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INTERVIEW: Performance Designer Helen Scarlett O'Neill on immersive theatre, Secret Cinema and sound walks

Photo by Harry Ross

Helen Scarlett O'Neil works as a perfomance designer- using sets, lights, costumes and sound to create the immersive theatrescapes that have become so popular in recent years. Helen worked on pioneering site specific theatre company Punchdrunk's production of Faust before joining the Secret Cinema team, where she now brings cult films to life.In 2010 Helen began live art collective Fruit For The Apocalypse with fellow Secret Cinema alumni, Director/Producer Harry Ross- you can see our video interview with Helen and Harry about their show The Ballad of Skinny Lattes and Vintage Clothing here. Most recently, Helen's been working with Conrad Shawcross on his installation at The Roundhouse (you can read our interview with Conrad here) alongside the London Contemporary Orchestra.

We asked Helen about the significance of sound, the future of immersive theatre and how to make it as a performance designer.

RR: You've worked with Conrad Shawcross on his Timepiece at The Roundhouse- exploring the nature of Time sounds like a pretty high-brow pursuit; how accessible is the installation for those of us less schooled in metaphysics and cosmology?

HSO: The installation is, at its core, as basic as cavemen – it’s about the feeling of light moving in set patterns (like the sun) and the human desire to attach regulated systems to natural phenomena. Why are there 24 hours in a day? Why not 6 or 48 or any other division? The installation taps into the ubiquitous image of the clock and through this it shows the more visceral, cosmic form of time. Stockhausen, the composer of KLANG, also felt moved by this and suggested that a move away from standard regulation was a move towards greater advancements: “In his entire perception, in his thinking, the human being tends more and more towards irregularity. He frees himself more and more from traditional concepts, which are based on the principle of regularity. Not only the army but everything that is likewise based on this periodic principle belongs to the past [….]. And I think that is good. It requires human beings to change their tempo often – very often”. Karlheinz Stockhausen [I want to go to Paradise May 2007] The programming of Klang in response to Timepiece has in turn led Shawcross to synchronise the movements of the installation with the four musical Hours. Stockhausen would have enjoyed Shawcross's approach, questioning the arbitrary regularity of the hours and desiring to return to a more visceral and cosmic connection with time. Stockhausen composed his music for each hour at different lengths, reflecting what he felt was most appropriate. During the presentation of these musical hours, Timepiece will cycle through each hour at Stockhausen's chosen hour length causing the shadows to speed up and down creating the feeling of time stretching and condensing, as it is perceived to do in life.

RR: The London Contemporary Orchestra's production of KLANG includes a 'sound walk' from Primrose hill- how do you go about working outside and then bringing the theme indoors?

HSO: The thread that leads through the Imagined Occasions concert series is very loosely held. It is a train of thought that the audience are part of – which is what Hugh Brunt and Rob Ames [Artistic Directors of London Contemporary Orchestra] and I felt was the most appropriate approach to a long term immersive site-responsive presentation of contemporary classical music. The first concert, at Aldwych Underground Station, began from the point of view of Claude Vivier. He composed an opera fragment entitled Do You Believe In The Immortality Of The Soul which ends with a stabbing on the Paris Metro. It was the last piece of music Vivier wrote before he was stabbed by a rent boy who he picked up on the Paris Metro. The concert was about watching people in the city and looking for dangerous encounters that might bring some meaning or understanding to a solipsistic life. This leads to a death. This second concert is about leaving the body and moving on. In this we are very much following Stockhausen’s idea of the wider structure of the universe [“death means changing trains”]. Stockhausen was Vivier’s tutor and both in their own way were inspired to imagine better worlds beyond this one, with a staged way of arriving there either physically or mentally. We begin at the liminal hour of sunset for Vivier’s Zipangu, an out of reach but much desired paradise, and our journey to get to there begins. Ed Finnis has been commissioned to make a new piece which will guide the audience from Primrose Hill to the Roundhouse. It is like a hyper awareness of the world in sound being left behind in preparation to enter the dark portal to Stockhausen’s bright universe. Sound uses an invisible medium so we add only what we think will sensorially enhance. What that means, in terms of your question – how do you go about moving from outside to in – is that we decided that this concert was about different journeys. It is about marrying sites and music through journeys rather than creating built environments. What Harry [Ross co-director of Fruit for the Apocalypse and Senior Producer of Secret Cinema] and I do together as a production and design team is collaborate with other artists to design and deliver concepts which are sympathetic to the work which is examined as a cultural artefact. Although the design praxis for Secret Cinema is similar the end result varies in different projects; visual style does not dictate the approach to my performance design work.

