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Designer Chloe Lamford: ‘Theatre designers make more than an object – I design feeling’

Chloe Lamford. Photo: Fred Debrock

Working across genres and styles, the sought-after designer has become particularly known for her collage-based approach to new writing. She tells Matt Trueman how conveying a sense of movement and deploying overtly theatrical gestures can be vital elements in creating a design that fits the work and resonates with audiences

An ice cream cone hangs on the wall of Chloe Lamford’s studio at Somerset House, with a cut-out hot dog propped up just underneath. Next to it are two huge semaphore flags and a couple of retro, foldable chairs. Images, big and small, are dotted round the room: Pina Bausch’s bed of roses, a body loaded with suitcases, a skeleton dancing free. On a shelf, above an assortment of play texts and spray cans, an orange Gummi Bear basks beneath a paper sun in the shade of a small indoor kentia palm.

It’s typical of a Lamford-designed space: jaunty, a bit silly and teeming with stuff. You can pick her designs out a mile off, but it can be tricky to pin down quite why. They share a certain spirit that’s not easily defined.

When Lamford works with collage, placing an assortment of objects on stage in lieu of a set, it’s immediately obvious – none of her British peers work the same way. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness was fleshed out with cardboard cities, rainbows and a hoard of waving cats. The Hamilton Complex had plastic ruins, an oil painting and a mannequin horse. Director Michael Longhurst, with whom she works regularly, christened her style the “Lamford Pile”.

Design needs generosity – it holds the audience as much as the show

But clutter isn’t all she does. Lamford’s work has genuine range. Simon Longman’s Gundog at London’s Royal Court played on bare mounds of mud in front of foggy walls, Amadeus at the National Theatre sat on a vast empty sound stage, and for director Katie Mitchell, Lamford tends to make crisply realistic rooms. The constant across such differing designs is a considerable, charged theatricality.

This has made Lamford one of the most in-demand designers in Britain. She is the artist doing the most to move theatre design forward. “My conversation isn’t with design, but with theatre,” she stresses, peering over her latest model-box. “I’m interested in asking what theatre is and what it can be. I think in theatre. I want to break it all the fucking time, but I’m a theatre animal. I love it – even if I wrestle with it.”

Amadeus, National Theatre (2016)

Q&A: Chloe Lamford

What was your first non-theatre job?

What was your first professional theatre job?
The Crucible – a Watford Palace Theatre education tour with three people and a van.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s a long haul, but you really should enjoy the journey getting there. And if you’re tired, go to bed.

Who are your biggest influences?
The novelist Ali Smith, visual artist Anne Hardy and photographer Nan Goldin.

If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
A photographer or a barmaid. I used to enjoy working in a bar – lots of chat.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always photograph the first dress rehearsal, so I can get some distance on how it’s all looking.

In person, Lamford is more effusive and less direct than those words suggest. Aged 37, she’s amicably goofy, and thinks rigorously but impulsively, chasing thoughts round her head. “My brain does that,” she says, coming to a stop. “It just gets excited and so, off it goes.” Her work does something similar; instinct leads the way.

Even so, Lamford took a long time to establish herself as an artist. Most designers get a springboard on the way to success: a Linbury Prize nomination will get their name known. On graduating from Wimbledon School of Art in 2002, Lamford missed out on such recognition and instead cut her teeth on theatre in education tours with Watford Palace near her family home. It was three years before a gig came from elsewhere. Her rise was slow and steady rather than explosive.

“You come out of art school and suddenly you’re a designer – it’s bonkers,” she reflects on starting out. “You need to learn all this stuff about production managers and proscenium arches. You’re learning on the hoof, but how do you even get going?” Instincts take honing, in other words, and practice makes a practice. Today’s emerging designers have it even harder, she notes, with university fees up, cuts kicking in and living costs spiralling – in London at least. “I waitressed for six years – events four nights a week,” she remembers. “I did a lot for free early on, and I really grafted.”

Creating a sense of place

What makes Lamford’s designs so engaging is the very thing that makes them hard to write about. She’s a designer who makes spaces rather than sets and who works not with legible, decodable signs, but with more slippery things: associations, feelings and moods.

For Lamford, theatre design does more than define the look of a show. It’s not set-dressing, nor simply a matter of aesthetics. “Theatre designers make much more than an object,” she explains, laying out the core principle of her practice. “Designers make space for something over time, alongside a narrative. We interpret and we ‘dramaturg’, but most of all, we fill the air of a theatre.” As Lamford envisages it – and she’s quite right – design underpins the way we receive theatre. “Design needs generosity,” she insists. “It holds the audience as much as the show.”

She continues: “I remember saying to somebody once, ‘I think I can move people with scenery.’ It was a bit of a weird thing to say, but, actually, I love it. I think I can design with feeling. I design feeling. It’s why I’m so obsessed with things moving, and the kinetics of a show, because time and space is choreographic.” Design is not an object, still less a set – it’s an integral part of a theatrical event.

