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Backstage: Jon Bausor, designer

First Published 31 May 2011, Last Updated 20 August 2013

Designer Jon Bausor has created atmospheric sets across the world from opera in Vienna to the spooky surroundings of Ghost Stories in the West End. As Lord Of The Flies runs at the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre featuring one of his most ambitious designs yet, Bausor talks to Charlotte Marshall.

What the job entails

A theatre designer designs absolutely everything in a production. Sometimes in opera and ballet they split the set and the costume design but most of the time we do everything. I try to do as much of it as possible in terms of it creating a continuity between colour and feel and texture.
The first thing I do is read the text, just totally on my own, normally pretty quickly, and go through it and get a sense of something. Then I’ll jot down a few ideas. I’ve normally got a sketch book on the tube and I’ll just quickly sketch some ideas out, however rough. Then I might go to the director and say ‘this is what I think, what do you think?’ and we’ll have a mutual sharing of thoughts. Then it becomes what I call a friendly fight between us; challenging each other and slightly prodding in both directions.
Meanwhile I’ve probably constructed a model box of the theatre itself and I’m looking at what the dynamics of the theatre space are and what that allows you to do. Then it works quite quickly, ideas appear in the box and I’m normally modelling very quickly and getting to a stage when I’ve got something to present to the director. Then we go into a vigorous process from there, challenging what we’ve put in the model box.

For opera you have massive budgets and normally massive stages to fill and amazing technology as well, so you can achieve a lot in the same space. But they work so far in advance so the downside is that you slightly lose that organic, more interrogatory process because you have to design everything in advance and then everybody turns up and does it. You don’t have that sense of devising which you’re allowed to have in theatre.

Sometimes in dance you get to work on a costume with a dancer who is going through the choreography and you get to work with the way the body moves in that piece of clothing which is really exciting. Dance is a really interesting discipline; it’s so different in many ways to theatre and opera.

From page to stage

I think normally it’s about a month between starting work on a project and then finishing a design to hand in in model form, and then another month of construction that goes into that work before it appears on stage. But it could be months. I’m working on projects now for next year so they just kind of simmer a way for a bit before the deadlines loom too quickly.

I try and get as much time in the rehearsal room as I can. I find it really tricky because your time is stretched as a designer between having to go to builders, getting things made up, working with costume supervisors and makers building costumes and sourcing fabrics etc, so you get torn away quite a lot from the rehearsal room. But it’s good being in there because you can challenge things and I love essentially being what some people call a cinematographer, in terms of looking at the way the space is used as well as just putting a design in there.

Starting out

When I was at school I was in a school play and someone from the Royal Shakespeare Company saw me play Prince Hal in our school production of Henry IV and invited me to come and audition for the RSC. I got a part as Lucius in Julius Caesar so I spent a year with them which was quite exciting. I didn’t think I was very good at acting however and I’d always been obsessed with what theatre looked like, but I didn’t really know that being a designer really existed until that moment. I met the designer called Tobias Hoheisel and I got really excited by what theatre design was. I then went off and did an art degree and then did a music degree at Oxford. I wrote loads of letters to people and eventually went to assist a couple of designers, then I went to train in a place called Motley which is a fantastic course with 10 students in the back of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The philosophy was incredible, we did everything, and because everyone was from really different backgrounds, not just theatre, or art, it meant that we all had this incredible process and learnt in a very interesting way. I did some building in the West End, construction work etc, and learnt how to build scenery and stuff like that.

To be a designer I think you probably have to be a perfectionist and incredibly anal underneath! Sometimes you have to be incredibly patient. Sometimes you have to be a good diplomat in terms of working with directors and actors and the neuroses that comes with theatre and putting all your emotions on stage in front of an audience. I think flexibility and a sense of seeing the possibility in things and a way of moulding something into something else, even if it’s come out of a skip, being able to see the potential in things is really important.

Crashing a plane

Reading the book [Lord Of The Flies] and obviously with the plane crash at the beginning, it felt obvious that that was going to be the starting point for whatever the design was going to be. Because Regent’s Park [Open Air Theatre] is obviously site specific and the fact it’s on a flight path with these modern planes going over, and Tim [Sheader, the director] and I really wanted to contemporise it, it felt natural to have one of those planes that literally flies over the audience’s heads, having crashed into Regent’s Park. Obviously that comes with the resonance of relation to modern day events like planes being blown out of the sky with bombs; it felt quite relevant.

I think the thing that I was trying to explore with it is the idea of it starting as a very manmade object and it slowly degrades and eventually becomes fossilised or skeletal by the end, so it’s got this whale-like idea about it – this creature, this living, breathing thing flies in, crashes and then has a life and a journey of its own.

