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Dressing for drama: Direction and design 

In conversation with STC’s Kip Williams and Alice Babidge in the first of a series on creative partnerships

Matthew Drummond
Online Editor

A play needs tension to propel the drama forward. And to stage a play, some tension behind the scenes can be just as important.

Keeping the creative tension flowing, Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams says, is key to his relationship with frequent collaborator, the costume and set designer Alice Babidge. The two have a ‘shared relentlessness,’ Williams says, that continues to drive them ever further. In Tennessee William’s Suddenly Last Summer they used live cameras and close-ups to take the audience closer into the lives of the characters. In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons they gambled on collapsing the set in the final scene and in their most recent collaboration, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream they had faeries with enlarged sexual organs engage in an orgy with their queen, Titania, dressed in a gold sequinned dress that lit the stage like a mirror ball.

Creating such unforgettable moments on stage requires, Williams and Babidge agree, an exceptionally strong relationship between the director and the person designing the costumes and sets. That relationship, says Williams, requires plenty of intuition ­– and sometimes, adds Babidge, the other person should just work harder to interrogate why an idea is good.

When they unite again in late 2017 to stage Chekov’s Three Sisters at the Opera House it will be their eighth collaboration. In the first of a series on the creative partnerships behind Australia’s best performing art, the Sydney Opera House asked Williams and Babidge why two heads are better than one.

Sitting in Kip Williams’ office in Walsh Bay, we began by talking about the critically acclaimed, and surprisingly dark, STC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Kip WilliamsA Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play I ever encountered – I was thirteen - and at that point in time I wasn’t aware that the play was widely celebrated as a frothy comedy. For me, the play seemed to contain a darkness, particularly around the sexual awakening of the lovers, and the power play between Titania and Oberon. Despite seeing many different interpretation, that response to the play stayed with me. When I came to direct the play, the design conversation that Babs and I embarked up began with that understanding of the text.

“There's a shared relentlessness in the two of us.”

Kip Williams

But because we’ve worked with each other so much it often doesn’t require much more than that initial conversation to allow the design to spring into life with clarity. Sometimes that conversation starts with identifying the biggest challenge the play holds. On Dream, I remember a long time before we started rehearsals, a year out, one of Babs’ responses was that cracking the faeries was going to be a big challenge.

Alice Babidge: And as a reason to not to do the play! Putting a fairy on stage is just the most daunting task - for a director, for an actor and to costume. If you’re trying to say anything that isn’t wings and Tinkerbel and some kind of great version of fantasy that I adore but isn’t the kind of theatre that I want to make. It’s really difficult.

Matthew Drummond: Yet the fairies were among the most memorable costumes from the show. There seemed to be a bit of Walter Van Beirendonck inspiration behind them?

AB: Yeah and a lot of Polly Borland. We had to work out how we’d do the faeries. And I did say once we’ve cracked the faeries everything else will fall into place.

MD: How did you crack them?

AB: I remember there was a picture in this office when it was Andrew and Cate’s office [former co-artistic directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett], which I loved. It was a Polly Borland photograph and in passing I said to Kip; ‘the fairies are all going to be Polly Borland and that’s the only way to do it and I think we’re just going to do that.’

MD: What were you doing by deciding that?

AB: I was finding an aesthetic. And I was finding a way to make a creature that didn’t feel like dress up. That felt human and recognisable to us but still felt foreign, and unnerving enough to be other-worldy.

KW: The big challenge of rendering faeries on stage was for them to have any power, supernatural or otherwise, that surpasses the mortal powers of the audience. The answer for us resided in the faeries having an immediate, potent, hyper-sexuality about them that was simultaneously erotic and grotesque. It engendered within them a sense of anarchic abandon that ultimately gave them an authority over the audience. That was the initial springboard from the Borland images, their erotic, other worldly quality.

AB: And often things change. The best costumes are informed by the work that happens in the rehearsal room. It doesn’t matter what my idea is. What matters to me observing, watching everyone work with each other, listening to what they’re saying, talking to the actors. You can put anything on an actor but if they can’t find a way to break the idea down and make it human and make it theirs, then it will never work on stage.

