Imogen Keen is a freelance stage designer and maker. She has worked on a wide variety of theatre, music and cross-disciplinary productions with companies including Urban Theatre Project, Polyglot Theatre, December films, Bird On A Wire, Jigsaw Theatre, Women On A Shoestring, Smallshows, Shortis and Simpson, Canberra Youth Theatre, Little Dove Theatre, Barking Spider Visual Theatre.
From 2009 to 2013, she was resident designer at The Street Theatre, for whom she completed over 20 productions.
Imogen has produced temporary installations for non-theatre spaces for the Australian Theatre Forum, You Are Here Festival, Enlighten Festival and Oxfam’s Refugee Realities.
In 2013 she designed ‘The Very Sad Fish Lady’, a children’s piece, an Urban Theatre project and ‘Prime Time’ for Shortis and Simpson, all for the Centenary in Canberra.
Imogen has also taught design for Temporary Environments, Visual Representation and Service Design in the Faculty of Arts and Design at Canberra University.
Imogen speaks to The Street ahead of The Chain Bridge season.
What was your initial design brief for the show?
What was immediately alarming while first reading the Chain Bridge script was the quantity of shifts between past and present and the pace at which they happen.
It was clear from the outset that the design needed to take an abstract approach.
The design brief from Director Caroline Stacey evolved over several meetings, honing in on this abstract world that could support a realistic recent past/present as well as flawed or factual retellings of the past.
The moment during these meetings that I think best qualifies as a design brief is when Caroline made a gesture with her hands over the table, conjuring effortless complex change, like sped-up footage of surging storm clouds. That was what we had to make.
Show us an image of a really early idea (sketch or photograph) and describe (in one sentence) the thought process behind it.
Below is a still from a stop motion animation of coasters hinging, spinning and bouncing, used as a way to start thinking about malleable spaces.
When working on the set design, what were some of the key ideas you had in mind?
Design idea #1: Segmenting the room with line. Light lines connect/separate the existing architectural features of the space. They bridge gaps, provide frames that differ depending on your point of view, dissect and sever, expand the room and blur its boundaries.
Design idea #2: books. Books are used in several ways. They augment the architecture of the room, signifying walls or bridge footings; they represent layers of recorded history building up over time; they take on various roles as props. The hinged, opening, closing, hiding and revealing behaviour of books also informs the way in which furniture and light turns/moves as scenes change.
Can you describe the process you undertook when creating elements for the work?
Various things had to be made specifically for The Chain Bridge: the long table on wheels, Hungarian dumplings, a kitchen, a yellow rain hat, a prosthetic scar, among others.
Casting the prosthetic scar in latex
There are two moments in the play that require blood effects. For one of them, a bite, small capsules of stage blood needed to be manufactured to behave in a specific way.
Making burstable blood capsules
The other blood effect happens when a character is cut with a knife. As all the performers remain on stage for the duration of each act, it wasn’t practical to attach a blood pack to the skin of the performer. This meant the blood needed to come from the knife.
The cut occurs downstage centre, in full close view for the first row of the audience, so the mechanics had to be discreet.
I had sourced a realistic large plastic kitchen knife from eBay that, fortunately, had a hollow handle.
I had seen a You Tube video of the construction of a bleeding stanley knife for use in a close-up shot in a film, and thought I could do something similar with the kitchen knife. It required a small bulb to be inserted into the handle, with a hole cut in the handle so the bulb could be depressed with the thumb, forcing the stage blood out through a narrow silicone tube set neatly along the blade. Inspired by the wonderful sweet treats at Frugii Dessert Laboratory in Braddon, I decided to try a food pipette instead.
I drilled one hole in the handle to fit the tube of the pipette, and cut a large hole in the handle to nestle the bulb of the pipette into. It had to be enlarged so the thumb could depress the pipette bulb sufficiently to release all its contents.
A short section of black bicycle inner tube disguised the pipette without preventing it from re-inflating, as black adhesive tape had done. Silver electrical tape was perfect for both disguising the tube of the pipette and securing it along the blade.
Tests with the performers were successful, but the stage blood needs to be thickened!
How long did it take you to measure up the space?
It took much longer to mark up the rehearsal space than usual!
What’s your reflection on the finished product?
The set model is the result of an intensive creative design process, and the set is the result of a largely practical and material process. The aim is to recreate the model in real scale as accurately as possible. After bump in, it is immensely gratifying to see everything in place as intended. But there are also the unforeseen delights, such as the subtle colours of 1500 different books, the texture of weathered scaffolding pipe, the way the familiar theatre space has transformed in its new clothes, appearing more expansive and complex. I can’t wait to see it overlaid with Gillian Schwab’s lighting design and brought to life with our wonderful cast!
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