[...some questions about design in Travesty...]

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I got an email from [Alice Cousins], a designer,with some questions about the role design played in the work-in-progress performances of Travesty I just did at Ovalhouse. I thought they were really interesting, so I’m sharing them and my answers in case anyone finds them interesting as well:

One of the most interesting aspects of Travesty, for me, was the fact that the performer, objects onstage and audience all seemed to carry a similar weight in the show. It felt as though the show couldn’t have existed if one of these elements were absent. There seemed to be a rule that objects and costume were very minimally manipulated, and that if they moved or acted in an unexpected way you would adapt the show around them rather than correct them. Was this deliberate? If so, how did it come about and why was this important for you?

 Could I also ask how the objects were selected? It was impossible to tell whether you had been given the objects with which to form the show, or whether the show was formed and then the objects required were provided. or somewhere in between! I really liked the way each item onstage was necessary for the piece; there was no pretence, they were simply there as tools for the show, which I found refreshing. 

In answer to your first question – yes, it’s definitely deliberate. I’m not sure that I’d say that the objects and costume are minimally manipulated – to give an object to someone in the audience, or to allow a costume to half come off actually feel like quite strong interventions to me – stronger than the kind of manipulations you might find in a naturalistic play. But there’s something about those manipulations being clear as manipulations that feels important – the theatrical intent behind those actions is, in my head at least, telegraphed, even if it’s simultaneously subverted. But what i do do is give up an amount of control over costume and objects – I know that the dress will slip but i don’t know at what points, i know that all the objects that make up the play will fall to the floor but i don’t know where they will land or how easily i will be able to find them again – and once i hand something to someone in the audience (especially the guitar) i have no way of knowing how they will interact with that object or how that will affect the performance. And that’s really important to me. I definitely feel the presence of the audience strongly, and the nature of the manipulations that i might enact on them are meant to be similar in both their overtness and the way that i can no longer control the effect of them after they’ve happened (so if i ask for a story in the song, i’m prepared to wait a long time to make sure i get one, but i have no control over what that story will be, or the qualities that might be present in the voice that will deliver it). So the show is definitely designed to contain (and provoke) many different possibilities in the way that audience and objects might behave, and to make those possibilities legible. In Travesty I’m concerned to make a theatre that asks the world into the room – by which i mean that rather than pretend that when the lights go down we retreat from the real world and all the meanings it contains and attempt to create another world/set of meanings in its place, we start by recognizing the world that has been carried in to the room with us, and then proceed to play with it. The audience is really significant here because there are a set of unspoken politics in their relationships to each other, to me, to the work, which are already in the room when we begin and which can’t just be wished or pretended away. Obviously, in Travesty this is particularly significant in terms of gender, sex and sexuality, but there are also other forms of power dynamic at play which i hope that piece at least gestures towards… Anyway – the idea is to talk about the meaning that is already in the room in spite of and because of us – embedded into our bodies and our relationships with each other – the way we sit together, the way we look at each other. Politics is already happening in all of this and if i want to make work politically i need to acknowledge this and then work to shift those relationships rather than simply trying to make work which acts as a kind of statement of a set of political beliefs but structurally might do nothing but reinforce the politics that are already in the room. That’s why it’s important that the audience (and the objects) are given their due weight. They are present and important and they are as much the site of the performance as me or my body…

This relates to your second question I think. Objects also have their politics and in Travesty I’ve tried to work with objects in which this meaning is particularly (even archetypally) clear, particularly with relation to gender (so a boxing glove and a rose are both quite umambiguoulsy gendered, even if that gendering is problematic). So all of the objects i give to the audience have archetypal feminine associations – a scarf, a rose, red lipstick etc – and then with the suggestions i give for their use the idea is to subvert these (I’ve been thinking a bit about the situationist concept of detournement in this – a kind of reverse of the appropriation of dissent by power). The song Jolene has a similar archetypal quality, which I also try to play with, so it has a similar kind of status. So the selection of them is to do with how strongly they carry their initial meaning into the room, and how i can then play with them. As you say they’re quite nakedly and unashamedly there to serve their purpose in the show. So the selection of them follows the need for them in the show, but that in turn follows from what happens when i put on a dress and a wig. I should say I’ve been working with a really brilliant designer called Paul Burgess who’s helped me formulate this way of thinking about it all – but that i think there’s another step to this process before the piece is finished and i’m not sure what that is yet… Paul pointed out to me that normally he would help to generate a kind of design world in which a play can take place, but that this is impossible in this show since everything needs to come from Travesty’s world – she literally carries the play with her in a bag and then throws it all over the stage at the start. So i think this creates an interesting problem for a designer, and it’s one i think we’re still in the process of working through… I also think this is what gives it that quality of not being to tell what came first – the play or the objects – they’re quite intimately intertwined…


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