The Big Interview: Lucy Osborne
“So many people had told us it wasn’t possible. That’s such a cliche but I don’t know how else to say it. So many people wouldn’t build it, wouldn’t come near it, didn’t want to hear anything about it, told us we were nutters.” Lucy Osborne is talking about the Roundabout, the entirely self-contained mobile theatre she designed for new-writing company Paines Plough. In development for four years, with Osborne working closely alongside lighting designer Emma Chapman, Paines Plough’s James Grieve and George Perrin, and lighting consultant Howard Eaton, the Roundabout was launched in Edinburgh in August 2014. A few months later it was crowned theatre building of the year at The Stage Awards, sharing the prize with the new Liverpool Everyman. It makes its London debut, outside the Southbank Centre, this summer.
“We just felt amazed we’d got there, and we’d manage to do what we set out to achieve,” said the theatre designer of the moment in January when she and the team received the award. “And for me, personally, to go up with [architect] Steve Tompkins to get his [award for the Everyman] was just extraordinary. To feel like you’re in that company is an absolute honour.”
Grieve and Perrin approached Osborne about the Roundabout soon after taking over as joint artistic directors of Paines Plough in 2010. The designer had worked with Grieve on new plays, including Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts and James Graham’s The Whisky Taster at the Bush – Grieve was associate director there, while Osborne was associate artist (she went on to design the front-of-house areas of the west London theatre’s new home in a former library).
Born of Grieve and Perrin’s desire to take new writing to audiences that Paines Plough wasn’t able to reach because of a lack of existing infrastructure, the Roundabout had to be quick and easy to put together, and have a capacity of around 150. The rest of the brief, at least at the very beginning, was delightfully vague.
“There’s a brilliant back of a receipt from a restaurant meal that James and George had. It’s basically a circle and it says on it ‘10 metres’ and then there’s a little drawing of a person stood up with a ceiling and I think it says something like, ‘High enough so this man can stand up’. I’ll find it when I unpack all my boxes,” Osborne says, gesturing to the little garden cottage that serves as her studio. “We should get it framed.”
The studio, which she shares with her partner, the composer and musical director David White, occupies an idyllic spot beside the towpath of the Surrey canal where their houseboat is moored. Osborne has been based here for a few years now, but it’s only relatively recently that she and White made the decision to convert the cottage, and she’s still getting used to the new space. Chapman, her long-time collaborator, lives just down the road.
The Roundabout was envisioned as a fully integrated auditorium from early in the design process, Osborne explains, the team drawing inspiration from the mobile spaces toured by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Manchester Royal Exchange in the 1980s and 1990s.
“This idea that it could just turn up anywhere and people would just join in and help, anyone could carry anything and it would kind of go up by itself. As long as you’ve got one person with the knowledge, everything else was kind of up for grabs. The spirit of adventure and the spirit of the circus coming to town.”
It had to be a welcoming environment too, says Osborne, a non-intimidating space that Paines Plough could take into communities unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with the notion of theatre. “It needed to feel homey and warm and inviting and comfortable and democratic,” she says. “That the space could be used as effectively for a discussion, or that you could do lots of different things in it.”
The project felt like a natural next step for Osborne, whose interest in creating physical contexts beyond those taking place on stage actually predates her career as a set and costume designer. While still at school, she joined the technical team at the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough, ultimately becoming the festival’s venue designer.
“You would be working with the [student] company to try and interpret what they’d had originally, and trying to put it into a space that worked for them. So we started really pushing the boundaries of what was possible: dividing spaces in half and building things up at height – just doing some really unconventional mad things.
“And because we were all students, you’ve got a crew of 60-80 people – you can do a huge amount,” she recalls. “Looking back, it made me unafraid to play with space in that way and also made me question any kind of conventional theatre layout.”
The festival wasn’t just a safe place in which to experiment and make mistakes, it also led to Osborne’s first paid role in theatre: working as a follow-spot operator at the Theatre Royal Newcastle while studying fine art at the university. It was here that she first began to think about theatre as a possible career path, rather than just a hobby.
The RSC, which toured to the Theatre Royal every year during Osborne’s time there, was a major influence. “I was sat doing my job and there was somebody there going, ‘That should look like that; why is it not like that?’, and I had a moment when I thought, ‘What’s that job? That looks cool.’”
Osborne finished her art degree then enrolled on to the now defunct Motley Theatre Design Course, an intensive year-long course run from a back room at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
“It was brilliant, totally madcap, and everyone worked insanely. You’d get like six hours’ sleep a night for a year; it was crazy,” the designer remembers. “I fell in love with the craziness actually, how zany it was.
