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Roller derby drama: recreating the risk of contact sport onstage

Nat Tarrab of Mars.tarrab explains the designs behind the company's Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award-winning show, which opens at the Barbican next week

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When we started making Roller, it was an investigation of the contact sport roller derby. But since then, it has become many other things. I take the design rein because of my background but it very much comes out of our work between myself and Rachel Mars. It's the creative process which births the design concept. It's one of the brilliant things about how we work - the design is integral.

There won't be any skaters - we're not trying to recreate a roller derby, because we're theatre makers. But environmentally it feels similar because we've laid a floor down in the Pit theatre at the Barbican which is like a gym floor. It's pine, with the basketball and netball court markings. So it does feel as though you're about to watch a roller derby but then you become profoundly and entirely dispossessed of that notion.

The front seats in roller derby are high risk, which is a little like the front row seats of our production

We removed the banks of seats in the Pit, so the space has become a large rectangle and within that we've created a horseshoe of seats with some tiered seats behind it. Basically the front row is where the roller derby aesthetic is begun in the space. We've hired bucket seats – the ones you sit on for your exam and sports events – and there are a couple of gym mats. When you go to roller derby there are the high risk front row seats where you are really, really close to the action, which is a little like the front row seats of our production.

The mood board for the set of Roller

What we wanted to do was deconstruct the theatre experience, so we wanted to remove any recognisable element from it. But we weren't able to achieve that completely because of health and safety regulations. So we've replicated it in the front row seating.

Even though you don't have skates on, there's a really strong feeling of being in it together

Roller derby audiences are very active participants and that was something we also wanted to borrow. If you bring your audience right up around you, they become complicit. That's something you also see in roller derby: even though you don't have skates on, there's a really strong feeling of being in it together. Talking to audiences is a recurring theme for us as a company, we never pretend they aren't there. Direct address to the audience is always within what we do.

In the piece, the number of people on stage grows over the one hour ten minutes of the show. It's like a critical mass growing onstage – there's nine in total, but the dream version would have been 50. Then the audience and the stage merges and we are hoping the audience will rally behind us.

ROLLER runs in The Pit, Barbican Centre from 23 November to 2 December.