i know: the design process / alyson cummins

alyson cummins, may 2015


Working on this show has been a more unusual design process because the show is being devised during the rehearsal period. Natalie has written a beautiful and moving outline for the show and so my job, as I saw it, has been to work with Natalie to create a space for her, Annie (the choreographer) and the actors to begin to make this story in three dimensions.

I began by looking at different art works dealing with the subjects of grief, family and memory. I was really inspired by David Hockney’s photo collages of his Mother and how he deals with the idea of memory. Other artists I was interested in were Erik Olofson and Gordon Matta Clark and how they look at subverting the idea of safety inherent in an image of domesticity and the home.

David_Hockney_-_Mother_I_(1985) erik-olofson

Our story begins in a happy family home during a mealtime. It seems sudden and unexpected but in the second scene the Mother has died and we are at her funeral. From then on we watch the parallel but very separate journeys of grief that the Father and Son go on. As communication breaks down and they become more distant I began to think of them as being in separate spaces although they are in the same house. I started to think of a floor / space which breaks apart and forms these different islands which each one inhabits at a different time.

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I also wanted to look at a space that could react and respond to the grief that the characters are feeling and at the same time transform with them throughout their journey. I became interested in the idea that somehow breaking down the space could be seen as a manifestation of their grief, a way to lay the space bare and bring them to a kind of basic or elemental place reflecting the characters when they reach their lowest point, a pivotal moment when they actually begin to communicate again and start on a journey of shared grief.

At this point, after testing the ideas in a storyboard I went on to build a model. I began looking at a floor that broke up in to many pieces, like shattered glass

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Natalie, Annie and I then worked together to rationalise the space on stage and how it could work conceptually as well as practically and it terms of the tour

We looked at how we could make the idea of breaking down the space work. We became interested in the idea that the Son, as part of his grief and anxiety could worry away at pieces of wallpaper throughout the show, eventually tearing away great sections of it and exposing his bedroom behind.

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We continued to work through the concept and as we worked with the production manager, Matt and builder, Tipp from Watford Palace Theatre, I became more focused on the space reflecting the fact that grief is at the centre of their story and so grief would be at the centre of the house. I began to think of the whole space pivoting around this central darkness and loss. The geometry of their house becomes warped and everything is pulled in.

There are a series of doorframes around this centre. This allows the moments of seperation but observation that occurs in the story where for example the Father watches the Son suffering but yet cannot reach out to him.

The space beomes broken down and opened up as they work through their grief. The Son’s grief is manifested in his tearing away at wallpaper which reveals his bedroom. The Father’s room behind gauze is lit to reveal his moments of intense grief which happen for him, in private at the dead of night.

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The bones of the set have been built so that it can be used in rehearsals. It’s essential for the set and furniture to be present for the devising process in order for the actors, Natalie and Annie to react to and work with it. Here is a picture of the walls beling built in watford Palace Theatre’s workshops.




alyson cummins‘ set and costume design includes: The Wishmaker Bernie Grant Arts Centre (Haringey Shed);  Pentecost Lyric Belfast – winner of best set design Irish Times Theatre Awards; Be Infants in Evil Druid; Summertime Tinderbox; It’s a Family Affair (We’ll Settle it Ourselves…)Sherman Cymru; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying The Company at Lowry Salford;  Mixed Marriage Lyric Theatre Belfast;Before it Rains Bristol Old Vic & Sherman Cymru;  Pornography, Waking Exploits; Pigeon,Carpet theatre; Ruben Guthrie, Iron Bark;  How the World Began, Arcola theatre (Tom Atkins);Hamlet, Second Age; Colleen BawnProject/Civic/Bedrock; Serious Money and Dying City Rough Magic AIB SEEDS; Extremities, Spark to a Flame; Crosswired, East London dance festival; The Trials of Brother Jero; Through a Film Darkly, Arambe; Ya Get Me, Old Vic education department. Set design includes: Heartbreak House; The Risen People; Quietly; Perve and No Escape (for the Abbey Theatre). The Trailer of Bridget Dinnigan,ITM; Off Plan, Project arts centre (RAW). Associate designer for Rae Smith: The Prince of the Pagodas Birmingham Royal Ballet; Rite of Spring & Petrushka, Fabulous Beast. Design associate: Les Troyens at La Scala (Royal Opera House). alyson studied architecture at UCD and trained at Motley. She was a finalist in the Linbury biennial prize for stage design 2007.

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