Tag Archives: Stage Design

Drama School Dream Factory – Act 3

LESS IS MORE Jennifer Kent in Lindy Davies’ production of ‘Miss Sarah Sampson’ (Photograph by Marco Bok).

A Writer’s first lesson in the odds.

Theory was left swiftly behind during my third year at NIDA, and we were on show in a series of productions, the budgets for which were so high I have never worked on any theatre so richly supported since.

I got to work with a great director – Lindy Davies – on a production of Gotthold Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson, a story akin to Dangerous Liaisons, and set in the same period.

Lindy encouraged me in a ‘less is more’ approach, and we co-created a very simple design which evoked the period through costume, but didn’t belt the audience over the head in terms of the set.

This was mainly achieved through the use of fabric, rope, and shadows, sketching a sense of the beams and walls of an English coastal town in the late 18th Century.

I will forever remember Lindy fondly for being the first person to break through my reserve, by demanding, assertively, yet with respect, that I not shut-down and internalise my thought process when we encountered an issue during the technical rehearsal.

It was a refreshing shock, prefacing the kind of collaborator I would eventually become. In some ways it was the greatest lesson I got at NIDA, and it took about 30 seconds to impart.

I was then designated the set design for Stephen Sondheim’s rarely-staged Merrily We Roll Along, with the late Tom Lingwood mentoring me through what was a massive undertaking.

Tom was originally from Britain, designer of the first production at the Sydney Opera House. One of the first things I ever learnt about him was how he survived the bombing of his home during The Blitz. When describing the worst moment of fear he’d ever experienced, Tom recalled having to leap an entire flight of steps in one go, bursting with adrenalin.

Not surprisingly, there was something very grounded about Tom. He championed my ideas, helped get my head around a massive list of scenes, and guided me in taking a positive approach to mopping up the mess made of our work after the director put his stamp on the show’s design.

Tom also responded when my mother started chemotherapy in the midst of that production, not with commiserations, but with action. He covered for me when I needed to get on the train and go home, by painting the entire theatre floor with a detailed texture for me, and saying I’d done it!

MORE IS MORE Poster from the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s complex musical.

In the end I didn’t hit the mark with this show, as a ‘less is more’ designer. I was criticised because the expected level of detail was not there. I suppose it takes passion to reach that level. It also takes emotional involvement, and probably a greater sense of security than I had at the time.

I caused frustration, because I was not open to creative whims at the ‘right’ time, or in the ‘right’ way. I just wanted to cover all the bases. If they wanted icing on the cake, they needed to look elsewhere.

But Tom was always an ally – he’d been in the trenches with me, after all.

My last NIDA production saw me tackling the design of costumes for Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, a truly wonderful play which I should have paid more attention to at the time, since it spoke of the kind of experiences I was going through in my life.

By that time I just hid myself away in the wardrobe department and just put it all together as best I could, counting down the days until I could leave and see to my family.

I also had my eyes on another option. I think working with Lindy was the catalyst – surely there was a way to be creative like her, but perhaps not in Australia? I was about to graduate as a designer, and that was all that was expected of me. The NIDA ‘brand’ was fairly limiting in that regard. Being only 21 I wanted to explore more options, so I looked to England, found a course at a place called ARTTS International, and applied for a scholarship to get myself over there.

Thinking about it now, I can’t believe I had my head together to make such a big plan at that time. Mum was getting sicker, and yet none of us were really talking about it. There may be a kind of ‘future instinct’ when the death of a loved-one is imminent, where you leap-frog, in your imagination, past the death and start creating a new life.

I was successful in getting into ARTTS, and secured a scholarship to get me there. I finished my NIDA course by working in the art department of a feature film as my secondment, and then went home. What I found was about as real as it gets.

NIDA graduate Jeremy Sims once described the Australian Theatre as a ‘cottage industry’, which I thought was very apt. It doesn’t disparage us, but it puts our industriousness into the correct commercial context.

At the time I was at NIDA, we must have been amongst the most funded students in the country, yet we graduated into a world in which the scope did not match the numbers of qualified workers, not by a very, very long shot.

