2016 was an exceptional year for London-based German designer Anna Fleischle.
After winning a trio of best design awards for Martin McDonagh’s Hangman (the Critics’ Circle Award 2015, the Evening Standard Award for Best Design 2015 and an Olivier Award for Best Set Design 2016) she provided the look for Matthew Perry’s The End of Longing and Melly Still’s RSC production of Cymbeline.
Fleischle, teams up again with Still for Tiger Bay the Musical, creating the unique atmosphere of Cardiff’s bustling port at the turn of the century.
What attracted you to the Tiger Bay the Musical project?
I have worked with the director Melly Still several times before and we have a very good and inspiring working relationship. But also I liked the idea of a co-production between Wales and South Africa. I am very interested in how we can positively connect as human beings no matter where we originate from. Especially in our times again now, when fear of others seems to dominate, it is so hugely important to concentrate on how getting to know another country and the people from it is always enriching. Now more than ever it is an unavoidable and necessary process. The story of Tiger Bay the Musical, as well as its production context, deals with this question.
Can you describe your creative approach to Tiger Bay the Musical?
I was fascinated by Cardiff and its harbour life at the turn of the last century: the way coal mining dominated the city, by the size of the harbour and the machinery used to transport vast amounts of coal, and the mix of nationalities being thrown together though the harbour. My approach was to try to capture this in an atmosphere and setting that was partly specific and yet abstract enough to allow the audience to be transported to different places within the setting.
What kind of design can Tiger Bay the Musical audiences anticipate?
I tried to create something that most prominently gives you the sense of being in an industrial environment in the early 20th century. Man versus machine. The sense that the industry is impressive and huge but therefore also overshadows the human being – dwarfing them into little ants that are needed in masses to make the whole thing work.
What is the first thing that you do when you design a set?
I try to immerse myself in the setting and atmosphere of the piece. It is about finding the inner core of it and then thinking of ways to visually portray this on stage. It is important to keep calling yourself back to what you want the audience to experience.
Can you explain the relationship between a director and a designer? Does the director dictate the look and feel of the piece or do directors differ in their approach? Which type of director do you enjoy working with most?
The way a director and designer work together varies massively. Sometimes a director has a very clear idea of setting or general style but more often the look of a piece is driven by the designer. We are the first people to start working on a project – usually months before anyone else – and who have to deliver the final look a long time before rehearsals begin. I very much enjoy being the one who creates the look and feel of a show and tend to work more with directors who are open for a designer to take the first steps.
How does it feel when the curtain raises for the first time and you are able to gauge the audience’s response to your designs?
It is always an exciting but equally nerve-wracking moment. I think what people tend to forget is that as designers, directors etc, we lay ourselves bare and open for criticism every time we present a show. You give each project such an incredible amount of thought, time and space out of your life. It would therefore be silly to deny that it matters hugely if your audience experiences it how you hoped they would.
What design principles do you hold sacred and how did you develop these principles?
To me, the main thing is to be truthful to the story. To really try to tell it how you think it should be told – to try to create something that makes the audience experience it the way you think it should be experienced.
Can you choose three career highlights?
Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen at the Royal Court – working with my closest collaborator, Matthew Dunster; working with Lloyd Newson on John and Can We Talk About This for DV8 Physical Theatre; and working with Simon McBurney on Beware of Pity and The Kid Stays In The Picture. All incredibly brave theatre makers who believe in what they do, whose work is uncompromising, necessary and truthful.
How did winning the Olivier award for Hangmen in 2016 affect your career? Was it a game changer or business as usual?
It is interesting how people seem to need a stamp of approval – not everyone – but what I feel has changed most is that you now come with the attachment that you have been officially rated as good. It does make things easier; it most definitely opens doors. With this stamp of approval you subsequently have also been given a louder voice. I am hoping to use this voice as an opportunity to change things for the better for my profession. Designers in general are not given enough credit for the input they have into a piece of stage work and both making it in the profession and the conditions we work under need to be re-assessed, improved and updated.