Life Raft: An interview with Max Johns

Designer and BBC Fellow Max Johns talks to us about the design process behind our next Outreach show, LIFE RAFT. From the urgent and political, to exploring what it means to be a child, Max tells us what to expect…

Max Johns with the Life Raft model box - Photos by Duncan Smith

Max Johns with the Life Raft model box

Can you tell us a little bit about the design for Life Raft?

It’s been an interesting and exciting challenge to design a play that takes place on a lifeboat at sea. The vast cavernous nature of Bristol Old Vic Theatre’s huge stage lends itself beautifully to the terrifying openness of the sea. We’ve drawn from diverse references and opened up the space to create a non-literal world that will feel both familiar and foreign to the audience. It’s led us to a lot of experimentation with different plastics and how they move and behave when they’re lit and blown about and manipulated. At the centre of it all is the sense of a precarious environment that is sinking.

How have you approached the design process for this play – we’re using a mix of professional and non-professional cast, has this influenced any decision making?

When Melly (Still, Director) and I began the design process there seemed to be a surge in media images of refugees drifting on makeshift rafts in the Mediterranean. Suddenly the play felt incredibly urgent and political in today’s climate; we didn’t have to look far to see how many young people are still forced to risk their lives fleeing conflict. We’re lucky to have two adults in the cast, as well as the 13 young people, so we’re developing additional scenes with them as we go. These adults inhabit a different world to the children and represent what they’ve left behind so we’re discovering who they are and what costumes they’ll be wearing in the rehearsal room.

Describe your average day in the Life Raft rehearsal room…

It’s early days but there’s a hive of activity in and around the rehearsal room already. Yesterday we presented the designs to the cast, which got them very excited. We’re fitting costumes, creating a wound-making workshop and working out the journey of each object that is on the boat. Each child has only managed to bring one thing with them from their sinking ship, which suddenly becomes the most important thing they have, so it’s important we get those objects right.

The model box for Life Raft

The model box for Life Raft

We’ve been very lucky to have you as our BBC Performing Arts Fellow this year! Can you tell us which projects you’ve been involved with and a little bit about the experience?

I’ve also been very lucky to be working here for the last 8 months! Most of my work has been with the Outreach department, which covers a huge range of projects from working with the renowned Bristol Old Vic Young Company, to TIE tours and work with all sorts of different groups of theatre makers, both professional and non-professional. This year I’ve designed three shows in the Studio – The Light Burns Blue, Truth About Youth’s Rhapsody for Youth, and Medusa. Life Raft is the fourth and final production I’ll be designing under the fellowship and although I’m sure I’ll be back soon, for now it feels like going out with a bang.

What can people expect when they come to watch Life Raft?

Life Raft is a brilliant observation of what it is to be a child. By placing young people in the most extreme environment imaginable, away from the gaze of adults, the play offers us a startling paradigm of human relationships: power struggles, democracy, persecution in the face of fear, uncertainty, and a world with diminishing resources. Do expect a glimpse into the darker side of youth. Don’t expect any actual boats.

Photos by Duncan Smith

Life Raft plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre between 3-5 Sep. Book tickets and find out more here. Check back next week to read the first Life Raft rehearsal room diary!

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