Technical marvels

Technical marvels

14 April 2017

Ciara Shrager reviews some of the most impressive tech, lighting and sound design of the festival

As a technician, watching a show that appreciates and understands the importance of technical design is a breath of fresh air. This is my second year at NSDF and in the year between those two, I have learnt so much about theatre production that my understanding of performance has completely changed. The move from Scarborough, our not-so-sunny seaside haven, has brought with it an intimate proximity to the entire festival that has only emphasised some of the incredible simplistic beauty of the design of so many of the shows.

Don’t be confused, this will be a long garble of nerdy fan-girling about the beauty of the lighting designs I have witnessed here. It is, most definitely, self-indulgent and will probably be quite uninteresting and messy. That is only because none of the shows I’ll be talking about has been.

Swallow, for instance, with its precision and clinical whiteness was a design concept that worked excellently. It allowed for some stunning moments of raw, real, visceral emotion without any distraction. The complexity of the characters was complemented and balanced perfectly by the minimalism and almost-emptiness of the stage.

The real stand-out part of the design was, of course, the door. The centre-pièce de résistance. I work in a touring theatre and see a lot of interesting and complex and practical set pieces with multiple functions and features, but the door struck me as a stunning piece of engineering that enabled the cast (and director), and casts (and directors) before them, to create so many wonderful locations in such a subtle way. The slow fades allowed the scenes to flow seamlessly into one another when the characters were so disjointed and fragmented both within themselves and with each other, and it was truly a joy to watch. It gives me hope for the future of black box, and white box, studio theatre.

That said, the show that is the reason I am writing this piece is Nothing is Coming, The Pixels are Huge. Using projection mapping in such a delicate and intricate way was inspiring to watch and I am truly grateful that I got to see it. While the projection was unbelievable, what struck me most was how well considered and yet notable in its negation the lighting design was.

It sometimes upsets me that someone can put hours and hours of work into such delicate intricacy and it goes unnoticed but I think, with Pixels, it complements the projection design so well that its invisibility is its strongest asset. What was most intriguing about the design, for me, was the way in which it allowed the set, the countless cardboard boxes, to be the most important part of the piece, and the actors become nothing but vehicles for it, highlighting the importance of their world and its relevance to ours. They are secondary in the piece to the extent that it appears David Callanan, the designer (read: genius), put considerable effort into making sure they were never fully lit when onstage. It lent so much by way of significance to the world they were creating that I found myself forgetting it was speculative, future-driven fiction, and instead saw a world in which humanity has been completely obscured and lost to technology, providing a beautiful parallel and adding incredible meaning to a play that already says so much.

I was going to keep this piece about lighting design because I think it is a vital aspect of production that is often overlooked, but after seeing Sad Little Man, I can’t not mention it. I’m not going to talk about the narrative or the form because, while it is so intricate and beautifully sad and wonderfully tragic in its entirety, that isn’t the point of this comment.

The sound design is what made it for me. The whole show is underscored by a consistent sound of rain that balances and complements the oh-so-articulate story in a way I have never seen a sound design do before. On top of that, the way the central character interacted with the songs that were played throughout was striking. Being able to watch those parts of the soliloquoy and hear music that matches the tone of what is being said so entirely was stunning and awe-inspiring. Songs such as Jon Hopkins’ "Immunity" capture the intense sadness of the performance and the compositional radiance that is Two Feet’s "Quick Musical Doodles" works perfectly underscoring, and also occasionally overscoring, one of the many angry and tragic soliloquies in the play. Credits to Mat Oliphant, the sound designer, because it was fucking incredible.

It’s such a shame that I can’t see everything that the festival still has to offer before I send this off because there’s a lot of technical promise in the whispers I’ve heard about some of the other shows. I am overwhelmed and excited by the new and original ways student theatre companies are making shows at the moment and I’m so glad that these companies are embracing tech because it really can make or break a show. Having seen so many innovative uses of various aspects of technical design at NSDF17, I’m so looking forward to seeing where it goes from here. We’re changing the medium as a whole and it’s something to be thrilled about.

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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato