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Rural touring: Designing a miniature lighthouse for village halls

Will Holt, the designer of a new piece by choreographer Ben Wright which runs at village halls across the UK, explains the challenges of designing for the touring circuit

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Point of Echoes is the eighth artistic collaboration between choreographer Ben Wright and myself – a relationship that has developed mostly through commissions for Skånes Dansteater in Sweden. Unlike our previous work together, which has predominantly been large-scale works developed for the massive opera house in Malmö, Point of Echoes required us to focus on the small and intimate environments found on the UK rural touring circuit.

Designing shows for village halls can be a challenge. There's all of the usual practical considerations you would expect such as tight get-in windows, a limited budget, and the unpredictability of what are mostly non-theatre venues, but we still wished to give our audiences an experience above and beyond their expectations and in keeping with the visual style of the other work we have created together.

I was really excited by the idea of a pop-up lighthouse experience which would turn up at village halls across the country

The conversation began in November 2015 when I joined Ben and writer/composer Stuart Warwick on a darkroom residency as part of the rural touring dance initiative. Ben and Stuart had the seed of an idea of a ghost story set in a lighthouse. I was really excited by the idea of a pop-up lighthouse experience which would turn up at village halls across the country for one night only. As the show is about two men stranded in a lighthouse it seemed a natural choice that our performance area should be an island, surrounded by a sea of audience.

I was also passionate that the audience should be immersed in the design, so they in turn would be encircled by a watery horizon leaving as little trace as possible of the respective building that would be hosting us. The sight lines in village halls are typically terrible so it also became apparent pretty quickly that the performance area should be raised to a level at which everyone would enjoy a good view of the show. The notion was effectively to create the footprint of a lighthouse in which the various layers could be suggested by the addition of furniture, set dressing or an architectural element.

At one point Ben and I got really energised about the idea of presenting a perfect dolls' house scale version of the lighthouse beside the main performance area, potentially requiring a completely different style of performance, combining live action and puppetry. However as the writing developed it soon became apparent such a strategy was not going to be appropriate for this particular production.

The aesthetic of the final design presents elements in their simplest form – water, stone, wood – presented with photographic naturalism. The steps that travel around the edge of the stage both frame the action and provid the suggestion of access to floors above and below.

How we would present the light itself at the height of a storm was the product of much trial and error, working within the parameters of what the performers were able to construct in the time frame and what was technologically possible. The solution was neat and effective and made great use of the four trap doors built into the stage, which allowed multiple storage options for props and furniture over the course of the show.

Every space that the show visits provides a slightly different set of conundrums for us to think about – unwanted light, the type of audience chairs, the position of fire exits, or the room itself being substantially bigger or smaller than the day before. These challenges are what make rural touring so special. You have to consider every eventuality and have enough flexibility in the design for the most unexpected problems when they inevitably arise. This show is a little gem that will hopefully delight and surprise people wherever it appears.

Point of Echoes is touring village halls up and down the country until 17 March.

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