is really not to be undervalued”¦ I spend a lot of time with a scalpel, but there’s room to get a great big paintbrush out, because you only live once.”

Devlin, whose recent credits include the striking designs for American Psycho, Chimerica and Kanye West’s Yeezus tour, tells me that in the initial stages of work on any given project, she and her associates “indulge in quite abstract, tangential, not-necessarily-relevant-at-the-time research. We have files on our desktops of interesting things we’ve discovered that have nothing to do with the project but will be interesting in the future.” It’s not difficult to see how this process influences her work – not least in the Closing Ceremony – which features a wide array of influences, ideas and images which somehow come together as a cohesive whole.

Before this research can begin, however, Devlin needs to get a tight grip on the play or libretto in question (when working on pop concerts, she prints out the lyrics and creates a ramshackle ‘libretto’ to work with). This is important, she says, because “Pieces of theatre are events in time, they’re little machines. They have their motors and their mechanisms and their muscles that drive them and make them work, and you have to really forensically get under the skin of those to understand. It’s a bit like Stubbs – when you’re trying to draw a horse you need to really know the bones and the anatomy of it before you can draw its skin.”

The Chimerica cube. Photo: Es Devlin

The Chimerica cube. Photo: Es Devlin

Devlin is keen to find a “machine that would best present this story”, and thus many of her designs feature moving parts. You can’t discuss Chimerica without mentioning the revolving cube, or Master and Margarita without referring to the sliding platforms. When working on the American Psycho design, which features two revolves to evoke an 80s tape deck, director Rupert Goold made a note that they should “always bring on significance rather than location”. “That was a really good note,” Devlin says, “and I don’t think we always achieved it, but as a note, any machine, any device, anything that brings things on can’t just do that; it has to at the same time be a clock that’s cumulative.”

Like the designer Chloe Lamford – who worked as Devlin’s assistant before taking on her own shows – she finds the discussion with the director to be the time when an idea of the design really starts to take hold. “As you’re talking, some of it’s conscious and some of it’s unconscious. It’s coming at it from two separate ways at once and they converge. You know when the optician’s testing your eyes and they put all those different lenses in front, and you think ‘They’re never going to get this right’? It’s a bit like doing that, and then finally they take those off and they give you the glasses and it converges. It’s like lenses making rays of light converge.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a designer, Devlin has a way of evoking ideas by using the most extraordinary visual metaphors (at one point she suggests that making theatre is akin to baking a cake for the first time without following a recipe). Conversely, she’s also not afraid to speak her mind, suggesting that set design ought to be “a character” and “a strand in itself”, which perhaps goes against the logic of those who believe it should be subservient to other aspects of a show. “It seems very condescending to an audience to imagine they don’t apply the same levels of interpretation and appreciation and observation that we present on a stage as to objects you might view in a shop or in a gallery or on the street. I think it’s a thing within itself. It seems terribly brazen and shocking, but I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be like that.”

Complicite's The Master and Margarita

Complicite’s The Master and Margarita

The audience is at the heart of what Devlin does, and the refusal to draw a distinction between “high brow and low brow” (a phrase which, she informs me, makes a distinction between Neanderthal and Homo Sapien bone structure) is key to her success across artforms; “there are some opera libretti that are: ‘Go to the door, go to the door, go to the dooor. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love youuu’. And I ask you: What’s the difference between that and ‘I want you back, I want you back, I want you back for good?'” Devlin wants her work to get to “the most recently evolved bit of my brain and the cerebellum… that bit is the bit that makes the skin tingle, that gets 80’000 people in a stadium all feeling something. That is coming purely from everyone feeling it. It’s instinctive.”

When I ask Devlin what she thinks the broad ‘purpose’ of design is, she suggests it has to “do the absolute fundamental thing of providing the context, the foil, for the action. It’s about creating a world, essentially”, before again returning to this idea of a “responsibility to an audience to not fuck them about”. She acknowledges that this is of course easier said than done, but believes that makers should constantly attempt to remain sympathetic to “the person who’s just going to rock up. Give them hooks, allow their brains to mesh with this, allow them that pleasure of getting it, of piecing it together, and hopefully if enough of them are doing it at once, you get this lovely feeling of community of everyone understanding something.”

2012 Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony. Photo: Getty Images

2012 Olympic Games – Closing Ceremony. Photo: Getty Images

Though Devlin has dabbled in film and TV and hopes to return to them further down the line, theatre is ultimately at the heart of everything she does, whether it’s a new musical, a Miley Cyrus tour or an international event. “There’s not many things we do now that are like sitting in a theatre”. She points towards her phone, and pulls out another gorgeous metaphor: “As this portal gets smaller, the range of the portal’s reach gets bigger. The most equal size of balance of size-of-portal to size-of-person is probably still the Bush Theatre, where the door is a real-door height, the room is a real-room height, and there’s sometimes as many people on the stage as there are in the audience. It adjusts the balance of power. If the audience wanted to get up and leave or riot, then that would genuinely have an impact on the performance. There’s a possibility for the influence to be two-way, just because everybody’s made of flesh and blood and everyone’s under one roof. That’s got to be something to really hold onto and celebrate, hasn’t it,” she says, still holding her phone, “as we get more and more into this thing?”

Main image – Es Devlin’s design for American Psycho. 

Catherine Love in conversation with Tom Scutt.

Dan Hutton in conversation with Chloe Lamford.


Dan Hutton

Dan is a freelance critic and theatre-maker. He won the Howard Hobson Award for Theatre Criticism at NSDF in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and in 2013 was the runner-up for the Edinburgh Fringe Allen Wright Award for Arts Journalism. Dan is also a director and co-runs Barrel Organ Theatre.



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