Architecture and set design are strange cousins. We use the same tools (scale models, drawing, CAD), and we have notionally the same objective: the creation and articulation of space. But whereas architecture relies on taking a detailed brief from a client, in order to understand what is required, set design starts from the text, the story. Sometimes, as in Ionesco or Beckett, the set can be precisely described, likewise some clients have very precise ideas about what they want. The briefs we take, and our approach to script, focuses instead on questions of: how will this space be used?; What feelings it might engender?; What is the hierarchy between these functions or spaces? Functions - rather than the specifics of the size of the table.
Martin Crimp tells us little about how the space will be used, and less about the space itself. The text of each of the plays that form the Fewer Emergencies trilogy opens with:
(less is said for Play House). He writes ‘blank’ in longhand – it is not that he hasn’t located the scene, instead he has located the scene in ‘blank’. We’ve interpreted this in a number of ways: as a kind of ‘no place’; as the inside of Martin Crimp’s head; as a place we call Crimpland - a hard edged, concrete bound dystopia you wouldn’t feel safe walking through at night.
Architecture is about potential. Set design is also about creating spaces that are pregnant with possibility – but you know (having read the script) how that potential will play out. This isn’t quite true – we designed the set before rehearsals commenced, so we didn’t know then how the play would be realised. In a sense, we were creating provocations for the rehearsal room – but the future is known, and the set isn’t merely a backdrop, it is complicit. It heightens the emotional impact, by contrast or reinforcement, and is a weapon in the hands of the director and cast.
Gatti Routh Rhodes’ architectural work spans a variety of scales: from a lightweight plywood chair to a six storey church, community and residential project occupying half a city block. Set design fits with that: it might be about the precise relationship of a piece of furniture to the edge of a stage, or it might recreate a whole city, riots and all.
We try to keep our work varied - this keeps us thinking and learning, but it also lets us apply sometimes surprising insights across typologies. Working with individuals on their own homes (both their most valuable asset and an expression of who they are) has consequences for how we approach working with the theatre, in particular how space can express personality and constrain or enable behaviour. These relationships are two way and unpredictable – we look forward to applying the lessons of theatre to our wider practice.