Julius Caesar – Five Minutes with the Set Designer

With Julius Caesar rehearsals well under way, we interviewed the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Set Designer Sarah Mercade to get an insight into the aesthetic of the show.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role on Julius Caesar?
My name’s Sarah, I’m the set designer. I’m currently completing the MA in Professional Theatre Design at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and this production is my last major design as part of the course – quite an opportunity! My background is in costume; I worked as a designer and supervisor for 4 years before making the decision to return to training and make the leap into set design, something I’ve always wanted to do. My first set design as part of the course was for the Wardrobe Theatre – the text demanded something minimal, and it was very much on a fringe budget, so I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity to design something on a very different scale at the Bristol Old Vic.

What has inspired your set design?
We wanted the space to feel contemporary, but also to retain the sense of weight, scale and drama of Ancient Rome. I looked at the modernist designs of Edward Gordon Craig and Apier as inspiration, particularly in terms of how these bold sets create potential for dramatic lighting, which I’m really excited to see come to life in our production in the hands of our brilliant lighting designer Paul Pyant. I also did a lot of research into contemporary public spaces, as well as parliaments across the world to ground the design in reality. It was really fascinating to learn about the design of different parliaments and how certain seating configurations are more conducive to either democracy or dictatorship.

What was the most challenging part of your set design?
It’s amazing to design for a stage like the Bristol Old Vic, which has so much history and character, but that definitely throws up its own challenges! The building is inherently asymmetric, and the shape of the auditorium, though beautiful, is quite a challenge in terms of sight lines. You have a vast stage to play with, and the temptation is to use the whole depth, but not everyone in the audience will benefit from any design going on upstage, so the challenge is to use the space effectively and frame the action in such a way that no one misses any key moments.

What is it like working with Director Simon Dormandy?
Simon has a lot of energy and exciting ideas, and his knowledge of the play is immense! He came to the process with a very clear sense that he wanted the production to take place in Italy in an absolutely contemporary political world. The design period was quite brief so this framework was very helpful to have as a starting point, as there are infinite directions you can go in with Shakespeare. We went through quite a few incarnations of the design, but landed on something that we both believe serves the text well and will be an exciting space to see the action play out on.

Do you think the story of Julius Caesar is still relevant today?
Absolutely, so many parallels can be drawn between the events of the play and the current political landscape, from Labour party in-fighting to the promise and perils of populism, so there’s plenty that audiences will recognise. We open the day after the general election, so who knows, depending on how the vote goes there might be as much unrest on the streets of Bristol as there will be on the stage.

What is it like working on a show created by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Bristol Old Vic?
It’s so exciting to be part of such a unique collaboration, and have the chance to work with people I wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have had the opportunity to. Everyone at Bristol Old Vic has been so enthusiastic and supportive. It’s been brilliant to have support from a team with so much experience and expertise, and have the chance to learn from that.

What has been the best part of working on this production so far?
You sometimes come up with these crazy ideas as a designer, and the hope is that someone a lot cleverer than you will find a way to make what’s in your brain possible in reality. Not wanting to give too many spoilers, but as Rome descends into chaos we wanted to start to damage and destroy the set which is otherwise quite clean and minimal, and thought graffiti would be a good way to start that process. The catch is any graffiti would need to be completely removed between performances so we needed to find a product which would leave no trace. Lots of tests with different products were done and we landed on a magic combination that works, so that idea becoming something achievable has definitely been the highlight for me so far.

Building on the brilliant success of King Lear in 2016, we reunite with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to present Shakespeare’s riveting political drama Julius Caesar this June. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Building the ‘Junkyard’ set with Chiara Stephenson

With the set now built and rehearsals continuing to heat up, we jumped at the chance to catch up with Junkyard Set and Costume Designer Chiara Stephenson. Here she reveals the inspiration behind the show’s interactive set and how it all comes together.

Hi, I’m Chiara and I’m fortunate enough to be the Set and Costume Designer on Junkyard.

The thing I always enjoy when working on any new production is carrying out all the research. I love letting new ideas stew in my brain and with Junkyard that’s basically meant marinating in all sorts of old books and images of the 70s to really understand the look and feel of the time. It was a delight to discover all the bonkers structures and playgrounds the kids of the 60s and 70s created, well before ‘Health and Safety’ kicked in. The precarious and dangerous nature of their constructions was what I found most inspiring, as was their fearlessness in jumping off them from ahigh.

Following a visit to the Lockleaze playground the play is based on and talking with some of the old workers, I was also really inspired by the way they’ve reincarnated ‘The Vench’ over the years. Each time the playground got damaged or vandalised, their attitude was just ‘f**k it, let’s rebuild it bigger and better’. That defiant attitude is something we’ve really tried to capture in the show, along with that sense of danger and precariousness.