Photo by Jana Chiellino 

RR: Your show The Ballad of Skinny Lattes and Vintage Clothing also relied on sound to convey its message; do you feel that sound is a medium that has been overlooked in traditional theatre?

HSO: I don’t think it has been overlooked. I think that the fact that these current productions convey their message through sound reflects how important it is felt to be as a medium by myself and Harry. Fruit for the Apocalypse, makes a site specific work to celebrate something called World Listening Day every year since the First World Listening Day in 2010 and that work often pairs composers and sound artists with choreographers. We are also currently developing a lot of site-responsive projects which are not based on sound – one deals with sport, another dance and another with spoken play-text.

RR: You've worked on ambitious projects with hugely successful collectives like Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk- what's the trickiest obstacle you've ever had to overcome?

HSO: Some of the toughest challenges have arisen from very basic, practical issues. Losing a venue just before we were about to start a build was a pretty extreme challenge. We had already announced the production. We looked for another venue that might be similar so that we wouldn’t have to start from scratch, but since the work is so site responsive this really wasn’t possible. So having found a great venue that had nothing to do with the previous theme I had to redesign the whole production to another concept VERY quickly. It turned out to be a great production. As a performance designer, one of the greatest challenges has been to make work that is sensitive and relevant to the current time. When Fabien [Riggall Founder and Creative Director of Secret Cinema] came to me at the start of the Arab Spring, and invited me to design a production based on Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers it was an exhilarating feeling but also a massive personal challenge. I have no experience of civil war or conflict, – and for that matter neither did the audience, but in the end I hit upon the thought that the strength in that was that all of us have experience of being a citizen, living in a city and that is what the audience would share with the characters in the film. The Old Vic Tunnels became our city and we created a census for the audience to complete through which their answers to the questions would divide them into three groups. The markers were there for the actors to pick up on. Groups were separated or treated differently in small ways which then escalated. Finally I designed the set so that it could be destroyed after the film every night.

RR:  And what piece of work are you most proud of?

HSO: I’m most proud of works which have involved exciting collaborations or the creation of new work. Commonsounds – which was a work we made in the former Commonwealth Institute – involved around fifty artists collaborating on the creation of ten new works which were melded together in a dramaturgy to celebrate the history and future of the building. Similarly the way in which I have worked with many different artists to respond to films, and their surrounding themes and contexts, is something that I have been most proud of on my work with Secret Cinema.

RR: If you could stage work in any London building or landmark, which would it be and why?

HSO: Any major shopping centre. Of course, 99% of this work is about taking a building of previous use and either responding to it or re-imagining it to make theatre. However, my quite vain and private desire is to create a work that builds a site or building that then finds a second life as an office. Imagine, an office floor where each desk must be fitted into a sloping mountainside or a corridor with the blood stains of some unfortunate character streaking down the walls by the water cooler. This would build on the 20th century practice of pavilion building but would take this to another level. The repurposed pavilion – where art has dictated the pace of mundane commercial life rather than vice-versa.

Photo by Jana Chiellino 

RR: What does the future hold for immersive theatre?

HSO: The future of immersive theatre will depend on the continual growth of audiences that engage with work. If derivative work is made, the genre might tail off into a walk in the theme-park. I hope that people who enjoy immersive theatre will always be open minded and allow companies to take risks. This sort of work is like a future opera, a Gesamtkunstwerk where the audience are very much a part of creating the theatre even if only from an intellectual point of view; it takes all contributors to share a vision and make this work – there is something so precious and frail about it that cannot be equalled by a traditional theatre presentation. I think that this is a genre for the future – it best reflects growing capabilities in information communication and the sort of world we live in, the way people are social, the way they process information.

RR: What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into performance design?

HSO: Don’t wait for anyone. Do it yourself. If you have an idea, get some public liability insurance, find a team and do it. The only way you can guarantee work is if you can instigate it. Make connections for the audience through your design, like hyperlinks through the rich fabric of human culture and history. Asses a space for what it has already and add as little as possible. Be prepared to live frugally but do not accept it. Know that you have a value and work for multiple companies to increase your earnings if you have to. This shouldn’t be a job for the parentally subsidised. The best advice I ever received was that good theatre should contain everything in war, madness, crime and love. [Antonin Artaud via Peter Bond]

You can see details of the next installment of LCO's Imagined series here.