Heart of Darkness – Simon Wainwright on our Approach to Production Design

Here’s co-artistic director Simon Wainwright, who leads on production and video design for imitating the dog, answering a few questions about the company’s unusual design process.

 

What makes your approach to production design and scenography different to that of other theatre companies?

 

‘First and foremost, it is the way in which the design and technology is viewed by the company as the machine by which we tell the story. The apparatus we use on stage, be that flats and props or screens and projectors, is always incorporated right at the start of the process – at the same time we choose the text or think up the narrative concept. It is never applied after or thought of around the text. It is the text, it is the story, it is the meaning of the piece.’

 

How did this work on this production, Heart of Darkness?

 

 ‘The problem of how to stage or ‘re-tell’ a book like Heart of Darkness, which is considered now, by many, to be both outdated and un-presentable, has always driven our process with both the text and the production design trying to answer the question “how do we tell this story now, in 2019?”. As I have said, the video, sound and set design (along with the text and the performance) are the machine by which we negotiate these questions. This project has had a number of challenges along the way, but we have stayed faithful, in the main, to our original production concept. The video, shown on screens above the actors’ heads, is the representation of the outcome of our process: the final version of the way in which we feel able to present Heart of Darkness in 2019. The actors create a live film on stage using cameras and green-screen backdrops which, when combined with backgrounds, overlays and images, creates a framed, graphic-novel style film. The video, in one way, becomes the resolution, and the live performance on stage shows our struggle to find this resolution.’

 

So, the video we see is telling the story of the production?

 

 ‘Yes. And an important part of the project is also the representation of process, of our research and discussion… of the many, many hours of watching films, reading books and sitting around a table to get to the heart of the story. As such the sound and video allow us to create a patchwork documentary, to reference the materials we have used to make the work. This is often woven into the piece unnoticed by the audience, a layer which adds texture and value but is unspoken. We felt this time that the process was the piece. The struggle to make the work was what the piece was about.’

 

So the technology is as integral as any other part of the production. Does it change a lot as the production develops?

 

 ‘As ever, things shift and change when we’re in a room together and, after 20 years, we’re in a position where the tools which we use to operate and make the media are working for us rather than against us. The process is malleable. Our ideas change as we progress, as with any process, but they change as the concept moves or as our intentions change. And by our own admission that is where we sometimes come unstuck! A change in the ideas of the piece can easily mean a total rethinking of the design or the way in which video and sound are used in a show. A last-minute switch to a different means of showing video can mean a huge logistical change but that’s just a problem we have to face. The programs and pieces of technology are our pens and pencils and, on the whole, they allow us to write the story.’