Following award-winning, sell-out runs at Edinburgh Fringe 2017 and Soho Theatre, Dust is now showing at Trafalgar Studios. Its costume and set designer Anna Reid discusses how she approaches each set design for different productions and how she came up with the stage design for Dust, given the sensitive nature of the show that touches on mental health and death. She also shares her methods of collaboration with the creative team including Dust‘s director Sara Joyce and more.
Tell me what was the inspiration behind the set designs for Dust at Trafalgar Studios?
Milly (Thomas), Sara (Joyce) and I had a very close collaborative relationship working towards the set for Dust and one of our jumping off points was how bodily the script is. There’s a lot of descriptions of bodily functions, pissing, shitting and f**king which act as this almost elegiac remembering of her body which she has lost and which she yearns for. We knew we wanted something onstage which symbolised her body and her emotional, and eventual physical, separation from it. That’s where the morgue table came from. We also spoke about how the character of Alice is deeply self-involved and seems perpetually trapped between this intelligent, brutal self-reflection and a selfish absorption in herself, driving those closest to her away which is where the idea of her being trapped by mirrors and different edges and refractions of herself grew from. There is rarely one single reason why someone decides to take their own life and part of the problem is that people don’t feel they can talk openly about the mental and emotional space they’re in because of the social stigma which persists around mental health. We wanted to tell the story that the people in Alice’s life only saw a fraction, or a side of her, and that her inability to fully express herself is one of the things that led to her taking her own life.
What kind of things do you have to gather and study in order to create a fresh new set design for a play with a sensitive nature like Dust?
There’s a lot of reading and talking to do, to friends and family who have personal experience, online blogs, and a continual process of checking in with each other on the team that we all felt comfortable that what we were saying aesthetically stayed true to the nature of the play: not pulling any punches but remaining sensitive and aware of the subject material. We looked at visual art, film, photography, a lot of it told and seen through a distinctly female lens.
How do you want the audience to feel when they see your set designs in Dust?
Hopefully, their experience of the design will change as the lighting by Jack Weir and sound design by Max Perryment guide us through the journey of the show. Sometimes they should be struck cold: we’re in a morgue, everything is polished hard edges; sometimes they should forget the table is metal and see Alice in her bed at home; sometimes the space should simply dissolve away and just foreground Alice telling her story. My hope is that despite the set being visually very stark and distinct, the sound, the lights and the way Sara and Milly use the space animate it in different ways and infuse it with different energies.
You’ve worked on many productions in a variety of venues over the course of your career, like the Bunker Theatre, Southwark Playhouse and the Old Red Lion. How important is the size of the venue when you’re designing a set?
Not important. It’s about the team and the material. If you have the right team and the right material, you can make a great design in a room the size of your kitchen. If you have a team who don’t talk and material you’re not sure about, even if you have all the resources in the world it can be hard to produce a design you feel proud of. I’ve been very lucky that the huge majority of the projects I’ve worked on over the last few years have been the former. I love the intimacy and exposure of a small space.
When did you realise costume and set design was your calling?
In the final year of my BA in English literature! I suddenly realised I wasn’t applying for masters and academic opportunities which I had always expected I’d go into like all my friends were, and instead, I was spending more and more time at my university theatre. I realised that what really made me happy was telling stories and working with my hands and collaborating with other creative people.
Do you have a preference for the types of theatre you create staging for? E.g. Scripted plays, musicals, etc.
I love working with new writing, it’s always incredibly exciting but I’ve done a bit of everything and would like to keep it that way. I’d love to have a go at an opera.
What’s the most challenging, yet gratifying set design you’ve made?
Dust has to rank pretty highly here. It’s very rare at this level to be able to go back and refine a design three times over! I feel like myself, Sara, Milly, Jack and Max have been able to come back to the show and finesse it til it’s not perfect (nothing ever is) but as close as it possibly could be to the essence of what we’re trying to communicate with the show as a whole. I also designed a show called Rattle Snake for an amazing company called Open Clasp which has had several lives touring theatres and community spaces. It’s a verbatim piece about the impact of coercive control. Similarly to Dust, Rattle Snake uses a very simple construct (a metal box lit with floodlights, containing a naturalistic dining table) to tell a complicated story. I feel it supports the performers in doing their job really well which is always what I want my work to do.
Where will we see your work next? Any current or future projects in the pipeline?
I have a few shows opening at Southwark Playhouse, The Sweet Science of Bruising directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward and Twelfth Night directed by Anna Girvan. I’ve also got a show at Hampstead coming up called The Hoes directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo which I’m really looking forward to.
What advice would you give to an aspiring set designer?
Don’t look sideways: there is always going to be someone doing better than you. Focus on your own work and on creating meaningful creative relationships which inspire you. There are sometimes tough decisions to be made between standing your ground and knowing when to compromise and sometimes you get it wrong. Always ask for more money. The worst anyone can do is say no.
Dust by Milly Thomas is showing at Trafalgar Studios 2 now until Saturday 13th October 2018. Book tickets here.