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Sara Perks on Designing for Shows and Spaces

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Rumour has it that you're transforming the Mercury Theatre stage for Assumption. Can you let us into some secrets about this transformation?
Well, secrets wouldn’t be secrets if I told everyone…so people will have to come to find out themselves! Seriously, Assumption is a beautiful, thoughtful and “contained” play that opens discussion on some fundamental human truths so I wanted to design a simple playing space that allows it to speak and breathe.

What I am hoping is that we have created an intimate space (the auditorium has been reduced so the play will reach out more directly to the audience), that uses the storytelling nature of the best to its best effect, and is supported by one simple but stunning effect behind the action.

You're an associate designer for the Mercury. What exactly does this entail?

I generally design one or two of the plays there a year, and have a close relationship with the acting company and all the resident staff in the production departments. This does give us all a shorthand and enables us to work quickly and to the best advantage under the restrictions(usually time and budget!) that are placed upon a production.

But this in itself is not just what an associate does. As associate, I can act as a sounding board to the artistic and management teams when required, and from the very specific point of view of a designer. I also collect feedback at the end of every season from both visiting creatives and the resident departments (workshop, scenic, stage management and costume) on issues that have arisen – both positive and negative.

We hope this allows us to address anything that is not working smoothly, allows us to grow as a company and encourage and expand any particular areas of strength. The theory is it also makes for a happier working environment, and gives the staff a sense of ownership and therefore pride over their work.

What other productions have you designed for the Mercury?

Some of my highlights I would say are Under Milk Wood (set in a public house, with surprise entrances for the inhabitants of Llareggub through floors, wall, out of cupboards and a beautiful Rosie Probert drowning outside a frosted blue window, complete with seaweed and coral), and Journey’s End (we took the cast to Taff Gillingham’s own recreated World War One trench outside Ipswich. He taught them drill and how to tie their own putties, for as genuine an experience as possible).

Depot (the huge site-specific project in the old tram and bus depot on Magdalen Road in Colchester. had a professional cast of 12, a 55-strong community company,and we costumed the audience of 130 every night – a truly immersive experience, which ultimately ended in our audience starting a revolution at the end of each performance.)

And elsewhere?
I am currently working at The Royal and Derngate, Northampton, on JB Priestley’s Eden End for Laurie Sansom. English Touring Theatre are taking it out on a short national tour after the Northampton run. I was associate designer for ETT a number of years ago, and worked on many productions as well as designing Romeo and Juliet for them which toured nationally and to the Hong Kong Art Festival. I also designed Sansom’s Young America season for Northampton, which transferred to the National Theatre last year.

Beyond The Horizon
and Spring Storm were respectively Eugene O’Neill’s and Tennessee Williams’ first full-length plays, and we played them in rep with each other on a semi-shared space exploring the parallels between the two pieces. I designed the most recent Christmas show at Curve ( Leicester) – The King and I – which is due for a big tour later in the year. I also did Hot Stuff! at Curve last year. I worked for Red Ladder on two new writing pieces – Forgotten Things and Ugly.

Earlier projects include Neil LaBute’s Helter Skelter/Land of The Dead /The Furies at the Bush Theatre and a subsequent tour for Dialogue Productions, Wedding Day At The Cromagnons (Soho Theatre), Treasure Island (Derby Playhouse); a co-design for The Elixir of Love (Grange Park Opera); Beckett’s Rough For Theatre 1 & 2 ( Arts Theatre, London); Return To The Forbidden Planet (a national tour); Singin’ In The Rain (Hereford), Dead Funny (Oldham and a national tour); The Crypt Project (a site-specific piece at St Andrew’s London for Sincera Productions), The Ladykillers (Northcott Exeter) and Union Street – Plymouth Theatre Royal’s millennium project with a cast of 230!

Very early on in my career I designed the original and several subsequent productions of the cult space-rock musical Saucy Jack and The Space Vixens, one of which was in its own nightclub at the arches under London Bridge. I would love to have another crack at it sometime with a little more resources than gaffer tape and black plastic!

How did you train?

I originally did a BA honours degree at the University of Kent in drama. Which was great retrospectively speaking, in that it taught me the literature side of things – that is how to really read a play, and how to put it in context both socially and within its own theatre history. After working in the industry for a few years – dressing, wigs/wardrobe deputy and touring with the big musicals I decided to go back and train more specifically at Bristol Old Vic on the post-graduate design course under Penny Fitt and Andrea Montag.

It was the best decision I ever made. The course is unique in that it only takes four students a year, and, except for the theoretical projects you work on in the first term, you get to have all your designs realised. So sets are built and played on for two weeks and costumes made and worn for the duration of the run.

There is no better way to learn than to experience the full process – from the initial elaborate enthusiastic creative discussions with a director right down to having to change a pair of shoes because the actress has developed bunions overnight, or re-design a set piece because it really doesn’t fit on the van!

It concerns me that very many of the design courses available seem to lay enormous emphasis on the model box, when in actuality the model box is just part of a bigger whole.

What design work have you lined up for the future?

There are a few things in the pipeline but not confirmed. I am set to design the Christmas show for The Royal & Derngate, Northampton – an anarchic new version of Alice In Wonderland by Phil Porter. I am also doing a commercial co–production here at the Mercury – Rhinestone Mondays, which is going out on tour in September. I do a lot of serious and classic plays, and sometimes its very refreshing to have a bit of chaos and/or sequins....

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