Show artwork for Designing a playground for debate
Simon Maiden and Kat Stewart in Admissions. Photo: Jeff Busby

Designing a playground for debate

A sharp-witted play requires an agile and fast-paced set. We talk to Set Designer Jacob Battista about how he achieved this for Admissions, where he found inspiration and why he hopes audiences are left questioning.

What were your thoughts when you first read the script for Admissions?

Admissions is a smart and funny play. It's quite quick but the characters have big sweeping monologues. Their opinions, their attitudes and what they believe in are so strong, and that is where the friction is created. I have worked with Director Gary Abrahams on another play by Joshua Harmon called Bad Jews. It reminded me a lot of that work, in which the comedy and the humour of it comes from the realness of the characters. Their core beliefs and opinions travel through the piece so strongly, and it is these beliefs and the tension they cause that creates the comedy. As an audience member, it also allows you to question. What is right and what is wrong? And who's making the right decision? So I think that when I first read it, I enjoyed that I was left questioning myself. Asking, who is right? What opinion is the right opinion? Who gives up their seat at the table to make room for someone else? That is the core question of the play.

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Kat Stewart and Deidre Rubenstein in Admissions. Photo: Jeff Busby

Where did your design research begin?

Because the play needs a lot of naturalism to ground it, we started by looking at the real-life settings the characters would inhabit. What style of house would these people live in? What style of school would Charlie go to, and the mother and father both work at? We really went down that naturalistic path of working out who these characters were.

We then looked to a lot of architectural references around the idea of knowledge, for example the juxtaposition of old and new libraries. We looked at a number of different examples just to try and work out the space. We explored reoccurring shapes that appeared in these styles of architecture, things like arches, brickwork and stone, which are elements that carry over in the design.

We really looked at creating a realistic space that had everything it needed to be a house but also spoke to age and the history that came with this family. I think the way privilege is shown is through history: I am only here today because of what has come before me. And that can come through in an architectural sense. Especially in the US, like many parts of the world, they have buildings and architecture that are much older than those who inhabit it today, and that felt important to help shape a strong basis for the conflict the script is built on. This led us to set the school in an older building of a school campus. I tried to bring that through to the house as well because for this family, school is life. They are the principal and head of admissions and a student at the same school. So they go home and they talk school and it kind of takes over their whole life. It is always surrounding them.

As you mentioned, you have worked with Gary Abrahams before on another Joshua Harmon play Bad Jews. What do you like most about designing for Joshua’s plays?

What I like about Joshua's plays is they sit in my wheelhouse a little bit. I like creating worlds that are quite naturalistic and feel his work really requires a certain level of that to get the message across to the audience. Admissions needs realism so his characters have a heightened ability to perform and express their opinions – a playground to debate in. And that was the same for Bad Jews, which for the most part is set in one bedroom, a tiny little studio apartment in New York.

It’s about designing a set where the cast and creatives can have space to explore and play. It allows moments of quiet and stillness, but also moments of drama and theatricality. The audience can be taken on a ride rather than spend the whole night wondering where they are.

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Heidi Arena and Kat Stewart in Admissions. Photo: Jeff Busby

What was the most challenging part of this design process?

I guess it was merging two worlds together, the school and home, and making sure the set had the ability to maintain the pace the play requires – that we weren't sitting in endless scene changes all night going between the home and the school. And whilst doing that also resolving things like changes in the time, because it takes place over a number of months. We needed to maintain the speed in transitions, but also allow that transformation of time to take place.

Kat Stewart who plays Sherri never leaves the stage, so we also needed a set that was functional in regards to having a space for the narrative to unfold in. So I guess the most challenging part has been problem solving how the machine of the play works, in a world that is still realistic.

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Simon Maiden, William McKenna and Kat Stewart in Admissions. Photo: Jeff Busby

Did deciding to have a revolve offer the solution to these challenges?

Whilst the revolve offered us a solution to some of the challenges that the script presents, particularly in regards to locations and moving through time, what Gary and I were really interested in playing with was the idea of perspectives – whose perspective do we see each moment in?

Can we switch this perspective throughout a scene by shifting and manipulating the revolve to take us to a slightly different angle of the same room and, like a camera in a film, change the audience’s focus of the scene? As we have progressed the design we still think that this is a pretty central thought in our approach. Whose eyes do we see this moment through and why do they believe their opinion is right?

What do you hope audiences feel or experience when they come and see the show?

I hope they feel taken on a ride and are left questioning, ‘What would I do for the person who needs it most?’ And that may not be about just education or access to something, it could be about anything. I hope we’re all left thinking about what we do to help others. That’s what all theatre should be doing in some way, creating that conversation.

Admissions is on stage at Southbank Theatre.

Published on 7 March 2022

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