Setting The Scene: The Next Four Years

Posted 8 months ago in Arts and Culture, Theatre, Theatre Features

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

“If performance designers could offer new possibilities for Irish theatre after the pandemic, what shapes and sounds, spaces and acoustics, materials and formats, structures and hierarchies might they propose? What new creative and collaborative practices might emerge? What new social and artistic functions for theatre might present themselves?

The Next Four Years is a speculative retrospective of Irish performance design and scenography in the years 2023-2027, challenging the designers of today to imagine the theatre of tomorrow. We invited eight leading Irish designers, working across costume, lighting, music, props, set, sound and video, to collaborate with us on this project and investigate new approaches to design, in response to the Prague Quadrennial 2023 theme of RARE—which asks “what the world and theatre could look like in the post-pandemic future” and calls on designers to “imagine, visualise and even create even create rare visions of the future.”

Over two days in May 2023, the participating designers gathered in a warehouse in a suburban Dublin industrial estate, surrounded by the accidental archive that is the prop and furniture store of the Abbey Theatre, to discuss the next four years of Irish performance design. They spoke about beginnings and inspiration, post-pandemic shifts, new forms and subjects, aesthetic and structural hierarchies, environmental urgencies and sustainable solutions, new impulses and unfinished business. This conversation, which forms the spine of our film, was conceived and facilitated in close collaboration with Lian Bell, a set and costume designer who is equally adept at designing conversations, and shows how design thinking can move beyond the stage into new fields and formats.

In the subsequent days, we invited each designer to stage a visual or sonic proposition to be recorded— a kind of sketch in four dimensions with the stage of a Dublin theatre acting as exhibition space. These gestures act as ruptures and chapter markers in the film, interrupting and sitting alongside the filmed conversations. They provide glimpses or strains of practice and process, gathering and aftermath, creation and destruction, which resonate with the project’s future thinking.

The Next Four Years proposes itself as a laboratory and catalyst for new directions in Irish performance design.” – Tom Creed, Curator.

“These tabards are from a performance that took place on a bandstand in a park. There were two audiences—the people who paid for a ticket and became the participants, and the people passing by in the park who happened to see them.

The participant audience became the scenography over the course of the performance. Elements were introduced to them gently and bit by bit until, before they knew it, they were performing; on a stage, wearing costumes, moving collectively, and singing a joyful song about their failures to a big, vibrant backing track. With big smiles.

By making performances, aren’t we always failing? Trying something and it mostly not working out the way we thought. And then dismantling it all and trying something else. Isn’t that the point? If we face the future with fear we’ll never try anything. – Lian Bell (artist, set designer, arts manager, and artist coach).” 

Sing Your Failures by Louise White Performance. Premiered as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 2022. Costumes realised by Deana Hedderman. 

Luma is a filmed four hour time-lapse of a burning candle. The single lumen. The four hours representing the standard four hour call within a production week. The candle as a metaphor for the rigour of the creative process.

I’m fascinated by our perception of time, and how light can enforce, support and challenge our senses within a production. Within a standard lighting cue we use two different timings to control the speed of the lighting cue. An UP time and a DOWN time. The UP time is linked to any new lights coming up into the lighting state and the DOWN time relating to any lights going out

or down within the same cue. As lighting designers we can control this relationship with infinite possibilities. The UP time of the new thought. The new idea. The DOWN time of the previous, the past. The relationship between the two. Their co-existence within one single cue.”

Ciarán Bagnall is the Creative Director for Prime Cut Productions, Belfast.

“I would certainly like to see more design-led work, whatever that is, whatever form it

might take over the next four years, where designers are in from the beginning, in the conceptualisation of the piece, of the research, of the exploration, of devising the piece, of coming up with the ideas. It’s about designers having more of a voice in the creation of the piece from the very start, so that it’s a shared vision, it’s a shared idea. So we’re

not just waiting until we’re all in the room together, during the tech, where we’ve all got to somehow or other be singing off the same hymn sheet, trying to create something together, but actually, that even before we get in there, we’ve imagined something together, that then we’re trying to create. And perhaps that relates also to the question of text, and the role of the script, the role of directors—a kind of rebalancing, so that there are more opportunities for us as designers to step into a creative space and bring more of our ideas, more of ourselves into it.”

Mel Mercier is a multi-disciplinary, award-winning, Tony-nominated artist with an international reputation as a performer, composer and sound designer.

“I think I’ve been making spaces that I was afraid of when I was younger.

Abandoned, multi-purpose spaces, cold and brutal. A fluorescent light flickers and gives up. I want to soften those edges, transform them into spaces where joy can happen. Somewhere you can find a half-forgotten mic in a pile of confetti on the carpeted floor and suddenly sing a Shania Twain song into it, and it feels right. There’s a life-size billboard print of a tropical beach over there, plastered to the wall, its edges peeling and ripped. A ‘70s vending machine beside it only sells cream eclairs. It’s paradise.

Aftermath relates to my investigation of inert staged spaces for performance and recurring celebratory motifs used in my scenographic work. These are common, usually perishable objects

like streamers, bunting, balloons and confetti which are important props in my work, signalling or suggesting events prior to the first stage image offered to the audience. They hang in the aftermath space as memento mori.

