Recently in New York, lighting designer Nick Schlieper and set and costume designer Alice Babidge shared their thoughts on the creative process with Australian Stage journalist Dione Joseph, who also happened to be in Manhattan at the same time.
Here are their insiders’ perspectives to the making of STC's latest international touring production.
Jean Genet's play The Maids has been described in a number of ways: a challenge to the bourgeoisie, revenge and its insidious permutations, the illusion of reality as it should, could and might have been; and so on the list continues. But under the direction of Benedict Andrews (co-written with Andrew Upton) and with a stellar cast including Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki this latest version from STC is a creative attempt to re-examine some of the fundamental issues of all time through contemporary design.
But it is always the text that is the nexus of the work. As lighting designer Nick Schlieper identifies The Maids is a very 'slippery' piece of text and riddled with 'flaws' that in effect, play out to be the text's greatest strengths in reflecting our humanity back to us.
The interesting aspect to this production is that it is an international world premiere and engages with the challenges of taking a story on tour. “Productions that tour often find a life of their own” and as Schlieper explained, "It's not about simply reproducing a work, but actually making it better."
He added, "This is the first time its toured and there’s all the strange moments of déjà vu – when you remember, ah yes, this is one of those moment that work so well, and others when you remember that there are still challenges that may need to be responded to in different ways.”
On a practical note the New York City theatre is quite different from STC back home with the former boasting 2350 seats whereas the latter possessing only a mere 830. “The fact is – it’s a much bigger auditorium,” says Schlieper, “And we need to take into account that fact as well as numerous facets of the space so as to create as intimate an environment as possible while still retaining the integrity of the original set.”
Audience engagement is important to both creatives but as Babidge insists, her “work is made for an audience in general, not a specific audience, and to uphold the integrity of the work.”
She adds, “While there are previews and open dresses and this is a chance for audience feedback we either make decisions based on that information or we don’t.”
The attraction for working on this project for Babidge and Schlieper was two-fold, it was a chance to collaborate again and as Babidge pointed out “It is a collaboration that Nick and I come back to back again and again and then we have – Benedict directing, Andrew working on tour and Cate’s in it so you don’t necessarily think about it twice.
“It really is a bit of a family affair,” quips Schlieper, and in some ways that is quite appropriate for the play itself and its emphasis on sisterly scheming and survival.
As for every artist the creative process is fundamental to developing design and products that are contemporary and reflect contemporary concerns.
“Like with any show there’s never one simple decision. Every process is different and sometimes it takes an hour and then you still like it but then the next day arrives and you start questioning if it was too easy?”
The questions have been many and the hours long and much of the conversations have happened over Skype with different creatives in different countries.
“And that’s part of the interesting way in which we develop new ideas,” says Babidge, “Across borders and instantly so as to constantly re-examine what we already have come up with.
Very much like the show the design of the productions ask for a re-examination of perceptions, questions of surveillance, fragility and vulnerability and how we navigate all those areas within the frame provided by Genet, child of the shadows.
STC's production of The Maids by Jean Genet is playing New York's Lincoln Center until August 16, 2014. Details»
Top right – Nick Schlieper
Bottom right – Alice Babidge
Cover – STC's The Maids