Yes, they tell you that 99% of you will be out of work 99% of the time. Where, in a dream factory like NIDA, did they think they were going to find anyone to listen to odds like that?

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Drama School Dream Factory – Act 2

HIGH STAKES DRAMA Thalia Theatre Hamburg’s production of Woyzeck.

A Writer’s first lesson in high stakes.

WHILE reading the paper one morning in a cafe during the summer break, I took-in a story about how the city’s best and brightest theatre professionals were being cut down by AIDS. One of the names was John, my NIDA design classmate.

I knew John sometimes struggled to keep up with the physical work, but I’d seen him only weeks before his death made the news, looking well, to all intents and purposes.

Back at NIDA, nobody seemed willing to talk about his death.

The start of my second year saw me in the most receptive space I was ever in while a student. We had a few weeks with industry designers Tom Lingwood and Kym Carpenter, workshopping designs for inspiring plays like Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, and the Greek tragedy Oedipus.

I moved-in with other students, got myself a job at a local cafe (check out my day job in A Waiter’s Revenge Tragedy), and wasn’t such a slave to commuting as I’d been the previous year.

As a result of a little stability, my design skills began to flourish, and I found there was space to actually learn, from experts, how effective designs were executed. I felt stretched, challenged, and supported. Overcoming a few ‘mistakes’ was considered part of the learning process.

But design theory is one thing. Executing those designs on a living, breathing production is an entirely different process. The year’s idyllic start took a very different turn when the stakes started to get higher, and designers-in-training had to start proving our mettle.

As a direct result, a sense of competition began to creep its way into our classroom.

There were two schools of thought in our year. The first was heady, resisted limitations, aimed very, very high and was quite self-serving. The second was more rational, understood creative restrictions, was very grounded, but just a little puritanical.

I never saw myself as the champion of either of these energies, just a necessary participant in both. But battle lines had been set, and lasted until we all graduated, which actually we nearly didn’t, since every one of us was threatened with expulsion if we didn’t find a way to work together harmoniously.

Whether NIDA’s production schedule could have continued without an entire year of design students was dubious, but it was a timely real-world reminder to ‘keep the drama onstage’, as they say.

What was less clear (although this incident tells me it should have been startlingly obvious), was that the trainers at NIDA had a sharp eye on second year students in all disciplines, analysing who had the potential (in their view) to make good in a challenging industry, and who didn’t. The knives were out.

In the middle of this, my mother was having tests for some health problems. She laughed off the constant ambiguous results, was booked in for exploratory surgery, and on the afternoon her three children arrived simultaneously for a visit, she told us all she’d had a huge amount of cancer removed, with part of her bowel, one kidney and both ovaries.

GEEK’S TRAGEDY (L-R) Susan Prior, Annie Burbrook & Emily Russell in Rachel Landers’ production of Antigone, NIDA 1990 (Photo by Marco Bok).

The reality of this situation had no place in the ‘dream factory’ of NIDA. I think mum knew that – she was a keen supporter of the place, donating her original 1970s clothing to the wardrobe department for an Alan Ayckbourn play, and assisting me in scenic painting during an open day. She eschewed chemotherapy, and, as her children’s lives progressed in new directions, to all intents and purposes, nobody was sick.

But my attention was permanently split, from exactly half way through my course. When some of my classmates whined about their difficult personal lives, I wanted to shout at them to just get on with things … at least nobody had cancer.

I completed that year at NIDA designing a student director’s production of Antigone, Sophocles’ tale of a daughter for whom life’s stakes got very high indeed.

Hanging out at student parties, trying to find some way to fit in, still deeply closeted in a gay-friendly environment, I became the kind of person who got very angry if  anyone started to ask me the ‘wrong’ kind of questions.

The bad news about my family, and the stark realities about making a career in the theatre, had settled into my consciousness, just slightly beneath the surface.

Life was getting very ‘high stakes’, but the final act was yet to be played …

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Drama School Dream Factory – Act 1

BRAVE NEW WORLD The mysteries of theatre were revealed at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art.

