GETTING TO KNOW: IMOGEN KEEN

Imogen Keen is an award-winning set and costume designer for professional theatre production. She has enjoyed a long collaboration with The Street Theatre, including design for: Venus in Fur; Diary of a Madman; The Weight of Light; Boys Will Be Boys; Under Sedation; Constellations; Cold Light; The Faithful Servant; The Chain Bridge; MP; Where I End & You Begin, The Give & Take; To Silence; Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris; Lawrie and Shirley; Albert Herring; Dido and Aeneas. She has collaborated with David Atfield on Exclusion, Blackbird and Scandalous Boy, all seen on The Street stage. Imogen has received Canberra Critics Circle Awards for Theatre Design (2009; 2011) and an MEAA Peer Acknowledgement Award (2011). She has worked on a wide variety of theatre, film, music and cross-disciplinary productions for: Aspen Island Theatre, Company, Bits, This Band Will Self Destruct, COUP Canberra, Handel In The Theatre, Barking Spider Visual Theatre, Polyglot Theatre, Canberra Youth Theatre, Little Dove Theatre and Urban Theatre Projects. Imogen graduated from the ANU School of Art in 1993.

Photo credit: Finbar Hinchcliffe

The Street talked to Imogen, set and costume designer for A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath opening June 15th.

IT’S BEEN THREE YEARS SINCE WE LAST INTERVIEWED YOU FOR STREET TALK. WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS IN THAT TIME?

Last year was a very rewarding year. Two shows that stand out for me are Gogol’s Diary of A Madman and Venus In Furs by David Ives, both directed by Caroline. We transformed Street Two for Diary with a staircase right up to the ceiling. I was happy with how the design came together but it was also a very enjoyable rehearsal and production process. Venus gave me the opportunity to make a more realistic box set which was new to me, and to do scenic painting on a large scale, which I also loved. Again it was a great process with a great team of people. I won the Canberra Critics Circle award for Theatre Design last year too which was a highlight. Other highlights in the last few years have been Melissa Bubnic’s Boys Will Be Boys at the Street Theatre, and working on Cary­­l Churchill’s Vinegar Tom under the direction of Cathy Petocz. 

WHAT WAS COMPELLING FOR YOU IN THE SCRIPT OF A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2?

I love the language in this work. When I started reading it I was taken aback by the contemporary voices coming from these Victorian characters. It’s the turn of phrase, but also in these lovely long thoughtful pauses and gaps. You can picture the characters negotiating each other, thinking and breathing as part of the conversation because of these long spaces in the dialogue. I think the contemporary style of language is indicative of what is really interesting about the work, and more generally, the way the historical period is brought into the present.

The idea of a sequel to a work as significant as A Doll’s House, written over a century later, is compelling, particularly because the themes are still so relevant. It connects us with our past in this strangely intimate way.

YOU AND DIRECTOR CAROLINE STACEY HAVE A LARGE BODY OF WORK TOGETHER – HOW DO YOU COLLABORATE?

One of the best parts of this job is the meeting of minds over the project. We have a fairly streamlined process now, but every show demands a slightly different way of arriving at a design. We collaborate through a series of conversations. Progress is made in response to a conversation (I go away and think, research, draw), but also ideas for form progress within the conversation. It’s like taking it in turns to put the next storey on a tower.

The aim is to bring to the fore the most important signals in the work that Caroline wants to highlight. We start with a long conversation that ranges broadly over our responses to the script and stays very open to following interesting tangents, although Caroline will already have a pretty clear sense of the kind of work she wants to make. As director, Caroline holds the core vision and checks input from all contributors against that.

I will source lots of reference material to make the initial thoughts more concrete, and work up a floor plan quite early on. We use the model box from early in the process too. I use the small one, 1:50 scale, in our conversations to workshop ideas, often just using paper and scissors to sketch things roughly. A final model is built at 1:25 scale with as much detail as possible. This is used to communicate the design initially to other creatives and technicians, followed by digital plans, and then to present the design to the actors and media.

We focus on the design for the set first. Once the physical world of the play is established, costumes and props are discussed and ­­designed to relate to that world in a way that reflects the way the characters relate to their world.

There’s a funny feeling at the end of the process, of the design for a production having always been there, waiting to be unveiled. It seems in retrospect like a subtractive process, of discovering something hidden rather than inventing something new.

TALK US THROUGH YOUR COLLABORATIVE PROCESS WITH A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2? AND HOW YOU ARRIVED AT THE KEY ELEMENTS OF THE SET?