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I actually used to play at an adventure playground myself as a youngster. The Battersea Park playground in London was always my go to. I don’t know if it’s because I was a lot smaller, but I remember the playground being epic in size and much more dangerous. In fact one of my earliest memories at my nursery as a 3-4 year old was being given a few bits of small wood and a hammer and nails. The freedom and trust was great and something I think you don’t find so much these days.

Junkyard is unique to anything I’ve ever worked on because we’re giving our actors similar free-reign to build the whole set themselves. The show starts with what is seemingly a pile of junk on the ground but, over the course of Act 1, each of the kids get to channel their madly creative spirits into constructing the junkyard playground itself. The design relies on huge levels of interaction from the actors. It’s a real logistical challenge for everyone so if we pull it off its definitely a salute to the cast more than me.

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Working on this show with Director Jeremy Herrin has been amazing. He’s a heavyweight really and I’ve had the amazing chance to throw all sorts of ideas his way, trusting that he’ll sieve out all the dodgy ones and pick out the keepers. He’s totally game for lots of play and experimentation. The one thing we are not short of in the making of this show is ideas, and silly ideas at that. Which ones will actually end up in the show, we’ll just have to wait and see…

I’d love to tell you the funniest moment so far, but with this production it really is impossible to answer! These moments are all too frequent due to the playful nature of the show and everyone working on it. It really does feel like we are all a bunch of kids mucking about in a playground as we weave the show into something explosive and exciting. Hopefully that will all come across on-stage and the audience will enjoy everything we’ve created!

Bristol Old Vic’s Spring Season continues with Junkyard 24 Feb-18 Mar. For more info and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | Adam Kammerling

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 26 Jan. Here Adam Kammerling gives us an inside look into his superhero inspired world. Catch it at the Wardrobe Theatre on the festival’s opening night.

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Hey yo. My name’s Adam Kammerling. I’m a spoken word artist from London and I will be performing my new piece of work on Fri 27 for Ferment Fortnight. I’m very excited to be bringing the piece to Bristol as after its first scratch (which was exciting but ultimately woeful), the first place it got a proper showing was Ferment 2016. It was there, in the bright lights of Bristol Old Vic studio, I realised that this was something I needed to keep working with.

The piece is a combination of spoken word and acrobatic dance. It’s about the fact that heroes are AWESOME but highly detrimental for the world, especially dudes in the world, especially young dudes who LOVE the X-Men (me). I’ve enlisted four actual super humans to help me tell the story – Eric Mitchell, stunt man extraordinaire, who can do a backflip like you or I can eat a biscuit. Jacob Smart, founder of Parkour dance, contemporary dance improvisation master, who lives much of his life upside down and in the air. Keiran Merrick, who is half human, half Music Production Centre. And Si Rawlinson who is the bendiest breakdancer in the northern hemisphere.

It’s quite a team so getting the funding to make it happen was a very exciting moment, thanks Arts Council England! We’ve taken the piece to Peterborough, and performed at The Albany and at Southbank for Being A Man festival. Every show is a nerve-wracker. The biggest challenge has simply been finding the ways in which this combination of mediums can work together. It’s very new and it has been a very experimental journey, that surprises us every time we get in the rehearsal rooms.

I’m very much looking forward to bringing the piece back to the place where I feel the idea hit puberty. It’s like going back to your Yr 9 self (I was a late bloomer) and showing off your new, totally macho facial hair.

And on that note, see you in the theatre!

Ferment Fortnight takes place at The Wardrobe Theatre 26-28 Jan before returning to Bristol Old Vic 31 Jan-2 Feb. For more info and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | Annie Siddons

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 26 Jan. Here Annie Siddons gives us an inside look into the world of Dennis of Penge. Catch it at the Wardrobe Theatre on the festival’s opening night.

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Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with Ferment
I first got involved with Ferment when Emma B, the doness of Ferment, came to see my first Edinburgh show, Raymondo. She liked it and so got right behind our second show How (not) to live in Suburbia which we did an early scratch of in July 2015 . We love Ferment and its audience so we wanted to do the earliest scratch of the new show with you.

How would you describe your latest show in the Ferment Fortnight
Dennis of Penge is about a woman at the end of her rope who meets a mysterious figure from her past in a chicken shop.

It’s about survival, poverty and ecstasy in the city. The scratch you will see is literally me reading you some poetry. The final show will involve some other performers and some live music.

What do you expect the audience will take away from your piece?
I hope they enjoy the story and the words and the way it’s told and the fact that they are the first people to see it.