A Writer’s first backstage pass.

ONCE I’d saved myself from the clutches of academia (for how I nearly ended up an Ancient History professor, read my post on How the Prophet Elijah got me Published), I managed to escape into drama school. Not just any drama school, but NIDA, Australia’s pre-eminent National Institute of Dramatic Art.

I hasten to admit I wasn’t one of the thousands of acting hopefuls, eager to audition. I was a pretty good visual artist, all through secondary school, and in my usual way (which means I worked it out for myself), I decided that in order to make my way in the world, I needed to ‘do something’ with those skills.

I was already drawn to some kind of theatre profession (read about my moving theatre experience in Waiting for Waiting for Godot), but the only way I could see myself in the industry was as a designer.

For me, design was a safer option. It didn’t put me personally on the line, as it does with actors; and it seemed more creative than Stage Management, which I’d tried at university as part of SUDS – Sydney University Dramatic Society.

So I applied, created a design for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and attended an interview with the Head of Design. He seemed interested in the progression my work showed between designing school musicals a year before, to my vision for Shakespeare’s last great play. I was sent for a second interview with the Administrator, and a few weeks later I got the call.

NIDA had recently moved to newly built premises on Anzac Parade in the Sydney suburb of Kensington. Everything seemed freshly minted. New students for all courses were welcomed to an orientation week, and then, horror of horrors, we were all thrown together to co-create devised pieces to present in front of everyone.

I was deeply closeted, painfully shy, and only good at expressing myself on the page. The idea of being up on a stage, away from the relative safety of school, was frightening. I did all I could to be a shrinking violet, and, thinking the point was to show some early skill as a designer, set about making the costumes.

Going with that idea worked a treat – I managed to be up the back with the ‘chorus’, garnered some notice for creating a huge collar out of newspaper for one of the acting students, and got through without having to do anything in the spotlight.

In fact the whole first term was a series of such challenges, the aim of which seemed to be breaking down barriers. But I had one very strong one, which you’d think a young gay man at drama school would need no encouragement in relinquishing, but nevertheless, I resisted.

Meanwhile my class was thrown in the deep end of the exact yet limitless world of design. Right from the get-go it was clear than near enough would never be good enough.

In the classroom I was forever resisting being stretched – commuting to keep up my waitering income meant having transportable designs, so bigger was rarely better for me. Where some of my student colleagues would take over the classroom for their projects, I was happy for mine to fit in my backpack.

In the theatre itself, however, I started to let go and enjoy myself. First year design and technical students served as crew for the main-stage productions of 2nd and 3rd year students. We were expected to learn the highly technical and accurate art of scene and wardrobe changes.

DREAM FACTORY The new facade of NIDA in the suburb of Kensington, Sydney (Photograph by Adam JWC).

During the first technical rehearsal I was ever part of, with endless repetition of the same stage transitions and technical cues, I recall rolling my eyes with a kind of boredom, wondering when we’d be let go so I could catch my train home.

But when the magic of the theatre started to take over, and the transitions were coming together, something changed in me. A day later, the show could not be stopped by stage management unless there was some kind of emergency. We’d all just have to cope if something went wrong.

A new world opened to me, with its own theatrical rhythms, language, and that potential-filled half-light which exists in between reality and fantasy. Ever since then, I have loved being part of technical rehearsals in the lead up to opening night. They are often awkward and stressful, but they are my favourite period of putting a show together.

Working backstage on productions of works by wildly different playwrights like Chekhov, Brecht, Ayckbourn, and O’Casey; through to Australian works, like Too Young for Ghosts by Janis Balodis, was an immediate and thrilling way to learn the art of staging productions in a space.

The three-dimensional theatre world also broke the stranglehold that mere words had on me. Words on a page is where a theatre production starts, but they quickly dissipate into the very air of a theatre space. My writer’s brain began to switch off, because it was not needed.

Three years’ drilling in this creative process was the best performing arts education I could ever hope for, but as I soon discovered, there was a lot more to making a career in the theatre. 

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.