It was one of those clammy Julys in Galway where the sun fought relentlessly to come out from behind dark-rimmed clouds. In theatres and venues all over the city, I repeatedly melted (physically and/or emotionally) before emerging, blinking, into the dead heat and raucous noise of the Galway International Arts Festival. There seemed to be little or no darkness, except in the venues, and the days rolled into one. But there were moments when a breeze found you just when you needed it to keep breathing, and occasionally a thunderstorm broke through and lightning illuminated everything in a radical way.
Coming out of the post-show discussion for Chapatti at the Town Hall Theatre, a grinning stranger remarked: “That was SO great. I always wondered why a director was needed.”
I was five weeks into a six-week programme on Performing Irishness, discussing the finer points of performance studies and dramaturgy in the contemporary Irish context with a group of Ivy League students. The comment was a timely reminder that there was life outside the theatre bubble, and the stranger’s comment had me smiling the whole way home.
In fact, I reflected as I lay in bed and listened to the glorious rainfall that came after the thunderstorm, my own revelation that week was as huge as the stranger’s ‘theatrical awakening’. For I have figured out that a director does more than stop actors walking into furniture: WillFredd Theatre came to visit the students that week and brought their own revelatory news. Artistic Directors Sophie Motley and Sarah Jane Shiels stunned the students with their intelligence, grace and kindness.
Sarah Jane asked a simple question: Who really has the ultimate power over the actors? The answer (not from the class attendees) astounded me: The lighting, sound and set designers.
Of course. If you can’t see the actors, or can’t hear them, or they’re locked into an overwrought set – then they can’t perform.
Light and sound, on the other hand, can perform autonomously. They can control or dictate exactly what we see (or don’t see) each and every night.
(There’s a play in there somewhere … a rogue lighting operator with a burning desire for revenge. I digress!)
And that set me thinking: if Irish women were rarely heard in the play scripts of the Abbey theatre, or on the stage as performers, there have been Irish women using stage design to express something for most of the century.
Annie Horniman arguably made her biggest mark on the Abbey Theatre when she designed costumes for The King’s Threshold in October 1903. With this responsibility, Yeats gave her, she later claimed, “the right to call myself artist.” Others would call her something else after seeing the design. The opulence of material, extravagance of cut and fashion created a ludicrous disjunction with the rest of the production. Spectators viewed them to be “of a richness almost barbaric.” Horniman was designing for the theatre that she wanted to create, rather than the shabby reality of the Irish nationalists. She had a vision, but it was not one that would be brought into being in Ireland.
Sara Allgood, sister of Molly Allgood, star of the stage and silver screen and Christine Shield’s godmother, also put in her time backstage as stage manager after William Fay left. And in the 1920s, Dorothy Travers Smith designed the set and costumes for, amongst other productions, the first Shakespearean play at the Abbey. She gave it up after marrying Lennox Robinson, to become the hostess extraordinaire in Dalkey.
How many theatre students can identify the striking woman on the front of Mapping Irish Theatre? The monochrome set up of a naïve young beauty playing with a model box belies the talent and impact of Tania Moiseiwitch.
Brought up in London, Moiseiwitch was the daughter of a Ukranian pianist and an Australian violinist. She arrived in Dublin with Hugh Hunt two weeks after The Silver Tassie scandal as the Abbey’s first ‘Head of Design’. Her appointment was some kind of response to the growing importance of the Gate Theatre with its European influences. She would design over 50 shows before returning to London in January 1939.
I’ve written before of how she created a space backstage in the paint room where Aideen, Frolie and Anne Yeats would hang out. You can read about that here.
Her designs were strikingly modern, some of them far too modern for the critics. But there were few with the expertise on the Abbey Board to challenge her decisions and, working with Hunt, she set about revolutionising the Abbey productions.
It’s a mark of her success and esteem that when Anne Yeats showed an interest in design, George was quick to arrange an apprenticeship with Moiseiwitch for her eldest daughter. WB and George didn’t like that Tania didn’t show up to the theatre until midday and reserved her evenings for drinking with the cast, including Aideen. But as long as the sets were in place on time, they couldn’t argue too much.
Okay – so these are all set designers and the designers of today I started off talking about are working very differently. But, designing ‘sets’ in a traditional fashion is no longer particularly viable, when you could be performing in a tent, a black box, a school hall, a farm… And more and more, designers don’t simply light the set, but the lights and sound are the set, shaping our viewing and our listening and setting the tone for the entire experience.
Each time I go to a WillFredd Theatre production, I have to go back and see it again. I have to go back because I have to bring with me a member of my family. These are generally non-theatre-going members of my family: the nurse came with me to Care, the keen gardener to Farm and the teaching assistant for the deaf to Follow. This also means I have more time to try to parse the experience, because it always is somatic as well as a performance that you watch.
In Care, for instance, the music had the hairs on my arms shooting up even when I had no idea why. The stark lights at the back of the stage sparked eerie connections to x-rays and radiotherapy. In Farm, the enclosed space flooded with amber light where the bees danced was the closest thing I can ever imagine to actually being in a bee-hive (without the stinging danger).
WillFredd were also one of the first Irish companies to start foregrounding the role of the designer, not simply by having Sarah Jane’s input into the overall staging from day one, but often putting her in plain view of the audience as an additional performer. (The following week, Moonfish Theatre also admitted to the students that WillFredd’s work was highly influential for their own mode of working. In their hit of the GIAF, Star of the Sea, actors are repeatedly tasked with pushing buttons, creating subtitles or adding sound effects in between performing scenes.)
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about lighting and sound design in a WillFredd production is like … zumba dancing about physics? … Difficult. It’s DIFFICULT.
But if parsing the elements used to create the experience is so tricky, then this only underlines the power and strength of the design. You come away with something that you can’t perhaps articulate, but that has nonetheless left a profound impression. You have a sense of what might have happened in the room, of the spirit of the person or the production they created, although you can’t dissect it fully. Its gender is never a question; it simply is.
Later this year, WillFredd Theatre will take to the stage of the Peacock with Follow . It’s a work designed for a deaf audience, in particular, so that audience members with hearing are obliged to draw on all their other senses as well. It’s an experience like no other. And I can’t help thinking that Tania Moiseiwitch would be the first up to shake the hands of Sarah Jane and Sophie for continuing her work in revolutionising design in the National Theatre.
Maybe. Or maybe she and Anne Yeats would have some notes for WillFredd on how to improve the work … Now that’s a conversation in the Peacock bar that I’d like to eavesdrop on…