We first talked about the play in the context of The Street’s program and how audiences have experienced the venue already and what we could do differently to make the space new for them. For example Boys Will be Boys (Melissa Bubnic) was strongly presentational, The Faithful Servant (Tom Davies) brought the audience onto the stage in a traverse set up, Venus In Furs (David Ives) was a resolved box set, etc. We try to do something that reinterprets the venue each time. The next conversation was about connection with audience. We thought about ways to bring the set and the audience close, to give them a strong sense of involvement.

We agreed straight away that the set needn’t be true to the period. I looked at a lot of traditional and contemporary Norwegian architecture to find the right kind of shapes and materials. Caroline brought in concepts of tournament/games/arenas , so I had a look at those types of spaces and landed on vomitoria1 as an interesting form with the right messages. Once the core idea is there, the spatial layout and finish becomes clear pretty quickly.

Some other important signals Caroline specified were the front door, the relationship between inside and outside and what they represent in the play, a sense of open-endedness, the presence of the past.

I think part of what makes collaboration successful is clear differentiation between voices. I get swept up in the aesthetics of things as well as how things are constructed and the pragmatics of all those considerations. Caroline will always bring choices back to what they represent in the world of the play. This is incredibly useful! It sets up very clear parameters. For example if a chandelier is going to be lit up during a conversation to represent the thawing of ill feeling between two people, it tells me to design the chandelier based on the shapes of melting ice.

1 Vomitoria are triangular openings for large numbers of people to enter a stadium

CAROLINE HAD SOME VERY SPECIFIC REQUESTS IN TERMS OF RELATIONSHIP OF THE AUDIENCE TO THE WORK – WHERE DO WE SEE THAT IN YOUR DESIGN?

Lucas Hnath, the author, specifies on the first page of the script that “ The play takes place in a room…It ought to feel a touch like a forum. I wouldn’t be sad at all if the play were played in the round.” The script is divided into chapters under the names of each character. (Some productions have made this titling a design feature). Each character presents a unique point of view. It’s almost like a debate. The audience is encouraged to consider who they identify with, or barrack for. For this reason it was important that the room not feel remote. The set design implies a room but its elements are opened up to the audience, coming right through the proscenium frame, to give them a sense of participation.

The vomitories in the design refer to the kinds of spaces in which competitive games take place, like arenas or stadiums, where the audience are loud, active, and opinionated. We were also very interested in squash courts because of the intensity of focus, and it’s a game for two that takes place in a room, so I borrowed the white walls, timber floor, red accents and angles.

THERE ARE PERIOD COSTUMES IN THIS PRODUCTION. WHAT IS INVOLVED IN GETTING THE COSTUMES RIGHT (PATTERNS, FABRICS, ETC) AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR HOW YOU WORK WITH ACTORS, EG WHAT DO THEY NEED IN THE REHEARSAL ROOM, ETC?

I do a lot of pawing through books and online resources to understand the fashion period. 1894 was quite particular. It was the peak of enormous leg o’mutton sleeves for women. Bustles were out and swan-bill corsets weren’t yet in. I look at paintings by artists of the day as well as photographs and reference books, to get different impressions of people’s lives at that time. I love vintage patterns and pattern drafting systems. There’s something clandestine about looking at these, like seeing behind the scenes of history.

The costumes for this production aren’t strictly period. They refer to the silhouettes of the time but are slightly intensified. We’re using contemporary style fabrics but Victorian style cut as another way to connect past and present.

I like to see and feel fabrics properly, feel the weight and see how they hang and crush, to know if they’re right, so a fair bit of time is spent looking for fabrics. Intensity of colour is very important too, because Caroline wants every character to have equal presence.

Once I have actors’ measurement I’ll make toiles (mock ups) in calico to get the right fit. At the moment my workshop is full of sleeves! The actors need to have costumes early in the rehearsal period, either stand-ins or the finished garments, because of the effect of the structure of costumes on movement and character, especially shoes.

DOLLS HOUSE, PART 2 PLAYS WITH PAST AND PRESENT, IS BOTH PERIOD AND CONTEMPORARY, AND CAROLINE IS INTERESTED IN HIGHLIGHTING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO. HOW IS THIS TENSION MANAGED THROUGH THE DESIGN?

It was apparent to us both from the outset that the space needn’t be a realistic Victorian room. The kinds of voices in the script imply a way of moving and relating to space that’s open and energetic. It also didn’t need to be set in a recognisable contemporary Norway or Australia for that matter. The set provides the sense of a domestic setting through the scale of the defined space and the furniture. Each chair echoes something of one of the characters. The ghosts of furniture that has gone missing from the house since Nora first left are marked with a red cross, like lines in a squash court.

