“I’m doing this research as an ethical thing, but not just one to do with the pollution of aviation fuel. This journey is also about the ethics of deliberately going slower in an industry that increasingly values speed and productivity.”
If you followed me on Instagram last summer you know I was testing out travelling around Europe for work using an Interrail pass. This was thanks to an Agility Award from the Arts Council of Ireland.
I’ve written an illustrated essay about my thoughts called Surface tactics. I’ve printed and sewn on a limited edition of 20 copies that are being distributed to those who helped me along the way. If you’d like to read the text
Unsurprisingly, Covid slowed down projects I was working on, and knocked some out completely. It also knocked my confidence as an artist – primarily because of the lack of regular creative work, a dearth of substantive contact with other artists, and having to adapt to new ways of working that weren’t always conducive to my creativity.
So it was a real pleasure recently to be able to finally air some ideas for a set design project that had straddled a lot of that Covid time, with a work in progress showing nearly two years after we first started talking about it. The Holding Bones project hit a load of bumps in the road, but the show was changing shape and bursting to come to life. And it helped keep me connected with some kind of creative life too.
I’ve known Niamh Lawlor of Puca Puppets for many years though we have never worked together. So I was pleased when in late 2020 she asked me to help design a production that was a bit of a departure for her. Even more so when I heard she’s also asked director Veronica Coburn and sound designer/composer Sinéad Diskin to work on it. Two women with strong theatre practices, who I respect hugely and hadn’t yet had an opportunity to work with.
The Holding Bones is a one woman show about death and about our connection with ancestors and family. It’s gentle and sad and funny. It’s written by Niamh about her family, and this was the first time she’d be working in this way, with a director and designers. She is a skilled artist and multitasker who is used to doing it all herself. She also has a long career as a deft puppeteer, and it was clear we should use her talents to help tell the story – even though it was adamantly not a puppet show. Or even a show with puppets.
We started out deep in early 2021 lockdown. Like many others, we were anxiously trying to figure out how to do our creative work via Zoom. Building up a meaningful artistic language between people working together collaboratively for the first time is a complex enough process. It turns out that doing it online dulls a lot of the organic, human connections that I didn’t even realise were going on in previous processes. How to do something meaningful and inventive and joyful and three dimensional while talking to small faces on a screen in my spare room. At the end of 2021 we progressed to meeting in a room, masks carefully on. My first time physically in rehearsals since autumn 2020. I found both these online and offline experiences unsettling and nerve-wracking. Was it obvious to everyone that I was off my stride? That I was struggling to remember how to think as a designer? That I felt a bit creatively shrivelled?
In the room together we had the time to play. I’d almost forgotten how. To not focus too much on the final product yet. To develop a visual and aural language that suited the piece, and that wove all of our aesthetics and ideas in. We played with paper and light and clay and music and drawings and yarn and voice and plastic sheeting and tinfoil and sound. We tried to find ways of populating the stage around Niamh with other beings. Veronica and I both wanted to see Niamh the artist on stage – a glimpse of her overcrowded workspace, her beautiful drawings, the way her hands make objects come to life. I didn’t have enough time. I felt I could have spent at least another week or two or more in this process of bringing the materials to life and finding out which ones would serve best.
By the time we did a work in progress showing of The Holding Bones in the Civic Theatre at the end of 2022, I had designed two full productions since Covid – Sing Your Failures and Hive City Legacy – and was feeling a bit more confident again in my creative abilities (though I still resist having creative conversations via Zoom). Niamh and Veronica had created an almost fully-formed show, and we had come up with a satisfying design that would allow for further exploration and development, should The Holding Bones get a further life. We felt it was in a very good state. It had been a slow road to get to this point and Niamh had put so much energy and work and inventiveness into the piece – I primarily wanted to make sure she was happy with how it had all come out.
In the Civic studio, on a wintery Saturday afternoon, Veronica and I talked the assembled audience through what they were about to see, how we had worked together, and our hopes for the future physical staging of the piece. And we sat back and watched Niamh weave her gentle magic over the people in the room.
I can’t honestly say that I feel fully creatively unstuck yet. At all. The last few years have been frustrating from that point of view. But doing things like playing with the team on The Holding Bones has kept me buoyed up enough to keep swimming into this new year.
I’ve been meaning to post this for ages, but only getting round to it now. Even though it was months ago, I’m still dreaming of my time on a wonderful two-month residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Firstly, a huge thank you to the CCI for giving me the time there.
When I applied, I hoped for a chance to ringfence some time to be creative – something that I find very difficult to do with a dual career as an artist and a manager. In fact, the last time I’ve allowed myself to indulge (is it really indulgence?!) in reading, drawing, thinking, seeing things, and meeting people in such a dedicated way may have been at university. I’m talking about the turn of the century here, people.
