Floating Theatre

The Big Idea Editor

19 Feb 2017

Theatre maker and designer Stephen Bain says his architecture training in the 1980s has ‘infected my brain’ ever since.

“It’s an organisation of space and people, function and aesthetic, and plays a part in all walks of life, yet somehow only gets written about with regards to buildings.”

His latest work The Floating Theatre combines his fascination and travels studying small buildings and toy theatres. The theatre, floating at Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival and then Auckland Fringe, has room for 30 people with the luminous walls providing shadow play on the outside for free.

Stephen tells us what’s involved in making fantasy a reality – with an engineer, fabric structural designer, architect, musical composer, lighting artist and a team of welders and performers.
And how his expectations keep him going past what could possibly go wrong.

“The real craft in any magic-trick is making it seem easy, and this has really been the biggest part of the project for me. Whimsy works best when you aren’t aware of the wires holding up the puppet.”

What aspect of your creative practice gives you the biggest thrill?

An elderly actress once told me that there are two moments that were the highlight of an actor’s life – the day you get a phone call to say you’ve got the part, and closing night when you don’t have to do it anymore.
Tell us a bit about your background 

I studied architecture in the 1980s in Wellington and I really didn’t think it had made a significant impact on me, so I went off to drama school instead to become a performer and director. But the more I think about it, the more it seems architecture infected my brain somehow and changed the way I’ve seen everything since. I was speaking with a choreographer recently about how choreography existed in so many aspects to life, yet for some reason it’s mostly only spoken about with regards to dance. Architecture is a bit similar – it’s an organisation of space and people, function and aesthetic, and plays a part in all walks of life, yet somehow only gets written about with regards to buildings.

Tell us about the Floating Theatre, from inception to conception.

There is too much to tell! I became fascinated with small buildings – how your imagination starts to fill them from the inside out. I’ve also been quite interested in theatres, having spent a lot of time in them. One day I found a book about toy theatres from 17th Century Europe. They were small versions of the big stage as a take-home pack for playing out the drama in your drawing room. By the 19th century they were printed onto paper and sold by the hundreds representing the latest production playing in town. People used them to re-enact scenes or make up their own dramas in the home, often bought for the kids to play with but also very much a family activity (I suppose a bit like having the interactive game version of Star Wars on your computer).

I visited a few museums that had toy theatres and assembled a few paper versions myself, and this led me to think about what it is to get involved with the mechanism of image-making. (Once you see how the tricks are done you want to make them yourself, any kid who’s been let loose with a handicam will tell you that). So I decided to build something that could allow people to be part of the illusion-machine of theatre; I decided to build a life sized toy theatre that the audience could get inside. This dictated it being a certain size, which of course takes you down a particular road of whimsy.

Meanwhile I was speaking with an artist friend who showed me an image from 1979 of an exhibition in Venice where the Italian architect Aldo Rossi made a massive wooden theatre with a dome top like an old church, and floated it on a huge barge into Venice. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of performances that went on inside, but the sight of it was magic.

And that was it really, the idea of my Floating Theatre crystalised. The real craft in any magic-trick is making it seem easy, and this has really been the biggest part of the project for me. Whimsy works best when you aren’t aware of the wires holding up the puppet.

Who and what has been involved in this project?

An engineer, a fabric structural designer, a team of welders, an architect, two performers, a musical composer, lighting artist and myself trying to piece it all together.

What’s involved in the installation at the Hamilton Garden Arts Festival and Auckland Fringe?

Each location has it’s challenges. Hamilton will be located right next to that beautiful lake in the themed gardens. The Whau river in Avondale is our second location where we will be floating it in on a barge, so we’re all learning a lot about the tides and how to get under motorway bridges. You wouldn’t guess you were in the middle of Auckland there, the wetlands of Te Atatu are just across the river and the sky seems endless in the early evening with birdlife going crazy. The Viaduct is our third location and feels a little bit like the finish line to a round-the-world yacht race. I’ve always thought it must be surreal to spend months at sea in absolute loneliness and desertion only to be met by crowds of people drinking champagne at the finish line.

Tell us about the show itself?

I’m working with two performers, Jenny McArthur who is a very talented clown and a trained dancer and Jeremy Randerson who always has a flirtatious relationship with an audience and a great actor. We’re trying to make a show that wouldn’t quite work without the audience being there, revolving around the building itself and what it might mean to think of a theatre as a sort of treasure that’s stumbled upon, washed up on the shore.

What’s your next plans for it and your other upcoming projects?

Until the building exists, everything is still only potential. As I write this, a team of welders are piecing bits of steel together into trusses and interlocking them with gate pins. It’s all still only a dream that comes together and falls apart in my head. I’m sure a novelist goes through the same anxiety as the various pieces compose and un-compose themselves in various states of certainty. When the novel is published we think about it completely differently and the narrative exists like something that was always sure of itself but just had to be uncovered.

The Floating Theatre will only be fully formed the day an audience arrives, the performers appear out of one of the many trap doors, and the barge, the building, the water, and the sky all hold in place. It’s quite an unreasonable expectation when you think about what could possibly go wrong, but for some reason my expectations keep me going.

Once it’s finished I won’t know what to do with my life anymore, I will think about something else altogether. The Floating Theatre will be a thing that goes to unknown cities and houses unknown performances. Perhaps those cities don’t even exist yet.

About Stephen Bain

Stephen Bain is a theatre maker, designer and performer. He trained in Architecture (VUW), Acting (Toi Whakaari) and more recently Scenography (a.pass Antwerp). He has directed and designed a number of plays in NZ including a large proportion of original performances. His most recent work has been in creating public art performances in galleries, festivals and outdoor environments. He organizes festivals (New Performance Festival ’12 and Festival of Uncertainty ’14) and has collaborated in performances at Artspace, Te Tuhi and Te Uru galleries. In 2014 he was the NZ Asia Foundation Artist in Residence in Taipei. In 2015 he created the award winning experiential headphone performance ‘I wanna be Ponsonby’.

The Floating Theatre

Directed & designed by Stephen Bain, performed by Jeremy Randerson & Jenny McArthur, music by Jeff Henderson, props by Sarah-Jane Blake.

Winning Productions make outdoor performances throughout NZ, touring shows and installations to Australia & Europe. Supported by Creative NZ, The Chartwell Trust, Auckland Regional Council & Whau Local Board

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