Step backstage at a West End theatre and you cross a threshold: all the gold gilt grandeur at the front just ends. Backstage at the Playhouse, for example, walls are scratched, the floors are scuffed and old, out-of-favour in-jokes hang on the walls. These rooms have been lived in. They have history.
Designer Anna Fleischle has an eye for the details of daily life; the scars we leave on spaces. Sitting in a dressing room that’s waiting for Matthew Perry, soon to star in his own debut play The End of Longing, she clocks immediately that it’s had a lick of paint quite recently. “I notice spaces quite strongly,” she says. “I’ll walk down the street and really experience the differences from one road to another.”
A sense of place drew her to The End of Longing. Set in Los Angeles, it’s a play about four people trying to make sense of city life and middle age. “A lot of the locations are busy – real city spaces – but there’s always this sense of loneliness about them, as if everyone else is on the outside.” She turned to Edward Hopper’s paintings – “that clash of artificial and natural light” – to find the feeling of “great places with real promise, but eerie and unsettling at the same time”, as she puts it. “I think you can be loneliest among a lot of people.”
The Bolton pub she created for Martin McDonagh’s stout-black comedy Hangmen was full of the same wear-and-tear you find backstage: wooden panels rubbed down by drinkers’ knees; frayed rope hanging from a last orders bell; a picture frame knocked askew, waiting to be put straight. Harry Wade’s pub was so lifelike – the go-to phrase is ‘lovingly realised’ – you felt you could have stepped through the door into 1964.
Fleischle and her stage managers had stuffed it with period details – an old wooden Woodbine dispenser on the wall; a clunky ‘ching-ching’ cash register; wood panelling, chipped at the edges; chintzy wall lights; frosted glass. You knew this place. You knew its smell and its stagnancy. This was old England – not the swinging sixties of stock archive footage, all bell-bottoms and Beatlemania, but a corner of the country yet to catch up.
“I was a bit nervous about it at first,” she admits, “because not only am I not northern, I’m not even English. But it interested me that pubs are social places, where you go when you don’t want to be lonely, to talk and to listen. They have a character, but they’re also organic: all these funny corners, things that have changed five times, little alterations over time.”
That room might have won Fleischle her two major design awards – the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle prizes – alone, but there were two more in Hangmen: an institutional brick cell in a Victorian prison and a hip English cafe infused with Americana. “The beauty of theatre,” she explains, “is that you can tell so many stories just in the way you go from one scene to another. There can be metaphors for what’s underlying the story.” The prison cell floated upwards like a soul leaving its body; the cafe appeared in a concealed chamber.
Fleischle’s designs are often dynamic. The concrete pit for Simon Stephens’ Blindsided flooded with water. Liberian Girl at the Royal Court played in promenade on a red-earth floor with carts coming into the space. For DV8’s John, a structure of wooden walls and doorways spun on a revolve, dancers tumbling through. “A design is only satisfying to me if it builds a full arc.”
These impulses – one very British and traditional, the other more continental and contemporary – allow Fleischle to straddle the width of design practice. “What I like most about Anna,” says her long-term collaborator Matthew Dunster, Hangmen’s director, “is that she has no truck with fashion whatsoever.”
Fleischle grew up in Munich, where she had a hands-on education at a Steiner school. Theatre played a big part in that. At 16 she came to England on a school exchange and, after two terms, vowed to return for good. I just felt like this was where I wanted to live, where I wanted to be,” she explains. London wasn’t just bigger than Munich, it felt far more diverse and less judgemental. “I found that absolutely liberating.”
After school she studied at Central Saint Martins, a foundation year first, then the performance design course. It has a strong track record: alumni include designers as diverse as Bunny Christie, Miriam Buether and Alison Chitty.
What was your first non-theatre job? I used to cut people’s hair for cash and worked as a nurse’s aide in a hospital.
What was your first professional theatre job? Allerleirauh, Theater Erlangen, Germany.
What is your next job? Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Melly Still..
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? How little money we generally earn and how difficult it will be to make your path, especially when also wanting to have a family.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I owe most to my parents and my upbringing through Steiner-Waldorf Education, which made me a free thinker and a confident and diplomatic person.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been? I have always wanted to illustrate a book.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I am always intrigued by where these superstitions and rituals come from and like the idea of them, but I don’t really believe in superstitions.
“What makes good design for me,” she continues, “is honesty; honesty deals with a story without trying to have a style.” (She always says story, not script.) “I never think about design in an external way – ‘that’ll be cool’ or ‘nobody’s done that before’ – because that shouldn’t matter. Sometimes I think a good design is one you don’t notice; a design that works with everything else onstage. I try, always, to approach each story differently.”
That’s at the root of her collaboration with Dunster. The two go back 20 shows, to their own fringe collective The Work, and no two productions look or feel the same. “What I get from Anna more than anybody else is process,” says Dunster. “It’s a slow process, lots of conversations and to-ing and fro-ing, but it’s detailed and it’s sophisticated. She’s not in any rush to prove herself.”
Fleischle elaborates: “I try, for as long as possible, not to pin myself down. There are lots of different routes a design can go down and the longer you can keep in that state, finding out about the play before making your decisions, the better.”
It’s why she suits devised theatre specialists such as Lloyd Newson of DV8 and Complicite’s Simon McBurney, for whom she has just designed Beware of Pity at the Schaubuhne in Berlin. The key, she says, is not being precious. “It’s all about what you create together. Lloyd and Simon might spend five days making something, then decide they don’t need it. If they’re brave enough to do that, I have to be brave enough to go along with it.”
The industry itself can militate against such things – and Fleischle points out how much more support designers receive in Germany. The Schaubuhne, for example, has dedicated facilities for design processes and subsidy rates allow for significantly higher fees. When she accepted her Critics’ Circle award last month, she spoke, insistently, about the difficulties of balancing a design career with motherhood.
“Quite often, I earned less in a day than my nanny would,” she clarifies today, “so you absolutely have to be in a position where you can afford to take work.” The impact of that is huge: “A lot of female designers think they have to make a choice: if they’re serious about the profession, they probably shouldn’t have children. That’s very sad.”
The issue extends beyond motherhood, though. Designers have to fund their own assistants. “In Germany every theatre would provide you with an assistant” – just as British theatres put assistant directors on the payroll. The impact of that trickles down: emerging designers end up facing low fees, the best an individual designer can afford to pay them. “There’s a big misconception about design. Two thirds of the work we do doesn’t get seen by anyone.”
Born: Munich, Germany, 1971
Training: Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London
Landmark productions: Hangmen (Royal Court), John/Can We Talk About This (DV8 Physical Theatre/National Theatre), Love and Money (Young Vic/Royal Exchange), Loves Sacrifice (RSC), Beware of Pity (Schaubuhne Berlin/Complicite)
Awards: Critics’ Circle Award 2015 best designer (Hangmen), Evening Standard Award for best design (Hangmen) 2015, Olivier award for outstanding achievement in opera 2014 (English Touring Opera, King Priam and Paul Bunyan), Australian Helpmann Award 2012 for best ballet or dance work (DV8 Physical Theatre, Can We Talk About This), German Tanz award for production of the year 2012 (DV8 Physical Theatre, Can We Talk About This)
Agent: Mel Kenyon, Casarotto Ramsay and Associates Ltd