At the end of Tim Crouch’s Beginners at the Unicorn Theatre, four kids put on a play for their parents. Lamford’s bare yellow stage, co-designed with Camilla Clarke, blossomed into a wonderland. Giant flowers flew in. Sparkly stalagmites sprung up. She pulled a similar coup to end Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs: a cherry blossom forest materialised like a mirage, sunlight cracking through the canopy. Both made the audience marvel.

For Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 1984 at the Almeida, Lamford had her set ripped completely apart – violently – to make Room 101. As the refugee crisis worsened in How to Hold Your Breath, her stage floor burst open like a breaking wave. In Amadeus, when a swelling Kyrie ended the first half, she thrust a silhouetted orchestra straight at the stalls.

“A lot of my spaces move, or at least, they have a flow,” she says. “It’s about finding a dynamic through space. I’m really interested in how spaces deliver things to audiences.” That might mean flying items in from above at London’s Royal Court, or bundling them in at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Essentially, she explains: “It’s all about kinetics.”

Even Lamford’s stiller sets have an energy to them, which hums from a sense of potential. For Gundog, the absence of movement was precisely the point; clouds swirled slowly behind the thickset, stodgy mud. In Annie Baker’s John, dozens of dolls looked down on the action like an inanimate audience, almost capable of coming to life at any moment. Many of her designs feel strangely unstable. That may well be what makes them quite so theatrical.

Back in 2011, Lamford had a breakthrough. Puzzling over David Harrower’s Knives in Hens for the National Theatre of Scotland, she found the play pulling in different directions: “Part gym, part domestic, part stable, part village.” Lamford wanted to loop all of that in, but how? “I realised I could collage objects and collide different sorts of spaces to make something composite,” she says. On a square patch of carpet sat a gym horse and a circus wheel, a kitchen table, microphones and many bottles of booze. “If you mix spaces together, it gives you a really abstract environment. It feels fruity – like everything’s half-and-half.”

For a few years, Lamford honed this technique in Cathal Cleary’s Disco Pigs and Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business with its ball pit and banal carpet tiles. Gradually, her collages grew increasingly abstract: objects offset each other on stage, so that meaning emerged out of juxtaposition and eclecticism. “I really delight in the complexity of that. Life’s not always tidy; it’s not always pretty. We’re not tidy thinkers. We’re complex and weird.”

Theatre has the space to hold such complexity. “It’s precious because people watch in a particularly committed and concentrated way,” Lamford says. “It’s the last bastion that’s not filmed through a phone. You sit in the dark and you’re just there.” It is a dynamic she toys with: “If it’s okay to acknowledge that this is theatre, I want to play with that as much as I can.”

As such, Lamford’s designs tend to admit their own artifice. She often puts stages on stages and deploys old-school stage tricks – flying flats, cut-out scenery and curtains aplenty. The aim is to get audience members to clock the way they’re watching. “I love putting stupid versions of outdoor things in black box theatres,” she says – such as cardboard clouds or painted rainbows. “They’re not pretending, they’re just things. They’re happy with its own artifice. They allow theatricality in.”

Growing up in the theatre world

Lamford has long been “a theatre animal”. Her parents were both choreographers and for a long while she clung to the idea of following in their (well-placed) footsteps. It meant a childhood spent “in smelly rehearsal rooms or backstage, in the dark”. As a result, she found the pull of performance inevitable. She says: “I didn’t really imagine doing anything else.”

Traces of Lamford’s upbringing are visible across her work. The family moved around a lot – “we were often skint” – and she attributes her eclectic tastes and her eye for objects to “Spanish markets and festivals”. Her designs often throw focus on bodies in space – Amadeus’ orchestra, Hamilton Complex’s teenage girls or the cycling actors that powered Duncan Macmillan’s Atmen [Lungs] in Berlin. Often a Lamford prop will push the audience’s eyes towards the performer as a physical entity: mannequins and dolls, dressing tables and mirrors. “Every designer has their obsessions,” she laughs. “You go through phases.”

Lamford’s main concern is getting set in her ways. “I get bored if I always do the same things. That’s why I do such a mix of projects and work with a range of directors. I make all sorts of stuff all the time, but it all feeds my obsession with theatre.”

Theatre’s the last bastion that’s not filmed through a phone. You sit in the dark and you’re just there

Right now, Lamford is trying to shake her work up. Sometimes that means distilling designs down: less collage, more concentration. “You can only do that with experience,” she says. “Minimalism is interesting because you have to be really good to do it well.” Elsewhere, it means steering clear of artistic references, wary of audiences spotting the source. “I’m trying to go into myself a bit more. At the moment, my process has gone into little pieces and it’ll rebuild itself in a different way.”

