Shipwreck is the seventh production Miriam Buether has designed at the Almeida. Here she talks about some of her recent work at the Almeida and gives an insight into her practice and process.
Why do you like designing for the Almeida? What are the advantages and challenges?
I live in Islington and my studio is 10 minutes down the road from the Almeida, so it’s really nice working in my local theatre. The Almeida is a very intimate space which I love. There is no proscenium and no architectural border between the audience and the performers so there is the possibility of a very close connection, something I’m very interested in. The seating is flexible – one can configure it in-the-round, thrust or end-on. But once you change the configuration into something which hasn’t been done before, you have to work through all sorts of things, like audience capacity, sightlines (especially from the balcony), fire exit routes, possibly different seating. And with any luck there is some money left in the budget to put something on that new stage…
All of your designs at the Almeida have looked very different, in terms of shape, style and configuration – is it a conscious decision to try something new?
Absolutely. As a designer you always want to try something new. Of course it’s firstly driven by the play and the collaboration with the director but I’m conscious not to repeat myself, or worse repeat the work of another designer. We create prototypes every time and, while we can refine this over the course of the tech and previews, there is hardly ever a follow-on product, unless the show transfers to another theatre.
What is the process of collaborating like with the director and other creatives? How much do their thoughts impact on your design and how much are you completely in control?
To design a play is a very collaborative process. I work very closely with the director and, if possible, also the playwright. Once we have developed a rough concept (which can take a few weeks) we share it with the costume, lighting and sound designers so they can respond, develop their ideas and flag potential problems. And then there are practical limitations – sometimes you have to change the design because it’s over-budget, there aren’t enough seats in the design, or the sightlines aren’t good enough.
Is there a dream play that you would love to design?
I love new writing, the possibility to provoke debate and encourage change. Looking at the world now, I’m curious what I will be asked to work on next.
Albion was the name of the garden in which Mike Bartlett’s play took place. To create a convincing ‘outside’ inside a theatre is always difficult and, in this production, the seasons had to visibly change over the course of the evening. Rupert Goold (director) and I set the play on a large oval platform covered in grass with a large tree in the middle and a ring of soil around the edge. The actors had to get their hands dirty and to do some proper planting several times during the show (I can’t imagine I was very popular with them…). We wanted to use mostly real plants as the audience were sitting so close and that turned out to be a challenge. Jason Wescombe, Chief Technician at the Almeida, came up with a plant recovery centre on top of the Almeida’s roof, so whenever the plants looked sad they went outside for a few days to recover.
When I started to work on Machinal with Natalie Abrahami (director), we were very sceptical that the play was possible to stage at the Almeida. The play has nine episodes, all in different locations, one following the next, very swiftly. At first, we thought of it as nine different tableaux, visible at the same time, like the Stations of the Cross. But, of course, that’s not possible at the Almeida. So we came up with a big machine, a black box which opens jaw-like, and shows you this moment of the woman’s life, her entrapment, the claustrophobia, and then shuts, repeatedly. (And while it was shut the stage managers and the crew performed a miracle backstage, changing the set in less than 20 seconds. It was a whole other show taking place backstage…)
Sacha Wares (director) and I set the play on a serpentine travelator, which pretty much spanned the entire width of the space. The audience sat on different levels on all sides of traaveltor and were very aware of each other. The play shows a day in the life of a lonesome, inarticulate 17 year-old boy called Liam, set in contemporary London and seen through his eyes. We decided to set the play on a conveyor belt going nowhere. A giant machine which never stopped, on which Liam travelled around aimlessly, like a forgotten piece of luggage, with everyone busy around him. Over the course of the play, elements of urban life, including parks, shopping centres, toilets, bus stops, tube stations and nightclubs, appeared and disappeared. The set was built by a company which makes industrial travelators and they managed to find us a discontinued model in France, as the belt had to cut tight corners while the actors were standing on it. Leon Baugh, our choreographer, came up with a brilliant device – a leg brace (hidden in their costumes) which allowed the actors to clip their shoes onto the travelator and sit in mid-air.
I have designed several of Mike Bartlett’s plays and he is very involved in the design process. In Game a young couple, unable to afford their own home, consent to move into this new apartment knowing they are targets to paying customers who watch and shoot them with tranquillizer darts. Sacha and I wanted the audience to have a voyeuristic, isolated, game-like experience. We spilt them into four groups which we partitioned off and everyone was given a set of headphones with a live-feed. We built an almost complete mezzanine apartment in the middle of the Almeida, a real life game-zone. Our box had a viewing panel all the way around through which people could see in. The actors inside were not able to see out because the audience were behind a two-way mirror and a special mesh with wallpaper print. We had to trial new materials to make sure the view was clear. The customers/snipers, that targeted the couple inside the apartment, were among the audience in small cordoned-off areas making the spectators unwillingly complicit in the Game.