The Light Burns Blue: An interview with Max Johns

Designer and BBC Arts Fellow Max Johns HAS been busy preparing the set and costume design for THE LIGHT BURNS BLUE. HERE, he tells us about the inspiration behind the visuals, and gives us a glimpse into the daily life of a designer working in residence…

Max Johns. Photos by Duncan Smith.

Max Johns. Photos by Duncan Smith.

Can you tell us a little bit about the design for The Light Burns Blue?

My response to the story was that it felt like it was about worlds colliding in a time of change and upheaval (1917) – old meeting new, nature meeting technology and a teenage girl from Yorkshire being catapulted to instant fame in London. At the centre of these collisions is Elsie Wright. I’ve tried to capture something of the whirlwind nature of Elsie’s journey in the design; I see it as a kind of film set in which Elsie Wright is shooting an imaginary film of her own life, aided by the various people she crosses paths with.

Max Johns fitting Kate Alhadeff for her role as Elsie Wright. Photos by Duncan Smith.

Max Johns fitting Kate Alhadeff for her role as Elsie Wright. Photos by Duncan Smith.

How do you begin to approach the design for a new play – particularly one that is devised in the rehearsal room?

This was an unusual process in that company were devising, the script was being written and the score composed all at the same time as the design was starting to take shape. It’s a kind of chicken and egg situation in which ideas emerge and develop and you can no longer remember what came first. But essentially we began with a lot of detailed research into the period, the real life people, what the ‘hook’ of the story was for us and why it is relevant. A few early research images, such as chandeliers hanging in a forest, and light refracting through water, became key to the final design.

Describe your average day during the rehearsal period…

A designer’s work is varied and it could be anything from watching a run-through to attending costume fittings, making the model box, sourcing set and props, painting things, meeting with other technical departments and forgetting where you’re supposed to be next. Among the less exciting of today’s activities was a trip to Wilkos for wood stain and rubber gloves. Tomorrow will involve making a piece of plywood look like an Edwardian chalkboard…

A busy shoe selection during fittings for The Light Burns Blue. Photos by Duncan Smith.

The costume department prepares shoes for fittings for The Light Burns Blue company. Photos by Duncan Smith.

You’re the BBC Arts Fellow in residence at Bristol Old Vic this year… Can you tell us a little about that, and your work within the Outreach department?

The BBC Performing Arts Fund helps performance practitioners to work closely with an institution to develop their specific skills and portfolio over a year. My work with Bristol Old Vic will involve designing several productions for the Outreach department, including this young company show and the upcoming Medusa, directed by Toby Hulse. It’s unusual for a theatre to have a designer in residence, as we’re normally freelance. Being part of the fabric of the organisation is a great way of establishing a more long term working relationship so I’m already looking forward to my next few projects with Bristol Old Vic.

The wardrobe team prepare costumes for fittings. Photos by Duncan Smith.

The wardrobe team prepare costumes for fittings. Photos by Duncan Smith.

What can people expect when they come to watch The Light Burns Blue?

I don’t want to give too much away! Our process began with the story of the Cottingley Fairies and has led us on a long and epic journey over 4 months, the product of which has been condensed into just over an hour of live action on stage. Do expect: to be provoked, roused and tickled. Don’t expect: actual fairies.

The Light Burns Blue plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 15-18 April. Book tickets and find out more here. Click here to read diaries from The Light Burns Blue rehearsal room.

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