Design and performance: scenography

By Penny Craswell

Truly multi-disciplinary, scenography is design for performance environments – encompassing set design, lighting and more for the theatre (and musicals, dance). Also related is design for catwalk shows, as well as other temporary experiential designs – installations for events or festivals for example. As more environments are designed to be experiential, the skill of creating “scenes” is more applicable across disciplines.

Teatro Olimpico by Palladio in Vicenza. Image: Penny Craswell

 

The discipline is on the periphery of design – part interior design, part styling, part costume, part art, part lighting, part construction. Architecture can also play a role, such as in the oldest existing closed theatre, the 1585 Teatro Olimpico by Vicenza architect Palladio which features a beautiful facade with arches, behind which a false perspective creates the illusion of a streetscape.

Scenography can also include other elements, such as puppetry, like the Lion King which was designed by Zimbabwe-born Richard Hudson in 1997 and is still going strong.

Grand Music Award 2014, design by Didzis Jaunzems Architecture. Photos: Ernests Sveisbergs
Grand Music Award 2014, design by Didzis Jaunzems Architecture. Photos: Ernests Sveisbergs


Based in Latvia, Didzis Jaunzems Architecture has designed a number of theatre and music sets, including stunning scenography for Latvia’s Grand Music Award last year, where 300 plastic balloon spheres with differing levels of transparency were lit to create a three dimensional field for performance. A large mirror on the back wall amplifies the effect.

In Australia, Liminal studio in Tasmania has created a number of projects for the theatre, including The Barbarians in 2012, an avant-garde opera held as part of the MONA FOMA Festival. The design was cost-effective but experimental, providing a perfect complement to a cutting-edge performance.

The Barbarians. Image: Liminal website Photo: Peter Whyte and Lucia Rossi
The Barbarians. Image: Liminal website Photo: Peter Whyte and Lucia Rossi
The Barbarians. Image: Liminal website Photo: Peter Whyte and Lucia Rossi
The Barbarians. Image: Liminal website Photo: Peter Whyte and Lucia Rossi


More recently, Liminal also designed the set for Tasmanian Theatre Company production Born From Animals. The set features floating black geometries in an interactive environment, with elements that can be peeled back, lifted, folded or propped. Behind the black structure, elements of glowing light and colour are revealed throughout the performance.

Born from Animals Image: Liminal Studio website Photography Jonathan Wherrett
Born from Animals Image: Liminal Studio website Photography Jonathan Wherrett
Born from Animals Image: Liminal Studio website Photography Jonathan Wherrett
Born from Animals Image: Liminal Studio website Photography Jonathan Wherrett



Another recent outstanding example in Australia is the set of I Love Todd Sampson, a play by Sydney’s Living Room Theatre that ran in 2013. With scenography by Mac-Interactive and 8 other teams of architects, the audience literally followed the protagonist through each environment, creating an interactive experience of theatre on the move.

I Love Todd Sampson Photo: Brett Boardman
I Love Todd Sampson Photo: Brett Boardman


Perhaps the most exciting thing about scenography is the sheer freedom that it brings – the list of materials, ideas, process and construction are seemingly endless. Perhaps this is what appeals to me most about the form. This and the fact that it is a necessarily collaborative process, working with theatre directors and actors, musicians or dancers.

My own connection to scenography is that in my early twenties I co-designed a set for a theatre production in Canberra with theatre director friend Kelly Somes. The results are lost to posterity but it was a fascinating (and back-breaking) experience. When people ask me whether I would have liked to have been a designer, rather than (just) write about design, I usually say no, but this is the one design discipline I think I could have made my own.

Considering the creative possibilities of scenography, it is a shame to note that in 2014, not one of the IDEA Awards shortlist in the “event” category was a theatre or set design. Let’s hope there’s some in there this year.

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