The CCI residency itself is luxuriously simple: they fly you over, put you up in the beautiful building in the fancy 5th arrondissement, and give you a stipend of €700 per month to keep you going. I was also given access to my own studio (bliss) across the courtyard.
While you have to give an outline in your application of what you’d like to do, when you’re there you are left to you own devices, which is wonderfully freeing. And does feel like a luxury. It was an extraordinary feeling to be taken seriously enough as an artist to be supported in this way. For me, it means I take my own creativity more seriously too. Which I’m normally not great at.
And what did I do? A big part of what I’d wanted to do was get to know the city a bit better – I threw away 4 new pairs of socks over the two months, worn out with all the walking.
Towards the end of my time there I had a small panic that I’d not really done anything, so I started to make a list. Phew. Exhibitions, talks (given and attended), performances, books, music, countless excellent, thought-provoking chats. And lots of time in the studio, sitting staring out the window, writing, drawing, and (a little surprisingly) painting.
One result was a series of simple portraits on cardboard. Not sure where it’s leading me, but it was really, really refreshing to just try things out with no ultimate agenda. Another small revelation for me was to understand the imperative of safe-guarding the time I need to transition from the ‘admin’ way of thinking to the creative way of thinking. A hugely valuable lesson for me. Now the trick is to find a way to transpose some of the creative, relaxed, invigorating Paris energy into Dublin life. Fingers crossed.
Thanks to Travel and Training support from the Arts Council of Ireland, I was able to attend the Prague Quadrennial earlier this June. PQ is the world’s largest exhibition of design for performance that takes place in Prague every four years. In 2007 Ireland was represented officially for the first time, and as Exhibition Coordinator, I was lucky enough to get to go, also for the first time.
‘The Submission’ – Vladislav Nastavshev – Latvian national exhibit
A lot has changed in the intervening 12 years. The big, beautiful Výstaviště Palace, which was used as the exhibition space up to 2007, was badly damaged in a fire the following year. This forced the PQ to stretch across multiple venues in 2011, and even more so this year – insinuating itself into the daily life of the city centre for a couple of weeks. The tone of the exhibition has changed too. There is less of the stall-to-stall ‘best of’ of each country’s design, as national curators now tend towards focusing on specific designers or companies, or stand-alone (kinda) artistic installations – with very mixed results. This one by a Latvian designer was one of my favourites.
Detail from the Russian exhibit
Then again, I’ve always had an ambivalent feeling about the exhibition. I think it partly comes from how unevenly curated it can be – each country having a hugely varied capacity and budget for their exhibit. Each year I’ve come with high hopes and am often struck by the amount of work I really dislike, or consider bad design. It takes me a long time to root out things that I connect with aesthetically, and often that truffle hunt feels like too much effort. The exhibition is huge, and just navigating the city centre Prague mid-June tourist hordes is exhausting. That said, I know no other opportunity like it to see such a breadth of international design work, so I really shouldn’t grumble.
This year, for the first time, I signed up for two day-long workshops at DAMU, the Theatre faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts – partly to meet people at what can be a lonely event where you sometimes feel everyone else is having more fun that you. In one, a group of us spent a day building a giant two-storey Rube Goldberg machine, and in the other we worked with UK artist James Leadbitter aka the vacuum cleaner to design our ideal asylum, as part of his Madlove project. Highly recommended. Nothing like playing with ideas to cheer you up.
Idea of running up daily flags to tell the world how you feel
Earlier this year I worked with Ewa Segner and Siobhán Bourke of Irish Theatre Institute to compile a website to highlight stage and screen designers coming from and working in Ireland.
You can access the website here. It is in Beta mode for the next few weeks, and the content is being updated and added to every day – an ever-growing catalogue of the work of costume, set, lighting and sound designers/composers who design for the stage, and production, hair, makeup and costume designers who design for screen.
A Girl is a Half Formed Thing horizon ideas sketch
Most exciting (for me) is the chance to see some of the sketches side by side with the final production images – it’s always a treat to see the development of ideas, and the idiosyncratic ways that designers approach their work.
Thanks to Noelia Ruiz and Siobhán O’Gorman for asking me to speak on a panel as part of this event – a day-long symposium on scenography in Trinity College Dublin. It really was a great day, and felt like there was a lot still to say by the end of it.
While I missed some of the papers, I did get to hear some great presentations by:
Rachel Hann on the terminology around scenography (I hope to be able to repost some of what she said soon – it was really useful to hear her own definitions around stage design / scenic design / scenography / set design)
Sarah-Jane Scaife, talking about her beautiful Beckett in the City series
Cathy Leeney and Elaine Sisson both presenting very interesting papers about the documentation of design
Aoife Monks talking about magic/mundane lives of costumes and props (who also came out with the great line that “theatre is just made out of stuff and work”)
Sodja Lotker, Director of the Prague Quadrennial, talking about their upcoming event in 2015
Abstracts of all these paper and more can be found here.