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"Style doesn’t interest me, text does"

In the second in a series of interviews celebrating Australia's leading female designers, Antoinette Barbouttis talks life and art with Anna Gardiner.

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“Design is so much more than making things look pretty”

Date: 7 Apr 2018

This is the second in a series of interviews celebrating the female designer – specifically female set designers.

Anna Gardiner and I met when we collaborated on repertory shows for Sport for Jove back in 2014. Since graduating from WAAPA in 2008, Anna has firmly established herself in Sydney, notably – though not exclusively – in the independent theatre scene.

Recently Anna has designed productions including This Much is True (Old Fitzroy), Taking Steps (Ensemble Theatre), Blink (Kings Cross Theatre), Big Fish (Hayes Theatre), Cyrano de Bergerac (Sport for Jove) and Visiting Hours (KXT).

AB: You had mainstage success as an emerging designer – one of the few designers I know who has crossed from independent to mainstage. How did that happen?

AG: In 2014 I designed Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V, which received the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Set Design of a Mainstage Production. But it was through working on various independent productions that I met director Damien Ryan. Intuitively and creatively, we formed a seamless collaborative pairing.

Damien and I worked on several Sport for Jove productions and when he was offered the opportunity to direct Henry V, he expressed he would like to work with me.

But that didn’t mean I was guaranteed the role. I interviewed for the position with other designers. I went prepared with sketches and ideas and with advocacy from Damien I was lucky enough to nab the position. But I’m certain it wouldn’t have come about without his backing.

AB: What have been your main setbacks in your current work practice?

The major mainstage companies are still reluctant to hire me. There has been a recycling of the same designers in mainstage theatre for a long time, which is something of a blockade for emerging and early-career designers.

But theatre makers are all aware of the ups and downs of working in this industry. You may be extremely sought-after one minute and out of work the next, and of course, there are pre-existing working relationships at play and I respect that. I also have solid working relationships with other creatives which means I might be approached over other designers. That’s how it works. You persevere until your opportunity comes along.

You can’t measure talent or get caught up in comparing yourself to others. I have persisted and will continue to do so.

I cherish working in the independent theatre scene. It tends to be more adventurous and willing to try and fail, though I feel it could push its boundaries even further. It’s also pretty supportive. If I can’t take on a production, I will pass on the names of others who might. I hope we all do this, because it’s the only way we’ll all get our chance.

AB: Where can the designer take ownership of an aesthetic when they are so affiliated with a director, for example yourself and Damien Ryan?

AG: I feel in my practice that I promote versatility. I don’t have a specific style. I try to engage directly with the text and the director and have that inform my decisions. Damien and I share something of a makeshift, earthy aesthetic. More often than not he will approach me with a kernel of an idea – a time period, an object, a texture – and the collaboration begins there.

Style doesn’t interest me, text does. I don’t think a designer should impose a ‘style’ onto a production simply for an aesthetic. It should all spring from the text. I consider myself a visual dramaturg.

Design is so much more than making things look pretty. The word ‘Design’ lends itself purely to aesthetic or, worse still, the idea of decoration. But really, theatre designers give much more than what’s on the surface. But to answer the question it’s not really about ownership. How can anyone really ‘own’ something when it’s a collaboration? Also, no one can really claim to have had a completely new or original idea.

AB: How do you see yourself as a designer progressing?

AG: It depends what jobs I get offered! I don’t currently don’t have any mainstage work in the pipeline this year. As a result I’ve decided to give film a try and to expand my horizons, but I do have a couple of exciting indie prospects lined up for later in the year. My heart’s still in theatre. It’s pretty hard to compare anything to the experience of live performance.

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