What’s been the biggest challenge/most exciting moment so far?
The biggest challenge is finding time to write. I don’t have writer’s block or procrastination – I am a rigorous mofo – but I do have a tiny company – 2.5 people – with lots to do – plus two kids etc – and I have to be really disciplined about carving out writing time and sometimes it gets to be point where I am coming out in spiritual and actual hives and I just have to go away and write for a few days till I calm down.

What are you looking forward to most over the Fortnight?
We’re flying in and out – see above for the reasons why – not literally flying – we are not  grand – but there’s so much good stuff – even in the first couple of days I’d be watching House of Blakewell and Adam Kammerling for starters. I love finding new artists to be inspired by and make friends slash future collabs with.

Ferment Fortnight takes place at The Wardrobe Theatre 26-28 Jan before returning to Bristol Old Vic 31 Jan-2 Feb. For more info and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | Vanessa Kisuule

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 26 Jan. Here Vanessa Kisuule gives us an inside look into her world of SEXY. Catch it at the Wardrobe Theatre on Fri 27 Jan.

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SEXY is a show about sexiness that attempts to get to the bottom of what that means for me as a woman, and especially a black woman. It’s a massive topic, one that I could easily write an entire pHD on. Trying to pack all of my thoughts on this into an hour has been trying. But it has been an incredibly fun and rich process – I’ve been feverishly YouTubing iconic and beautiful women: Grace Jones, Rita Hayworth, Bettie Page, Nicki Minaj and Beyonce. I’ve studied the significance of the femme fatale in film and spent hours reading up on the politics of sex-positive feminism. I’ve been a life model, taken burlesque classes, perfected the art of taking a naughty selfie and had a private twerk class from a stripper. I have interviewed female friends on their feelings around this subject – their stories have been brilliant, hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. Throughout this, I have had to remind myself to bring it back to myself and how all these ideas inform my relationship with my sexuality and my body. Some pretty unexpected revelations have occurred – feelings I didn’t know I’d been harbouring have come to the surface and every day there is a new discovery as to how this topic makes me feel. It has often felt like a mud wrestle with myself – my head, heart and crotch all seem to yell contradictory things at full volume. It’s hard to unearth a kernel of truth inamongst the cacophony, but I’ve come to realise that the process of untangling these threads is exactly what this show is about.

The last time I did a show for Ferment was in 2014 – a piece about love and many of the lies I felt I’d been fed by media and popular culture. It was a fun piece that I did with Joe Williams, a great musician and university friend of mine. It was one of my first attempts at working collaboratively on a creative idea. At that time, however, I primarily worked on projects that I executed alone. I’ve come a long way since then. I have reached a point where I am confident in what I can do independently – I am now more interested in seeking out people who can contribute skills and perspectives that I don’t have. It’s hard to invite other people to work with you on something that stems from your experience as the nature of my work is almost always autobiographical. But this just means it’s paramount to have a team who can help me make an internal journey translate to a story that others can lock into. It’s been a scary leap to make, but one that’s already paid off massively.

This show is, amongst many other things, a love letter to the music that has scored my life and my womanhood. There are many nods to mid noughties R&B, hip hop and pop music. I want to recreate the feeling one has when dancing with mates in a club – sometimes crippling self consciousness, other times complete joy and abandon. It’s been nice giving myself permission to be frank, lewd and crude with this piece. I don’t believe in shock value for its own sake. But certainly, a woman speaking her mind on a topic of this nature is still a shocking thing for many. I am excited to make a piece that is celebratory and fun, but I also want to find the bravery to explore some ugly and dark corners. I hope women and women of colour come to this show and feel some sense of recognition in this piece. I hope men come and are open and willing to engage in the ideas explored in this show. I am at a point now as an artist where I am no longer willing to pander to certain sensitivities – it will be interesting to see if any feathers get ruffled in the audience by some of the content. Part of me hopes they do, if only to know that something is shifting, that certain notions are being disrupted and upended. If my openness starts up some difficult but necessary conversations I’ll have achieved my aim.

I have a small and wonderful team of associates – Liz Counsell producing, Rob Watt on dramaturgy and direction and Lucy Bairstow working with me on movement. We have been devising for two days and already the show feels like a completely different beast – far more rigorous, slick and directional than I could have imagined. This show is going to encroach on the physical in a way that is new and daunting for me. But it feels like we’re encroaching on something genuinely fresh; something with a pulse. I’m really looking forward to Ferment as a pivotal stage in this show’s development – I hope the audience have as much fun with it as I have creating it so far.

Ferment Fortnight takes place at The Wardrobe Theatre 26-28 Jan before returning to Bristol Old Vic 31 Jan-2 Feb. For more info and to book tickets, click here.