Let's Talk About Sets: Timothy Bird on Exposure the Musical
The designer explains how the set for the new musical resembles a deconstructed camera
The big challenge in designing Exposure the Musical has been how to bring photography alive on-stage. The photograph is a fabulous medium for capturing the moment. Conversely, theatre is not a moment, but a flowing piece of storytelling – or is it? Conceptually we made the decision to try and capture a series of moments throughout the show, which can be both still and in motion in equal measure.
Who is the 'we'? In this case the visual collaboration over the design of the show is very much a combination of what I'm up to with the scenic and video team, interwoven with Carla Goodman's process in conceiving the costumes and characters. All of this has evolved from the on-going conversation with writer Mike Dyer and director and dramaturg Phil Willmott, and tempered by creative thinking from Lindon Barr the choreographer, Ben Cracknell the lighting designer and Ben Harrison the sound designer. Not only that but we've been very fortunate to be collaborating with Mark Collins as MD, who, almost more than any other, is holding together the structure of the storytelling as guardian of the score.
Using projected imagery is our means of bringing photographs to life on stage
It's important to reference this complex collaboration, because with Exposure the set is not just the surface or backdrop where the story takes place - the scenery is as much a performer as the cast themselves. The intricate timing involved in enabling photographs to come alive is thus intimately intertwined with the musical work.
Our other key collaborator for the show has been Matt Butson at Getty Images – a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of some of the world's most iconic imagery. Using projected imagery, much of it from the Getty collection, is our practical means of bringing photographs to life on stage and thus telling this unique story. It's a story about a father (who is a photographer) and son (Jimmy, who becomes a photographer), a story of unrequited love (Pandora – a pop-star who is much photographed), a story of love found (by a girl who doesn't want to be photographed), faith lost but at last regained… you'll have to come and see it.
Even more practically, the physical set is designed to come alive with video projection. It has a simple finish, which hints at photographic film grain. It has some simple mechanical elements – shutters, sliders, deftly moving floor – which serve to reframe the theatrical space and provide appearances and disappearances like a magical cabinet. I suppose there is an extent to which the whole thing has some of the qualities of a deconstructed camera, with its light-trap box and shutter.
The focus of the scenery is always the story. The story is itself a visual dance between moments played by the cast and moments expressed by ever-changing imagery. Sometimes this is a photographic location, telling us where a scene takes place, but we also play with images in sequence, which tell their own story, or by their nature express a concept or a mood. Sometimes the imagery gives itself over to the pure exuberance of the music, like any good rock-show. We hope that we've woven together something not quite seen before, whilst revelling in all the connotations of truth, lies, nostalgia and spectacle embodied both by photography and theatre.
By Timothy Bird
Exposure the Musical runs at the St James Theatre from 28 July to 27 August with previews from now.