It’s rooted in instinct; she starts with a text’s feel and scribbles down ideas: “I used to sit with bits of card for a long time, but now I can jump to an idea much more swiftly.” Often those impulses turn out to be right. “It’s a muscle: going with your gut is rehearsed.” Lamford’s process is “super-responsive” – to a script, to collaborators and to spaces themselves. It exists at the intersection of all three. She says: “I try to work from the inside. I think it’s why I’ve ended up in new writing.” Rather than imposing concepts on classics, she prefers to find ways of framing and focusing writers’ work.

Lamford is increasingly working overseas, with Katie Mitchell in particular, but also on her own. “It’s not easy,” she says. “It’s not like: ‘La-di-dah, fancy foreign designer coming through.’ It’s a lot of airports, a lot of getting model-boxes on planes and a lot of meetings with people talking another language.”

Other challenges are more fundamental: “Different countries have massively different ways of working.” Each involves getting to grips with new production processes and timescales, as well as different contexts and audiences. “They can be completely different. They read in different ways, their references are different, so your ideas are legible in a different way.” The big one, Lamford reckons, is between narrative-focused Brits and visually minded, conceptual Europeans.

Chloe Lamford’s top tips

  • Be brave and listen to your instincts above anything else. 
  • A set doesn’t have to cost a lot to be good. 
  • Try not to give yourself too much of a hard time. You’ll beat yourself up for years, but don’t give yourself a hard time.

Evolution of UK theatre design

British theatre has changed a lot in the past decade, nowhere more than in its approach to design. Homegrown audiences accept abstract spaces in a way they would not have done a generation ago and design is allowed to do more heavy lifting and dramaturgical work than ever before. On that front, Lamford nods to her forbears: “Es [Devlin] made a lot of room for us with her abstraction,” she says, crediting Lizzie Clachan and Miriam Buether with reshaping our sense of theatrical design. “They make spaces with such commitment and drive, such a strength of aesthetic.”

While they pushed the possibilities, Lamford has picked up the baton. “It could still go a lot further,” she believes. “We could all be braver: designers, as well as directors and writers.” Her own contribution has centred on integration, weaving design into a show’s DNA. As designers go, she is particularly collaborative and is often involved from the very start of a project, “jogging alongside” everything else. “I used to think of myself as a jobbing designer, but I remember thinking in my mid-20s: ‘I feel like I’m more than that.’ I’m always looking to contribute more just than a design.”

For the past four years, Lamford has been an associate artist at the Royal Court – its first in-house designer since the great Jocelyn Herbert in the days of George Devine in the late 1950s. Coming out of a long-term collaboration with Vicky Featherstone, dating back to the National Theatre of Scotland, the role has led Lamford to question and challenge the place of design within buildings and organisations. “My thinking has been empowered because I’m part of a bigger conversation,” she says. “I can reinvent how I do things and work across a longer journey.”

Knowing the Court’s two auditoriums inside-out, Lamford has sought new solutions to the spaces – for Victory Condition and B, she constructed a box set that floated in a huge scaffold frame. For other projects, she has shifted the design timeline within the production process: in some cases, by starting early and thinking bigger, while in others sitting in during the devising process and delivering later. Joined-up thinking can have other benefits, keeping costs down and sustainability up by repurposing one set for another show.

The Court has given her space to experiment, too. Last summer, she created the Site in its rehearsal room – a temporary studio theatre clad in sea-blue soundproofing – and helped commission four plays written especially for it. Six months later, at Christmas, she co-created an installation-style staging for Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome. Audiences explored an abstracted American small town before the show, and watched the action unfold silently through windows. It completely shifted the viewers’ sense of the play, turning them into voyeurs titillated by violence.

There are a lot of theatre conventions we adhere to without question, but I want to ask why

“There are a lot of conventions in the theatre that we adhere to without question,” Lamford says. “Often I think: ‘But why? Why is that good? Why is that funny? How can you surprise an audience? What games can we play?’ That’s what I’m really excited about.”

That led Lamford to start creating solo work – art installations and stand-alone spaces. For Somerset House and the Royal Academy, she has made stages intended to exist without performers; a kind of theatre without bodies. Some are designed for people to pass through, others as host-sites for performance art. “It can feel like theatre, but at the same time it’s not.” The point, she explains, is about the way audiences watch. “They come and go, they look for different lengths of time, from different angles and distances. They can photograph and film it, and interact in a different way.”

She adds: “It’s not about abandoning theatre. It’s all in conversation with theatre. It’s asking things of theatre or telling us things about theatre.” For Lamford, it will always be about the stage: “There’s nothing else like it. Theatre’s the shit.”

CV: Chloe Lamford

Born: 1980, London
Training: Wimbledon School of Art
Landmark productions: Knives in Hens, National Theatre of Scotland (2011); Atmen [Lungs], Schaubuhne, Berlin (2013); 1984, Almeida Theatre, London (2014); Teh Internet Is Serious Business, Royal Court (2014); Amadeus, National Theatre (2016)
Awards: TMA award for Small Miracle (2008); Arts Foundation fellowship (2013)
Agent: Simon Ash at Loesje Sanders

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