Did everyone go ‘Oh, this is going to be fine?’ I don’t think so! I think everyone was a bit shocked. We would never have been able to build the plane entirely that well and make it look real so the instinct was to go and find a real plane to blow up rather than construct the whole thing from scratch with all those curves and shapes.

We all become slightly nerdy in our knowledge of planes and the Production Manager, Matt, and myself did a lot of research. Matt basically found this salvage yard and we went on a jolly down to Hampshire one day, in the snow, and found this 747 and a couple of other planes and then this plane just sitting rotting in this kind of plane graveyard. It was just bizarre. Just the size and the scale of these things is incredible. I thought we didn’t stand a chance in hell of being able to buy one with the money we had, but actually it was relatively cheap for what we got! The engine that’s on stage, apparently they get converted normally into sofas for the discerning gentleman, which is a bit random. We’re thinking it’ll make a good hot tub.

It basically was a complete plane without the wings, and the engines were separate, so we drew lines on where I wanted it to be cut up and we did a controlled explosion. The horizontal tail where they [the cast] stand up and the vertical tail fin are constructions, so they were built separately in the scenic workshop, so it all had to be joined together. They did it amazingly; I can’t believe they managed to do it.

I worked with a props maker on the pig. Prop makers are amazing people in that they’re like clothes makers, they’re really vigorous at finding out how something will work and needs to be constructed to make it happen. So I presented what I thought was an idea to a props maker and then she took that forward and made it actually achievable. In terms of that prop I was slightly less involved than I would normally be because it was a taxidermy job to an extent, but I was adamant it had to have real boar skin and what it had to look like, I sent all the references and sizes through. Some props I’ll do complete drawings for with exact sizes.

Working in the great outdoors

The weather is pretty hardcore, the fact that one day it’s raining and the next day it’s serious sunshine. It’s like a suntrap so the set gets such an amount of heat so the timber does warp and do weird things and things don’t stay in place and degrade with the rain.

The one thing I think is important is to create that operatic sense of space and set in the place. With those trees that are literally 20 metres high in the backdrop, you need to be able to place something against that that’s as big and as strong. You also need to join the auditorium to the stage because the audience does so much of the evening in daylight, you need to pull the two together otherwise you do end up with a very separate experience as an audience member. That was what the clothes strewn into the trees do and the engines planted actually in the auditorium, hence joining the two.

The clothes are terribly open to the elements. They’re all cable tied on and secure so they won’t go anywhere in wind, but in rain they just do get sodden. The other thing is rats. What you don’t want to do is create amazing rats’ nests everywhere. There are all these bizarre things you need to be aware of, like foxes, especially when you’ve got people crawling around on their hands and knees.

Researching the details

The research is the fun bit, it’s really exciting. When I did Kursk [at the Young Vic], we went on nuclear submarines which was amazing. They don’t come in very often and we got permission and had to sign lots of documents to allow us to go on and know these secrets. I talked to people on the boat about what they did and the practicalities of it while secretly taking snaps on my phone and making quick measurements and getting a feel for what it was as a space. It’s all strip lit and really low. I kept on banging my head, and most sailors, you’d think they’d all be 5”2, but they’re actually 6”2, so they’re all banging their heads, even if they’ve been on it forever. The smell of urine mixed with diesel oil was astounding. It was a bizarre experience; I don’t know how they do it.

Greatest achievement

I think Kursk is up there as one of them. I was really proud of the scale of what we achieved with so little money on that show and it was massive. The team was brilliant and we were very close by the end of it because literally everyone had a spanner in their hands at some point by the end of it, including the directors, which was good!

We’ve just done a show called Howl which is in the Linbury at the moment which we made in Switzerland with a new choreographer called Andrea Miller which is very exciting in that it feels very new and modern and edgy.  My work with Filter, for Silence and Water, just the process more than necessarily the outcome was really exciting and really informed my way of working. And then I suppose on a grand scale something like the King Lear at the RSC was an ambition. It was great fun and so epic. I’m designing the entire season next year for them so I’m quite looking forward to using and challenging the new RSC [theatres] a bit.

I’d love to design something to do with space, I really would. Orbit and all that comes with it would be really amazing. I’d like to do more opera and I like things that have an emotional content to it, essentially a heart, so less about realism and more about poetry or an emotion that sits behind something quite powerfully, say in a piece of Wagner where you can really express something incredibly strongly on such an epic scale that goes from one point in a spectrum to another point by the end. That’s the kind of thing I’d be interested in doing more of.

Lord Of The Flies runs until 18 June at the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre.



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