We bring in the period through the costumes, which I think will be an interesting juxtaposition. It’s important that the costumes don’t look nostalgic or musty. There were advancements made in the production of dyes in the 19th century that meant that Victorian clothes were often quite gaudy colours. We’re using vibrant colour for costumes but the fabric is mostly contemporary in style. 1894 was the era of the tiny waist for women and, though there’s a focus on strong silhouettes in the costume design, we’re not asking actors to wear corsets.

WHAT CONVERSATIONS HAVE YOU HAD WITH GERRY CORCORAN, LIGHTING DESIGNER FOR DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2?

The first conversation with Gerry introduced him to the set model. Caroline talked him through themes in the work and I talked about the reasoning behind the design. We then went into detail about how lighting could be integrated into the design. This happens early on so that ideas for lighting fixtures built into the set can be incorporated into construction. An example of this is the installation of LED strip light around the bottom of the walls. It requires a channel to be left around the edges of the flooring and a small lip to be added to mask the light source, so it effects the sizes the flooring is to be cut at, which impacts cost, and how it’s built. Another example is the way the chandelier is used. I have a large chandelier frame with interesting glass lenses suspended from it, but no electrics. Gerry proposed that we light it from the grid instead, so will be a much more versatile lighting feature. I also needed Gerry’s expertise for the design of two slatted timber screens. I want them to appear as solid as possible when lit from the front but reveal action that’s lit behind them, so the angle and spacing of the timber is important to get right. Another point of collaboration with Gerry has been around a gobo effect. A gobo is fitted to a lamp to project a pattern of light across a space using either a metal stencil or a more detailed image printed onto glass. Gerry had some ideas about the kind of image he wanted and I composed a digital image to his specifications. Collaboration with the lighting designer will go right through to opening night as the fine tuning happens.

WHAT IS ESSENTIAL IN YOUR KIT OF DESIGN TOOLS?

Small brown notebook – A3 sketchbook and pacer pencil – Laptop – Scale ruler – Grid paper – Watercolour paper and paint – Giant roll of brown pattern making paper – Roll of brown gluey tape – Box of favourite tools – Stanley knife – White pencil – Books – The internet – Sewing things

This list doesn’t stop.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN YOUR WORK?

Without a doubt the biggest challenge is time management. Inevitably pressure escalates and demands increase as the opening date approaches, so without careful management it would be easy to make hasty decisions that you have to undo later. Having said that, the production team does an excellent job of making all the pieces fit together at the right time.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WANTING TO START A CAREER IN DESIGN FOR THE THEATRE?

Each project is unique in so many ways. The design requirements for one job may be drastically different from the next. It would be very useful to have diversity in your skill set. Ideally a designer will be able to work with skilled specialist fabricators, but knowing about ways of seeing, making, and sourcing will open up possibilities for design solutions. Work in various roles with lots of different people to get the scope of what can be done to make theatre; there isn’t any one way to do the job. Stay open to ideas from anywhere and everyone. Be reliable.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

A really rewarding aspect of this job is delving into research that I might not otherwise undertake. I’ve been looking at un-posed and secretly shot (from a buttonhole camera!) photographs of people from the late 19th century that are full of the life and spontaneity of the moment, and bring the era right forward as though it’s only just happened. Very inspiring for A Doll’s House Part 2!

It’s vital in production industries that materials are sustainably sourced, which can inspire unique design solutions that might not otherwise have been found. Reinterpreting existing stock, where possible, can be a satisfying puzzle to solve, and designing something to be an ongoing asset is inspiring.

I’m also currently inspired by independent pattern makers and the online sewing communities around them. The story of 19th century pattern drafting systems and their descendants, zero waste downloadable shareware, is also inspiring!

WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?

I’m currently reading Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). It was written just a few years earlier than Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, though is set 40 years earlier, and shares some themes such as the institution of marriage and the agency and identity of women in a patriarchal society. George Eliot is incredibly insightful. It’s full of these little gems of brilliant observation, and it’s unexpectedly funny. It’s in danger of being left unread now until this show has opened!

I’ve just finished reading Michelle de Kretser’s The Life To Come which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2018. It’s fabulous, especially the last part which is one of the most moving portrayals of a deep friendship that I’ve read.

I’ve lately enjoyed the second series of Fleabag by writer/actress/producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

The most dazzling viewing so far this year has been writer/director Cathy Petöcz’s latest work Unbecoming, part of ETCETERA, performed brilliantly by Isabel Burton.

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