Video designer Simon Wainwright: ‘It’s like making a collage – we develop work all at the same time’
After starting out as a performer, Imitating the Dog’s Simon Wainwright has moved to a career in video design. He tells Fergus Morgan about the increased sophistication of the technology involved and how it enables theatremakers to integrate sound and video into their work from the beginning of the rehearsal process
In a slightly unexpected way, Simon Wainwright’s career has gone full circle. As a teenager, he was a passionate painter destined for art school. As a drama student in Lancaster, the result of a last-minute change of heart, he became involved in experimental theatre. As an adult, he was a professional performer for several years with Imitating the Dog.
Now, as well as pursuing freelance projects, he is the Leeds-based company’s video designer. According to him, it’s like being a visual artist again.
“It’s almost like painting with video,” he says. “It’s like having a set of tools – paintbrushes and pens and pencils and pairs of scissors and paper – but it’s actually video and sound you’re working with. It’s a real playground.”
Imitating the Dog was formed by Wainwright and his fellow students at Lancaster University in the late 1990s. The company’s name, Wainwright says, was plucked from a catalogue of Eric Fischl paintings.
The group’s first show, Einmal Ist Keinmal (German for “Once Is Never”) was made in their third and final year at Lancaster, toured the country after a successful stint at the National Student Drama Festival in 1998, and sparked the first phase of the company’s history. “It was a little bit physical, a little bit like Frantic Assembly,” Wainwright remembers.
Wainwright, plus fellow founding members Andrew Quick, Alice Booth, Seth Honnor and Richard Malcolm, went on to make a series of similar shows, before taking a break in 2003, when life started getting in the way.
Their return in 2007, a collaboration with Pete Brooks of the influential Impact Theatre Co-operative, pushed the company in a new direction. With Hotel Methuselah, which toured extensively around the UK and Europe, Imitating the Dog embraced video fully for the first time.
“It was a complete change in what we were doing,” says Wainwright. “It used lots of projection, editing and filming. It was a rebirth. Since then, all our work has been concerned with the language of cinema, and with using video projection and high-end video design to convey meaning and message.”
Hotel Methuselah also introduced a new phase of Wainwright’s career. He moved from onstage performer to video designer. “I was never a particularly great performer to be honest,” he confesses. “But I really enjoyed the video side.”
Today, Imitating the Dog produces several projects a year, often collaborating internationally. The current line-up is led by a trio of artistic directors: Wainwright, Quick and Brooks, with Wainwright responsible for all video design. The company has come a long way, he says, since their first foray into using projection.
“Back then, we would make a film that the show ran alongside,” he recalls. “All the video was on a DVD, and you would just press play at the beginning of the show. We started with what would now be considered a pretty dim desktop projector firing the whole show.”
“It was very risky and it was incredibly time-consuming,” he continues. “Every time we needed to change something on stage, we had to edit the video. We were redrawing frames and using lots of graphic techniques. It was really heavy-duty. The thought of doing that again fills me with dread because it was such a laborious process and it took so long.”
Show by show, Imitating the Dog’s approach to video design evolved. “We trailed very slowly through the progression of video,” Wainwright says. “We moved from using DVDs and pressing play at the same time on two DVD players, to using two laptops and pressing play on them at the same time, and so on.”
“It was ‘suck it and see’,” he adds. “Learn a bit of video editing and a bit of this and a bit of that. Pick up bits of software that other people were using, and see where you could go with it.”
The company’s biggest leap forward was when it started using Isadora, a piece of video design software made by German company Troikatronix.
“That completely opened our process,” says Wainwright. “We could do things we’d never been able to do before. We could edit on the fly. We could make shows really roughly and quickly with images we were grabbing from all over the place. We could use live cameras. It really did lead to an explosion in terms of what we could achieve creatively.”
“It is widely in use now. It’s used a lot in experimental work, performance work and live art, because it’s very malleable, relatively cheap and it can run on a standard laptop. We still use it for developing shows. It’s an amazing piece of software.”
As the equipment they required evolved, it also became increasingly expensive, and the company’s long-lasting affiliation to Lancaster University became essential.
“Having that relationship allowed us to make work we never could have made, because the cost of it was totally prohibitive,” says Wainwright. “The projectors we use now cost more than £100,000 each. Lancaster bought three of them, and two Hippotizer media server systems. We could use all that gear.”
As the company’s ability to combine projection and performance grew increasingly sophisticated, its shows followed suit.
“We developed this style of making work as we went along, like a kind of collage, as opposed to the normal traditional way of writing a script, getting in a room, rehearsing it, then cladding everything else around it.” Wainwright says. “The show develops, conceptually, formally, scenographically and technologically, all at the same time.”
“We aren’t the sort of company that goes into a rehearsal room with a script, maps it all out, then has a tech week,” he continues. “We do everything from day one. We all work at once. The sound and the video are completely malleable. Everything moves. We can make so much progression in one week with all the elements together, no matter how rough they are.”
Not all theatremakers like this collaborative, collage style of making work. It can be quite tough, says Wainwright, to find actors comfortable with Imitating the Dog’s approach.
“It can be a challenge to find performers who are comfortable with all this technology,” Wainwright admits. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, because you have to engage with the technology but you also have to perform alongside it. It’s a very weird experience and it can be quite limiting for a performer.”
Imitating the Dog’s new show is particularly sophisticated. The company is reworking Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but the project is far from a faithful page-to-stage adaptation.
“We wanted to do Heart of Darkness, but knew there would be issues, because the text uses racist language that is very much of its time,” explains Wainwright. “We had strong views on what the book was about, and what we could use it to discuss.”
“The show is technologically ambitious, because it’s using live cameras, lots of projectors, in-ear monitoring and radio mics,” Wainwright says. “As a concept, it’s multilayered and multi-stranded. And the book itself is complicated and difficult, too. It’s one of our more ambitious shows in every way.”
CV: Simon Wainwright
Born: 1976, Castleton, Derbyshire
Training: Lancaster University
With Imitating the Dog:
• Hotel Methuselah (2008)
• A Farewell to Arms (2014)
• Arrivals and Departures (2017)
As a freelance designer:
• Derren Brown’s Miracle (2015)
• Lanark: A Life in Three Acts (2015)
Awards: Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for best design for Lanark: A Life in Three Acts (2016)