Let's Talk About Sets: Jenny Hayton on Handle with Care

We talk to the designer of Dante or Die’s new show ”Handle with Care”

Having rented a self storage unit in the past, I was excited to be invited to design a new play Handle with Care with Dante or Die. The play is a site specific story written by Chloe Moss and Dante or Die about one woman and her belongings through a lifetime of self storage, as we follow her life from 1988 to the present, all performed in storage units around the UK. 

After a few site visits I began by researching why people rent a self storage unit, what they keep there and ideas of space or lack of space; from moving home, running an online business, splitting up, arrival of a child and acquiring more things.

As the performance is played out within the actual units the storage site is the set for the performance. Each individual scene is performed in a different unit of various sizes according to the stage of the character’s life.

As a reflection on ‘stuff ‘we began by devising tasks around individual objects to tell a story. It became clear that it would be difficult to tell this story without things and important to construct the set from items sourced from donations, recycling, free-cycle and house clearance – not more new material things.

Collaborating with a neuroscientist, I drew parallels between the storage of memory in the brain and the layout of the self storage unit. This translated into playing with how the audiences interact with the spaces and creating a different atmosphere per unit to reflect the journey of the character.

Why do we keep sentimental items? Why do we reminisce? What are the most vivid triggers of memory for the brain that I could play with for the audience through colour and smells? What do we consider valuable enough to store?

Creating an element of realism through the use of props I aimed to transform the space with surreal moments as you journey.

Baby clothes in the set of Handle with Care
Baby clothes on the set of Handle with Care

Although similar in design, each self storage building has its own atmosphere, drawing parallels to cold storage units (it can be cold!) and prisons. With a utilitarian, functional feel behind each brightly coloured door and individual unit number is another unique story of peoples’ lives. 

As a touring performance the design is flexible to accommodate different sized units and different layouts per location, with some buildings on two levels.  

It was important that the characters' story and physical space came full circle, integral to the design of both the set and costume, with echoes of images repeated and a cyclical use of the space.

The props used to detail the character Zoe’s life are integral to the set, placing the audience in a timeframe within the uniformity of the units and are carefully chosen to indicate a time period.

Objects chart and archive her life and create a collective memory and trigger for the audience to reflect on their own relationship with material things. 

Rehearsing at Urban Locker Self Storage gave a unique opportunity to work directly in the environment and to encounter the day-to- day activities in the building.

As a working space we have encountered the general public accessing their units during the performance, which adds another layer of the unexpected and becomes interwoven in the performance. That is unpredictable and unique about this location.

By Jenny Hayton

Handle with Care plays at Lok’nStore, Harlow until 15 May then tours to Reading, Poole and the Urban Locker, Old Street London from 2 to 25 June