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In the fifth in a series of interviews celebrating the female designer, Antoinette Barbouttis talks to Anna Tregloan.

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Making offers, not demands

Date: 24 Sep 2018

Anna Tregloan is a designer with an extensive history in contemporary theatre and dance, physical theatre, opera, live art and immersive installations.

She has worked with Bell Shakespeare, Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Circus Oz, Meow Meow, Polyglot Puppet Theatre and Ranters Theatre among others.

She lives in Sydney, but much of her working life has been in Melbourne. Most recently she has conceived and designed Wonderland for ACMI, Perfection for Science Gallery Melbourne, and designed staging and costumes for Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

AB: How has the transition from Melbourne to Sydney been? What motivated the move?

AT: The two cities are similar in so many ways but also entirely different. I find the Melbourne industry has more fluidity between both independent and mainstage and between artforms. It’s due in part to differences in government funding structures but also the difference between training institutions. At the VCA, theatre or painting students routinely cross paths with musicians, opera singers and film makers, whereas they’re very separate campuses in Sydney.

I was well established as a set and costume designer in Melbourne, but with so many ongoing – and fantastic – collaborators in that field, I was finding it hard to make room for my own work or shift the direction in which I was heading.

I am now very much working across disciplines, which suits me better. People seem to spend a lot of energy attempting to fit my work into particular boxes: Is it theatre? Is it a museum installation? Is it visual art? I’m primarily interested in communicating ideas and have just about given up attempting to work out which box I belong in.

What is your relationship with an audience as a designer-artist-exhibition-designer like? How does it differ between the practices?

What I’m most interested in is communicating ideas to an audience. These are usually open-ended questions, never closed truths. I am continually impressed by how open and inquisitive our audiences are and how clearly they understand what can sometimes, or at first, appear to be rather abstract moments.

In my installation work I like to communicate in a number of simultaneous channels. I am not as interested in the linear narrative of traditional theatre as I am in inviting an audience to discover the content in the order and method that they choose.

It is one of the things that I enjoy about working with museums. It is impossible to dictate which items or spaces each audience member will react to, so you need to set up the opportunity for them to find connections. It’s amazing how receptive people are when you make offers rather than demands.

One of the many things I appreciate about working with Shakespeare is that it has, over time, become a non-linear form.  When you sit in the theatre you are not just watching what is in front of you but relating it to the other interpretations of the play you have seen before.

For example, in Melbourne recently with Bell’s Julius Caesar, both my parents and a man I randomly sat next to in a preview told me about how they had last experienced the play in high school – which for both was over 50 years ago – then told me how much of the text had come back to them. They were watching our production but also reliving their own memories. I find that very interesting.

How did you approach the design for Julius Caesar?

I have great respect for Bell taking on such a far-reaching tour. The practical parameters around it are massive, however. It needs to go into many venues of a great range of sizes and formats and needs to bump in in a few hours with limited crews.

I also feel that it needs to be something that the cast can gain ownership of, they spend so long with these objects, so I try to build something which has many options so that there is the possibility of finding new ways to use it over the course of the tour.

Very early on, James Evans [the production’s director] and I became focused on the staging being a single portable object that could be use in a multitude of ways. Also early, we focused in on the idea of propaganda and discussed how so many of the characters in this play neither speak the truth nor trust anyone else to be speaking the truth.

A major breakthrough came when I was travelling in India at the beginning of the year. Everywhere along the high ways were these decrepit billboard frames. They were complex, skeletal steel structures and said so much about broken promises. They were all sitting empty now, not advertising anything.

That coupled with the idea that someone, at one time, had convinced landowners to invest in these structures, on the promise of a better future, and that the people who were doing that convincing – presumably advertising salespeople – were also seeking that same promise.

So a giant billboard which is stripped and repurposed became the centre piece of the production. At the beginning of the play it has the image of Kenneth Ransom as Caesar. It borrows from Maoist propaganda, but also from Trump and many others.

I work with CG modelling. I find it far more efficient and useful than the traditional model box. Model boxes work for some people, but in 3D modelling I can test more complex mechanical ideas, create animations and walk-throughs – even VR representations.

I also like the way it forces everyone to imagine the actual set; something about the model box feels like a closed loop to me. It is a finished product in its own right; the computer model remains a live document right up till opening, I can make small changes on the fly and generate plans and details, right down to the smallest detail as the project evolves.

How has your interest in Asian theatre developed?

When I first went to Seoul several years ago I felt an immediate affinity. I was actually quite shocked by how at home I felt, far more so than I feel in many large European cities, and it brought home how integrated and intertwined we are with these close neighbours.

I am very fortunate to have been able to work collaboratively with several artists from the region, recently through Chamber Made Opera in China and Polyglot Theatre in Indonesia, but also with Legs On the Wall in South Korea and an Asialink residency in Seoul.

I am in awe of the way performance in places like Indonesia is able to operate very close to community. Performance events most often involve sitting, talking and eating. Again, it is this idea of art or theatre not being in a bubble and connecting with its audience in ways that are invigorating and complex.

What is your involvement with the Australian Production Design Guild? Can the movements made there help designers in the industry?

I have been a member of the guild for a few years and contributed in several ways. Judging in the awards is fascinating. It is Australia-wide so there are always new artists and works that you may not know about otherwise, and it is a great honour to have that insight.

I was also heavily involved in writing a standard contract. It was a response to a need in smaller companies who may not have the resources to write their own design specific contracts but also for designers not feeling either knowledgeable enough or empowered enough to ask for inclusions or changes.

Designers have never been represented by the other unions so there is a real lack of information and knowledge of baselines. This is an era where contract and freelance work is on the rise and it is so important for individuals to have the tools to make this shift viable.

I also represented the guild at the Safe Theatres Forum in Melbourne. It’s an amazing initiative, both timely and essential. It was such a huge step to hear bullying and sexual harassment finally being recognised as real issues and openly discussed.

One of the aspects which was discussed at length was power disparity between freelance artists and those in permanent employment. It affects all aspects of this industry and designers are a part of that.

It can be a bit lonely as a designer, you are part of the gang but you also have many tasks and responsibilities outside of what the others are doing. Add that to often working with workshop teams who are in secure employment when you are not, and it is a quite a vulnerable position.

As a young designer it is pretty likely your workshop and wardrobe teams will be substantially older as well, so potentially more secure in their identity as well. I think it is quite rare that it is consciously malicious but bullying is far from uncommon.

I find it heartening that people are actively going about changing this culture and that it is possible that young women of the future may not need to fight quite so hard for small amounts respect. It’s important that we keep the conversation going for them.

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