Andrew Bailey discusses his creative problem solving on the set of Wild.
Andrew Bailey, Melbourne Theatre Company’s Production Design Coordinator, found his job at MTC by ‘hanging around’ to the point of making himself invaluable. After graduating from a Production Design degree at VCA, Bailey started filling in casually before creating a now crucial role at the Company.
Unlike most theatre designers who work on a freelance basis, Bailey is embedded in MTC’s production team and works on plays throughout the Company’s full season. ‘We have moments of incredible stress and busyness as everything comes together towards production week,’ Bailey says. ‘But when everything works, there’s not much like it in terms of a live experience.’
Bailey’s first role as a set designer at MTC was on an Education Production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, at a time when education plays were built on the sets of existing mainstage shows. ‘It was a play called Rockabye, which was a Joanna Murray-Smith play, and we were doing Streetcar on top of that!’ Consequently, the adaption required an inventive approach – a set that could be bumped in during the day and bumped out easily before Rockabye that evening.
Creating work for a student audience is a particularly rewarding aspect of Bailey’s job. ‘It’s a different space to work in and it can be really great to engage an audience who may not have seen a piece of theatre before. It’s also really interesting to see how they react in different ways. In ways that adults don’t generally react. For an education audience, you just want something that kids can talk about, and write about, and discuss.’
This ethos has seen Bailey develop a knack for employing stage trickery into his set designs. ‘Certainly with younger audiences there’s a huge amount of liberty to have fun and just play around. You can do things you wouldn’t usually get away with for adults.’
The 2017 Education production of Melbourne Talam required three actors to recreate a frantic Flagstaff Station in peak hour. To achieve this, Bailey installed a series of treadmills into the set to stretch the space out and give the actors room to move in a studio-sized theatre. In his 2016 set design of Lungs, Bailey incorporated a 360-degree revolving set, literally turning the on-stage couple’s life upside down as they debated love, children and climate change.
In 2012, working on a Lawler Studio Season of On the Production of Monsters, Bailey installed a number of surprise elements that popped out of the stage. ‘There was one trick we did where we built a toast canon into the floor and it would fire a piece of toast into the air for the actor [Virginia Gay] to catch in every show.’
Bailey clearly remembers the moment when Production Electrician Allan Hirons and he were installing the toaster. ‘We were kind of just playing and firing toast in the air, and we stopped and looked at each other and said, “We’re getting paid to do this.” It was a real moment of acknowledging the fact that often we get to do some really interesting and weird things, and it’s our job. It’s not just a hobby.’
In 2018, Bailey will be designing the set for the Australian première of Mike Bartlett’s Wild. Inspired by the story of Edward Snowden, the play deals with the notion of leaking state secrets, surveillance, and the consequences of whistleblowing.
Wild presents difficult questions about the integrity and reality of each of its three characters. Eventually the reality of the physical space is also brought into question. This presents a particularly interesting challenge for the set designer – a coup de théâtre that’s too good to be spoiled.
‘The play, at its core, just asks for a hotel room [as a set]. It takes place in the room that the central character escapes to (notionally in Russia), and he’s there to meet the people who are meant to keep him safe … we think. It’s very much about: is there safety? Is there ever safety? Are you ever not being watched? Is there any truth? It’s got a lot of resonance now with the Trump post-truth era we live in. You’re never quite sure where you stand.’
Bailey says he wants the space to be homogeneous and generic, with the patina of an international airport lounge. ‘The idea is that it could be located anywhere or nowhere. Because the central character, is nowhere. He’s trapped in limbo. So it’s really a space of confusion for him.’
It’s a play that Bailey can’t wait to dive into. ‘The best thing about [set designing] is problem solving,’ he says, and there are certainly a series of problems to solve
‘You’re given a set of constraints and then you’ve got to find an interesting way, or something that sings to you, to solve that particular problem. It’s collaborative in that fashion because you’re relying on the builders around you, or the director you’re working with, who has to do that thing, their part. You use the history of theatre at any given point. You’re always writing on what’s come before. But you’re all working towards this product that you hope – ultimately – is a little bit different from what other people are doing.’
Wild plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 May.