“When I was in my interview, there was a painting of Percy [Margaret ‘Percy’ Harris, who set it up] hanging on the wall, and they all talked to her all the way through my interview. So Ali [course director Alison Chitty] would keep looking up at this painting, going, ‘So, Percy, what do you think about this?’”
The course was taught entirely by practising professional directors and designers, among them Josie Rourke, then trainee associate director at the Royal Court. Rourke brought in a piece of new writing for the students to work on as their final project and she and Osborne hit it off.
They didn’t work together again for another three years (on Steve Waters’ adaptation of the Joseph Roth novel Flight Without End at LAMDA in 2006), but the seed was sown for a collaboration that has proved both fruitful and enduring. Osborne has since designed more than a dozen productions for Rourke, with new writing making up a significant proportion of their work together.
It’s fairly common for young designers to be offered mainly new plays at the start of their careers, Osborne points out, but it’s thanks to her relationship with Rourke – and Grieve, whom she began working with a couple of years later – that new writing has become her own particular niche.
“When you’ve built up a relationship with a director where there’s a lot of trust and a lot of belief in what it is that you’re doing, I think that you can then start to do exciting things because actually you can really push the boundaries; you feel very safe without making safe decisions; you feel safe to be able to make some crazy decisions.”
The six-week Roundabout season at the Southbank Centre is just one of the new writing projects the designer has on the go this summer. Another is Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa, which is transferring to the main space at the Soho Theatre, having sold out its run at the upstairs studio. Osborne, unsurprisingly, is unfazed by the prospect of totally transforming the auditorium in order to maintain the ‘democratic’ feel of her original design for the show.
She’s also working on the UK premiere of Luna Gale by the American playwright Rebecca Gilman, which opens at the Hampstead Theatre this month. Her main concern on this rather “filmic” project is being “as truthful as possible to the locations but as quick as possible about getting from one to the other,” she says. “I’m hoping we’ve done it. We’ll find out in tech, I guess.”
So what is it about new writing that so inspires her? “There’s nothing more exciting than being sent a new play to read. You might be only the eighth, ninth, 10th person to read it, and it’s such a brave thing to do for a writer to put that out into the world,” she says. “You feel so privileged to be able to read it and feel like you can create this thing the first time it’s ever seen.”
Osborne relishes the creative collaborations involved in designing for new writing too. Matt Charman’s The Machine, which Rourke directed for the Manchester International Festival in 2013, is a case in point. “We were kind of designing it as he was rewriting and it just felt like it was all part of the same process,” she recalls. “We were all talking all the time and it was really exciting and really fun. Just to work in that way with a writer was lovely.”
Not that the designer has a problem with the classics. Her CV is peppered with Shakespeare, from Richard III at the Cambridge Arts Theatre with Tom Cornford in 2006 to Rourke’s Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (2009 and 2010 respectively) to Coriolanus at the Donmar in 2013.
The only difference between the two disciplines, as far as Osborne is concerned, is not having the writer in the room. “You start from scratch and put it in the context of now,” she says. “So I don’t think it changes your approach. You have to get rid of all that baggage. You have to say, ‘Why are we doing this play here and now?’”
The other major project occupying the designer’s time at the moment doesn’t involve a writer at all. Osborne, Chapman and Eaton set up Studio Three Sixty in 2014 to design and build different types of mobile venue that could draw on the expertise and technologies developed on the Roundabout – in particular the theatre’s innovative pre-focused LED lighting panels, which require no specialist lighting design experience to use and cut down drastically on get-in time.
The trio are working on a venue that they’re hoping to build at the end of the year, ready to hire out on a commercial basis in 2016. Most likely end-on rather than in-the-round, designed mainly for music rather than for theatre, rough and ready enough for “muddy welly” festivals, the new space will be markedly different from the Roundabout. But the inspiration behind the projects is the same.
“We just feel like you go to so many festivals and temporary events and see temporary performance spaces that are not really fit for purpose. You put up with so much when you’re in the middle of a field but actually there’s no reason why production values can’t be high. So it’s just taking the Roundabout ethos and applying it to different spaces.”
Underlying Osborne’s work with Studio Three Sixty is the same philosophy that informs her entire design practice. Whether she’s dreaming up mobile venues, designing sets and costumes, creating all-encompassing site-specific environments or working with architects on front-of-house spaces, “it’s fundamentally about a really joyful, exhilarating marriage of constraints and possibility and opportunity”.