Cécile Trémolières’ artistic vision has brought a bathing pool, a life-size grizzly bear and the universe to the stage. Returning to London’s Royal Court this month, she talks to Natasha Sutton Williams about conquering her next challenge – the internet
In the past five years, designer Cécile Trémolières’ work has been kaleidoscopic. She has designed sets ranging from a mikvah bathing pool at the Yard to a life-size grizzly bear at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre; from a bullfighter’s love nest at the Royal Opera House to the entire universe at London’s Royal Court.
Next month, she is back at the Court, creating a hyperactive multimedia experience of what it’s like to live between the tabs of an internet browser for Midnight Movie. It’s her third time at the venue in two years.
Written by experimental playwright Eve Leigh, Midnight Movie follows a woman plagued by chronic pain who has trouble sleeping. To distract herself from the physical pain, she goes online, morphing into her digital body.
Presenting a physical portrayal of the internet on stage is notoriously difficult. However, Trémolières relishes the challenge. “The online world becomes the world of the play, with its beauty, unreliability, poetry and dangers. It’s a formal collage of different stories and images, like 30 open tabs running simultaneously on your computer screen.”
She continues: “It’s difficult to design because the internet is so varied. For me it’s not about beautiful, clean, 2001 Space Odyssey style ‘modern’ spaces. It’s about pixels, poor-quality pictures, strange colours, and a mosaic of images that don’t usually belong together. It’s a challenge because it’s the visual world of our generation – we are the first ones to constantly ‘live’ in it. The internet is by essence non-theatrical, non-physical. The design challenge was to translate the emotional reality of the virtual to the reality of the stage.”
Trémolières says that key to getting the design was finding a language and aesthetic for the play, and after that “it felt much easier to make choices. We’ve blended the fakery of theatre, the DIY aspect of the internet, layers of images, strange slow videos, and the feeling of being in a queer cinema from the late 1970s.”
This production creatively combines spoken English, British Sign Language, captioning, audio description and live drumming in every performance. In a true expression of form meeting content, audience members who are physically unable to attend the show can engage with Midnight Movie’s digital body: a nightly online interactive component of the play.
So not only did Trémolières need to conjure a physical representation of the internet, she had to integrate access into the set design. “One layer of the play is about disability, and the world being unfit for your well-being. The question of access is part of the narrative, so it felt natural to blend it within the design. It was another layer of language and meaning.”
She adds: “Designing for audience members with different impairments makes you realise everyone perceives the world in a different way. We have a British Sign Language performer who uses a language most people can’t understand, which emphasises this complicated access to the world and the internet. It’s a beautiful, clever way to make this difficulty very real to an audience. It’s also a mind-blowing journey into someone else’s appreciation of the world.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I moved boxes for a month in an architectural practice.
What was your first professional theatre job?
After the Linbury Prize, I worked with Impermanence Dance Theatre, making a six-module outdoor touring structure that could create different shapes. It could be used as set, audience seating, or as a hut for its workshops.
What is your next job?
Designing Manon Lescaut by Puccini in Mainz, Germany; designing Wuthering Heights at Manchester’s Royal Exchange; designing the opera Edmea at the Wexford Festival, Ireland.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Enjoy it. You have the power to say no. People are here to support you, not to make you feel small.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Individuals who are true to themselves, keep cool and stay open minded.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
I have no idea. When I retire I want to be an activist. I may not have any choice.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I feel like my entire life is made out of mini superstitions and rituals.
For all her successes, Trémolières is troubled by the work pressures experienced by freelances, particularly the expectation that they should be working all day, everyday – that a designer doesn’t deserve a job unless they are ready to make real sacrifices. She baulks at the fact theatre employers are not held to account the way they would be in other industries.
“Employers expect people to take care of themselves, instead of having proper employer-employee relationships,” she says. “There are no paid holidays, no maternity leave, no pension, no cover when you’re ill. Accepting this fact as normal is dangerous. It’s a big problem, and theatres seem incapable of dealing with it. In France, the state pays theatre, cinema and television professionals each day they don’t work. You receive an amount at the end of each month, as long as you work the equivalent of three months a year. The system has its own problems, but it shows there is support for the art world, and an understanding that it is a specific, precarious working environment.”
Ever since she was small, Trémolières has been designing and creating imaginary worlds. Growing up in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris, she spent long holidays with her siblings drawing, putting on plays, building huge models out of Playmobil, taking over the entirety of her grandparents’ garage, creating complex stories within these imagined worlds.
Despite this flair for design, Trémolières had no idea set design existed until she was 20. “I realised that what I thought was directing was actually designing. I loved the choices of atmosphere, and the big images I took home with me after seeing a show. I remember seeing Faustus at the Opéra Bastille. There was a scene with a huge wall where 50 dancers dressed as Jesus Christ were doing this strange choreography while being crucified. That was the first big theatrical image that made me think the world can be extraordinary.”
Once she understood that set design was a genuine career option, she realised it weaved together several elements of what she was already engaged in: performance, craft, imagination, and stories. After finishing a degree in modern literature in Paris, she came to London and was blown away by the visual ambitions of the shows she saw. From that moment on, there was nothing more she wanted than to become a designer. “I trained at Wimbledon School of Arts, and loved it. I came from quite an austere way of learning – the French education system is pretty strict. I was studious and serious. As an art school, Wimbledon allowed me to think completely differently: to find joy in making, touching and experimenting. It was also the discovery of a different culture and way of seeing the world.”
Trémolières designs sets and costumes not only for theatre, but also for opera. She has worked on multiple productions in the UK, France and Germany, and she is also working on the upcoming 2020 Wexford Festival, one of the world’s leading opera festivals, in Ireland.
So what are the differences between designing for opera and designing for theatre? “The way you perform stories is really different. Opera is a theatrical, distancing art. People don’t talk, they sing. You have musicians between you and the proscenium arch. As an audience member you suspend your disbelief immediately. From a design perspective you don’t question theatricality here, or the use of special effects. You can go bold because the form demands it. Music leads you emotionally and rhythmically. Music inspires movement. Opera is manipulative, but that’s fine because it’s part of the contract you sign with the audience.”
She continues: “For me, theatre is about relying emotionally and intellectually on what you see on stage. The design is much more subtle, detailed, small. You’re closer to the action, to the characters, and can allow yourself to get lost in it. It’s not necessarily about impressing the audience with epic movement. It’s more about opening a door to the darkness and beauty of people’s lives. As a designer you need to craft something that won’t crush the delicate needs of the play.”
Born: 1989, L’Haÿ-les-Roses, France
Training: Modern Literature at Sorbonne University, Paris; Stage Design at Wimbledon College of Arts
• Invisible Treasure, Ovalhouse, London (2015)
• This Beautiful Future, Yard Theatre, London (2017)
• Suzy Storck, Gate Theatre, London (2017)
• The 306: Dusk, Perth Theatre (2018)
• Finalist of the Linbury Prize for Stage Design (2013)
• IdeasTap graduate award (2014)
• Royal Opera House Linbury Bursary recipient (2015)
• Jerwood Young Designer (2016)
• Jerwood Micro Bursary recipient (2017)
• European Opera Directing Prize (2018)
Agent: Kirsten Foster, Casarotto Ramsay
Midnight Movie runs at London’s Royal Court until December 21