MD: Do you ever have moments of absolute disagreement between each other? 

AB: We get combative. And that’s because we both think we’re always right and we deeply believe in the work being the best it can possibly be. If one of us has a point to make, we will keep making it to the other person.

KW: There’s a shared relentlessness in the two of us.

MD: Do you need tension at times to create incredible art?

AB: You need tension.

KW: What’s good though in the relationship is that in all the productions we’ve done there have been moments of complete intuition on both of our parts, where there’s no need to question the instinct of the other person. There’ll be times where, like the idea for the fairies [in Midsummer], Babs didn’t intellectually break down for me why the Borland world was the springboard. I intuitively got it. Or something like the video screens in Suddenly Last Summer, I didn’t provide an essay on how my instinct for the cameras and screens were a mirroring of Tennesse Williams’ exploration of truth.

I think that’s part of the DNA of collaboration. When there’s an intuitive idea that makes sense to one of us, the other person can get it and go with it and incorporate it into our own intuitive sense of how to make the show.

AB: And sometimes the other person should just work harder to work out why it’s good.

KW: There’s a paradox within this. We’re talking about both an unspoken understanding as well as an unending potential for questioning and challenge our fellow collaborator. Because we make quite visual and abstract work, there’s an expectation from some people that we should immediately be able to unpack it and explain it and justify it. But that’s not always helpful. Sometimes you can only understand these things in retrospect. So in an art-form which is so intensely collaborative, theatre is one of the most collaborative art-forms, there’s a need to have creative relationship where there’s a great propensity to intellectualise ideas, but not an expectation that you should have to do that. That makes is a really fruitful artistic collaboration. It’s about intuition and debate. The more you work with somebody, there more there is a clear understanding where those intuitions overlap.

MD: You’re staging Three Sisters in November. What can you say about the production?

KW: There will be three sisters! I know what I want as the final image. Babs has some really clear ideas.

AB: I’ve designed the set already [laughs].

“We get combative. And that’s because we both deeply believe in the work being the best it can possibly be.”
Alice Babidge

KW: Often there’s a very clear image for an end point or a central point in the production that we work towards and we know that that’s going to land and then it’s about building out and building towards that moment. 

AB: I think that’s because our conversations as direction and design is not about architecture or hem lengths. I’m not just making a set and Kip’s not just directing actors. We’re crafting a production and we’re unpacking a world and we’re making a piece of theatre. What we are doing is making something together. And often the way the world gets unpacked it starts with the end. We go to the end first and we work our way forward. Or we have an idea for an end and beginning and we work our way to the middle.

MD: What’s the world you want to create in Three Sisters

AB: It’s going to start in a world that feels oppressive and heavy and I think it will be a dramatic shift between that and the end of the play. I think we will create a world that is deeply recognisable to us as humans but is not who we are now and where we live now.

MD: With Midsummer was the faeries scene the one you started with? 

KW: Visually, there were a couple. Babs sent me a video on Instagram four month before rehearsals. It was a three year old child wrapped in a piece of gold sequins in her family kitchen, and it looked like nine in the morning and the sun was bursting through a window and this child had found a shaft of light. And she was standing in the light, wrapped in gold sequins, just moving around and the light reflected from the sequins was dancing on the walls…

AB: And I sent it to Kip and said ‘that moment…’

KW: …and the exciting thing is that I knew from that video alone exactly how I was going to reveal Titania in the show, and how the faeries would enter towards her, with the light emanating out from their Queen

MD: Is it possible to elevate the relationship between a director and designer above all other relationships when a really good production happens? 

KW: 100 per cent. With the designer you create the space that lets the actors play.

AB: You need collaboration in general. I think that when you are making a piece of theatre your job title is borderline irrelevant. You’re responsible for making sure that all those things happen, yes.  But your job is to make a piece of threat, as a group.

MD: But is this the most important relationship? If you, Kip, as a director, are getting ready to put on a play, is one of your very first questions – who am I going to get to design it?

KW: Yes. It’s where I crystallise my understanding of the story I’m telling. That conversation I have with the designer.

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