Astroman set design
Jonathon Oxlade

Designing the 80s

Set and Costume Designer Jonathon Oxlade delves into his personal history to remember and reimagine life in 1980s Geelong.

By Sarah Corridon

Set and Costume Designer Jonathon Oxlade delves into his personal history to remember and reimagine life in 1980s Geelong.

Astroman’s set and costume designer, Jonathon Oxlade, grew up in Rockhampton in the 1980s; a regional city in central Queensland that conceivably felt a lot like Geelong in 1984, albeit 2000km further north. Tapping into the world of Astroman’s protagonist, Jiembra (Jimmy) Djalu, was therefore a ‘dream project’ for Oxlade.

The 80s was an era saturated in popular-culture, which permeated Australia’s shores from overseas, Oxlade tells me. The Karate Kid, Star Trek, The Cannonball Run and Star Wars blew up silver screens, while Michael Jackson’s music video, Thriller, changed the course of music history. Spielberg, Madonna, Prince and the Super Mario Brothers were establishing themselves as icons, while mullets and acid-washed jeans were brandished by angst-ridden teenagers the world over. The youth of the 80s were also growing steadily addicted to arcade gaming parlours.

When Oxlade read Albert Belz’s script for the first time, the memories of his youth jumped off the page. ‘Albert has created a very filmic world,’ he says. ‘Stylistically, it’s really similar to the movies that premiered in the year it is set – 1984, and it’s very similar to the world I remember my sister and I growing up in.’

Capturing the time and place of that era was important, and not just through anyone’s perspective, Oxlade says. The world had to be seen through the eyes of Jimmy. As if the entire set was an extension of his bedroom; a kind of nest filled with the eclectic bits-and-bobs a 13-year-old boy would collect. ‘We wanted the space to feel like a collage of feelings and materials that were true to that era. I remember the 80s as filled with lots of fake wood veneer and soft toys. We wanted to litter the space with icons and references to this specific family – an Indigenous Australian family – and to their geographical setting.’

One of the challenges of creating this kitsch and colourful world in 2018, is the expense and availability of finding iconic 80s relics. What’s old is new again, and therefore sourcing genuine artefacts such as arcade consoles, BMX bikes and Sony Walkmans was an arduous task for Oxlade. Fortunately, MTC had a lot of these articles gathering dust in storage, and scenic art and props were able to create the rest.

The final array of props and set pieces that flood the Fairfax Studio’s stage are evidence of Oxlade’s custom of letting the design ‘grow’ over the rehearsal process. ‘It’s always growing and changing,’ he says. ‘For Tahlee, who plays Natalie, her costume just grew and grew and grew, which was symbolic of her character, a 16-year-old sister to younger twin brothers. She has the most costume changes of anyone, simply because we kept finding these garish garments in wardrobe that she just had to wear. While Elaine, who plays the mum, remains in the same costume for the entire play – a canteen uniform from the Ford factory where she works.’ This aesthetic choice was a reference to Charlie Brown Oxlade says; where the mum never changes clothes. 

Working with this particular creative team was a special experience for the self-described nomadic, but Adelaide based, designer. Having worked on many productions with sound designer and composer Jethro Woodward, the two creatives had already established a strong theatrical language, which organically weaved its way into the work. However, Astroman was Oxlade’s first time working with MTC Associate Director Sarah Goodes. ‘Sarah is so articulate and deft and precise about what she wants, but also so nurturing and reassuring in her process.’

‘She gives you clear instructions, but then allows just the right amount of space for you to play and explore. Put simply, she’s an incredible director.’

Many of the creatives and cast members in Astroman have travelled interstate for this production, Oxlade says. ‘So this show, more than others, really has felt like a family. From day one, there was so much warmth in the room, and I think you can see that joy come out in the production.’ 

Published on 20 November 2018

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