The terrifying thought of endlessness, but the joy of wilting balloons in the corner, bobbing on moth-eaten carpet tiles, just about keeping afloat.”

Katie Davenport is a set and costume designer based in Dublin.

“One thing I think about, being a bit younger, and maybe emerging, some of my colleagues, I think

about retirement for them? And what retirement means for someone in this industry, when you’re not coming into a very good pension, or you’re still renting as a retired person, how do we care for people? And what does the industry do to support on that level, maybe to keep people in employment for a bit longer, or whatever that is? And I think in the opposite direction as well, of

very young people coming into the industry, who are facing much more difficulty in terms of housing, this kind of stuff, how do we keep them in the industry? And how do we train them, and keep them engaged, and not have to face some of the issues we all had to face when we were starting off? So, there are both ends of that spectrum. I’m curious about what we have to offer, as a community. I don’t have any answers.”

Rob Moloney is a composer and sound designer based in Dublin.

“That which is rare is wonderful” – old Irish proverb

In Theatre Journal’s 2012 issue, editor Ric Knowles notes that: “Theatre practice has always and inevitably dealt with stuff, in all of its messiness. It engages with the ‘thingness’ of the

material world in ways that few other art practices do.” His observation that the theatre also “generates things in abundance” resonates. As Prop Master of the Abbey Theatre, I wrestle daily with an ever-expanding collection of the most wildly varying objects: from mobile phones to chandeliers and everything in between. These are the things of plays: objects conceived of in

writers’ imaginations, and materialised by successions of Prop Masters before me. Props earn their keep by appearing and reappearing on our stages, constantly being re-invented and re-used: the ultimate in recycling.

But with storage space in short supply I must ruthlessly confront each prop, weighing its individual merits under a cold list of criteria in order to decide which ones to keep. Some are significant props from important plays, others are antique items, rare and difficult to source. The concept of the Abbey stores as an “accidental archive” occupies me as I wrestle with the practicalities of housing this extraordinary, irreplaceable collection. Take the rolls of ‘Nottingham’ lace sourced for our 2012 production of The Dead. It had been made by Haddow, Aird and Crerar, a lacemaker in Scotland’s Irvine Valley, for 150 years. In 2012 they were about to retire the machines that wove the Nottingham, and so the Abbey bought up the last run of this lace that was ever, or will ever, be made.”

Eimear Murphy is the Prop Master at the Abbey Theatre.

“I have a responsibility to make sure that what I do doesn’t affect liveness. I think that’s something that theatre itself should be focused on, it’s what makes theatre theatre. And if it’s under pressure from all these other forms of entertainment and media, then why run away from what makes it what it is? And it doesn’t take anything to relearn that or recapture it. Or maybe there are new ways to be live, but not necessarily going high tech or with high production value pre-made images.

In the next four years I’d love to see less stuff, more time, and more experimentation with collaboration and the tools of the live. I think that would be exciting. I think that you would also, crucially, have to find new audiences for stuff like that. And build and give audiences things they aren’t getting through their screens or streaming services or game consoles. Theatre has everything going for it, in that sense. It seems exciting. And just stop racing towards scale and complexity, which is clearly just not working on many fronts, but just go nimble and weird. Get a bit weird as well.”

Jack Phelan is a video artist and filmmaker with many years experience producing moving images for stage, screen and beyond. 

When I think of The Next Four Years I struggle to see beyond our current stasis.
Our post-pandemic hope of doing things differently has faded.
The future does not look so bright.
2030 does not look so far away.
The climate is breaking down.
The house is on fire.
The theatre is on fire.
But here we are. Getting on with getting on.
Heads in the sand.
Mr Sands, our code for fire. A call to action to the staff to get the people out.
Yet still we work to get the people in. We tell the same stories of the past.
Where is the lesson for the future?
I see a change coming.
[in the optimistic moments]
I see a world willing to change.
I see the theatre of the future.
What do you love?
How will climate breakdown affect what you love?
Here is what I love.
All together.
In one room.
Sinking underwater.
The Next Four Years.
It is time to start.
To start to fix how we do what we do.
To make work better.
To make better work.
To speak about the future so it might not be so uncertain when we get there.
When we get there.

Sinéad Wallace works as a lighting designer for theatre, opera and dance. 

The Next Four Years is presented by the Irish Society of Performance Designers in association with Once Off Productions.

The Next Four Years screening and conversation takes place in the Carolan Room of the National Concert Hall on Friday October 6 at 3.30pm. It is a free but ticketed event as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Further events will happen around Ireland in the autumn. 

The film will be screened in the foyer of the Project Arts Centre from Saturday September 30 to Saturday October 7 from 11am to 8.30pm daily.

Photos: Ros Kavanagh

Brochure artwork: Niall Sweeney, Pony 


The Abbey Theatre is proud to support the ‘Setting the Scene’ section of Totally Dublin. This initiative aims to support discourse around theatre practitioners, venues and productions in Irish society.



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