A Brilliant Space to Focus the Performer

A Brilliant Space to Focus the Performer

by Bill Haycock

Even after 30 years of designing professionally I still think Blair Wilson’s La Boite design an incredibly successful resolution for a theatre. In its understated, modestly budgeted way it reduced the plan to an essence and did what every good theatre design should do: it was a space that could brilliantly focus the performer and it brought the performers and the audience really closely together. It offered enough flexibility that it challenged you to re-make the space each time for the specific demands of each work and production; and its concentration on the floor, the placing of the actors within the space and the in-the-round sightlines meant the constant challenge was to only design, have built and use what was essential. Professionally I am forever grateful that I started designing at La Boite and the lessons learnt there have never left me … the performer is focal and all the rest is about exploration and distillation.

Seneca’s Oedipus, in a translation by Ted Hughes directed by Rick Billinghurst in 1977, was also an early amazing La Boite design memory. I was studying at NIDA by then and designed it toward the end of my holiday break .The red gloss floor I’d come up with wouldn’t dry and I remember Rick ringing the Head of NIDA to plead for an extra day or two for me to help ‘save the show”.  The floor was overhung by a huge canopy that diffused the light as I wanted the entire show to be bright but without any defined shadows on the floor. It was designed to be lit in Strand Yellow No.1. All the men wore perfectly new white Y-front underpants but carefully aged and distressed by me to look rather used … for some reason they ended up being placed on Jennifer Blocksidge’s desk to finish drying or be shown to Rick … and her discovering them, somewhat aghast.

As Jocasta in the same production, Pat Thomson got to wear possibly my most uncomfortable costume ever –– a shift style dress in heavily vertically-pleated and seamed calico sewn with the raw edges out and ‘glazed’ with  thick clear gloss acrylic paint that I’d found in a rusty old can and the rust gave an extraordinary extra edge to the colour and finish … but it must have been like wearing a board … Again a measure of the serious commitment to artistic expression, exploration and development, as well as to pushing the boundaries of (uncomfortable) costume design!

Years later I’ve come to realise just how many essential things I learnt subliminally through working at La Boite with a range of wonderful people on productions that were often quite artistically challenging; things that have been crucial to my overall thinking about what theatre is, how it’s put together and how powerful it can be.

A graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Bill Haycock has designed more than a hundred plays, ballets, dance pieces, visual theatre events, operas, exhibitions and installations for many of Australia’s most innovative companies, directors and choreographers in a career spanning over thirty years. He was Head of Design at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts between 2005 and 2011 before returning to freelance in Australia. Bill’s last design for La Boite in Hale Street was Daniel Keene’s Half & Half in 2003. He designed the Company’s first production in The Roundhouse – Zigzag Street, in 2004.

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