Jon Bausor is a London-based stage designer. After transitioning into stage design from working in music and theatre, he has designed for various national theatres, operas and ballets, as well as the 2012 London Paralympics. His latest work is for Scottish Opera’s adaptation of Ainadamar – Osvaldo Golijov’s flamenco-infused tale of the death of Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca – which opens in Glasgow on 29th October before travelling to Edinburgh, Detroit and New York.
What is a stage designer?
So, I design the visuals and creative concept for the piece of work, the whole picture. It’s the scenery, it’s the props, it is everything that you see. In my case I also design the costumes. I design the visual world that is created around the performers.
But the thing about stage design to remember is that there are so many iterations of it. Stage design exists in bands touring stadiums, theatre, ballet, contemporary dance, in film design and even into the world of television, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? People specialise, but you can have a large range.
A set design for an opera, versus a backdrop and lectern quiz show, obviously must be different.
Totally. And they are slightly different arts. One is dramatising a narrative that evolves in front of your eyes. You are taken into a world and emotionally feel it. Whereas in a TV show you are essentially trying to create an interesting, aesthetically-pleasing package, an identity. There is a different set of work that comes with that, but we cross-fertilize ideas between them.
Once you are approached for a project, what are the steps that you take to turn an idea into a set?
People often have a text or piece of music in mind. Sometimes we make it from scratch, but if a work does exist, I read that, or listen to it, contemplate it, and then come up with ideas for that world. From there I create drawings and a three dimensional scale model of what that set might look like. I have a studio, and we build the original model that I produce drawings and engineering, and from there we build the scenery. Then that passes to the set builders, the painters, etcetera. They are often either a mixture of freelancers or a company. Scottish Opera has a production company, so they build the costumes and sets on site in Edington Street (Glasgow). But often companies do not have that, so it goes out to tender.
Are there other stage designers you are inspired by?
Of my contemporaries, I am a big fan of Soutra Gilmour, and Ian MacNeil, who did An Inspector Calls which will come here in May. World stage designers have inspired me too, whether that be Mark Fisher with big stadium gigs, or designers like Michael Levine.
Stage design is almost the definition of behind the scenes work. How did you get into it?
Oh, we could be here forever. I got into theatre by mistake and ended up an actor for The Royal Shakespeare Company. I was in sixth-form at the time, and the designer for a show cut my hair off – I had long, Kurt Cobain hair – because he decided that the part had cropped hair. Then, during the preview period, he put a wig on me which was essentially the same as before! At that point I started crying and decided I would never act again. But I got this buzz that whoever this person is that gets to have these choices, what an amazing job. I went on and became a trained musician, but then retrained as a set designer.
Do you mind that actors and directors steal the limelight?
(Laughs) Yes and no. I’m not seeking the limelight. For me the piece is everything: the acting and the world we create is equal. The only thing that frustrates me is that sometimes the director gets all the credit for something that we as a team create. The days of the patriarchal hierarchy, of one auteur shouting ‘This is what I want!’, don’t exist any more.
What can you say about Ainadamar?
Firstly, it is amazing. Golijov has created this incredible piece of music which is very contemporary – it uses electronic sampling and live music, so there is a lot going on. He has created this beautiful score to a beautiful story, the death of Lorca via the actress Margarida Xirgu. It all exists in her memory, and it is quite ephemeral I suppose. It allows us to go beyond the grounded world of a normal opera.
What have you aimed to achieve in your designs for Ainadamar?
To create a thing that is not conventional – something that is textural and kinetic. And we have a little bit of conjuring on stage, using video and light, like contemporary light installation art, to conjure space in a way that feels less like bits of scenery being lit. The director, Deborah Colker, is interested in movement, so the set is another character, constantly evolving to tell the story. Nothing is static
Is there anything in this set that you would say is your pièce de résistance?
I think there are a couple of ‘wow’ moments. It is something I aim to do, like a magician trying to conjure pictures in front of the audience’s eyes. I did it for the Paralympics, imagining something like a Large Hadron Collider. In this show we are creating The Big Bang live on stage.
Do the Glasgow and Edinburgh locations provide the same possibilities?
Edinburgh is a much bigger stage, so if we had started there we would be designing in a different way, but I had to work to the footprint of the Theatre Royal (Glasgow). For Edinburgh it will have more air around it, but exist within that same footprint. Later, for the Met Opera (New York), it will expand further because it has a massive stage. But there has to be a practical way in which we build; we are building it once, it needs to travel quickly, and you can’t remake it.
So when a production goes on tour, how do you approach encountering multiple venues?
I always create a composite, so the worst bits of everything: the shallowest stage, the least wide proscenium arches. To see what would work, you build out from the composite plan. It means that sometimes you allow it to spill out a little bit in the smaller venues so it doesn’t look silly or dwarfed in the larger venues. But you are always building towards a composite.
Finally, if anyone wanted to get into stage design, where should they begin?
It is quite a hard thing to get into. I would first suggest doing research on The Society of British Theatre Designers. There is also a new exhibition at the V&A in London on design for musical theatre, which should tour around the country. Go see work, and if you are inspired by the images on stage, do research – most designers have websites where you can write to them. And there are courses. The Royal Conservatoire has a course, there are some in London, there is one in Wales; they are around.
Ainadamar is showing at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 29th October, 2nd & 5th November, and at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on 8th,10th & 12th November.
All photo credits: James Glossop