Interview: Es Devlin
Published in Theatre der Zeit, 01.03.2013
Four operas, one dance piece, one play, two Rihanna performances and the small matter of an Olympics’ closing ceremony. That was Es Devlin’s 2012. Few designers can match her for output, but none – surely – can beat her for variety.
The year before, she was hopping between Hector Berlioz and Gary Barlow, designing Les Troyens for the London’s Royal Opera House and Take That’s Progress tour more or less simultaneously. Interestingly, the two had similarities. Take That got a sixty foot iron giant; Les Troyens, a massive horse made out of scrap metal. “There’s so much going on at once in my studio, things infiltrate,” she admits, “It’s pretty overt, really. There was a spate of shows with model cities in them recent. I don’t even resist it now.”
Today, the four black and white model theatres sitting in a semi-circle in her South London studio show no such bleeding. One is playfully naturalistic, cut-out figures milling around furniture. Another contains a vast, imposing, Escheresque grid of jutting stairs and buttressed walls. To the left, a wall dotted with geometric holes is being readied for a Pet Shop Boys tour, while the last is gradually becoming Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.
In the middle of these miniatures, as decisive as she is diminutive, is Devlin herself. (Later, she admits liking the God-like sensation of modelling: “You’re over it and in control.”) She tosses a last pointer to one of her three young assistants and marches upstairs to her family home for our interview. You’d never know she had been working until 5am that morning. Her open-plan kitchen is colourful and eclectic. Nothing matches per se, but everything is in order; it’s a perfectly balanced jumble.
The same could be said of Devlin’s assorted projects, but she personally prefers not to distinguish between them. Pop, theatre, opera are all the same to her; what The Theatre of Mistakes’ Peter Stickland once dubbed “dreaming in public.”
“It’s all about the live experience: people in a room, imagining things together, feeling things together and so becoming some kind of community,” she says, “That’s what we do, and theatre – I count pop as theatre – is probably the only place we do it.”
Such foundational principles are, she says, at the very heart of her process: “Charles Eames said, ‘Never delegate understanding.’ I ask myself those fundamental questions every day. Why do we make theatre? Why has someone bought a ticket? Why do they want to sit through this for three hours? Whatever the production, you have to answer those questions.”
Despite not being “that interested in theatre” in her youth, thanks to a diet of pantomimes and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, Devlin gradually weaved towards it. Opera proved more inspiring in her teens and, after degrees in English Literature and Fine Art (“I still love the smell of art schools; toxic inks and paint”), she wound up at a small independent set design course called Motley run from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. “Every night at about 10.30, you could hear the helicopter coming down in Miss Saigon.”
Theatre still wasn’t primary. “I thought, even if I hate this theatre business, I’ll have the key to a studio in Covent Garden and I can just paint and make shit, but I walked in and I just thought, ‘You are my species. These are my people.’ There was a real sense of belonging. The minute I walked in, there was no doubt.
“So I went to see everything. I got informed. There’s plenty of shit theatre about, and a few pieces of shit theatre will really put you off, but now I had people guiding me to extraordinary stuff.”
Out went Lloyd Webber. In came Complicite, Roberts Wilson and LePage – a diet of visual theatre influences that would set Devlin’s designs apart from the usual British, bland naturalistic fare. Three years on, she was asked to design Betrayal for the National Theatre and literally skipped out of the building. Her ghostly overlaid locations, like blueprints or photonegatives, took inspiration from the artist Racheal Whiteread’s House. “Poor Harold Pinter and his play. All it needed was a sofa and a chair and he got me. Skipping. It was a production born of intoxication with visual theatre.”
In 2003, she designed for the punk band WIRE, alongside the Chapman Brothers, and her work was picked up by Kanye West, then rising towards global renown, who chose her to design his Touch the Sky tour. Others followed: Take That, Mika, Jamie Cullum, Lady Gaga. “The reason pop stars starting getting interested in my work is because they liked the photographs they saw. Without blaring lights, you could see the people.”
That still governs her designs today. “With a pop concert, 80,000 people will see the show, but how many millions of people will see it this big online? It’s all about the image. What kind of postage stamp is it?”
There’s a strong streak of self-promotion about Devlin; she takes real care of her website (“It’s the book I don’t have time to write”) and credits a lot of her career to her photography. “A lot of people think they’ve seen my work, but they’ve only seen photos of it,” she explains, “The photograph of the event is not the event. It’s for me. It’s my take on it.”
In other words, it’s a consideration, but not the governing principle. With pop, she says, “you can’t forget you’ve got a roomful of people who want to move. You need to surround them with an atmosphere that’s not day-to-day. They don’t want to watch a film. They want to be in the music, in this atmosphere.”
It means there’s an immersive quality, no mean feat in an 80,000 seat stadium. “With arenas, you have to make the rules up because it’s air. In relation to a human being, the parameters are so wide that you can do anything.”
That gives Devlin permission to put herself into her work. “It means my little rag and bone shop of the heart, my nexus of obsessions, will bring more to bear on the overall impression…But if someone says, ‘Here’s a blank page, do what you want,’ I wouldn’t have anything to say had I not been wracking my brains over Wagner’s Ring Cycle or reading Schopenhauer to get to grips with Parsifal. The two are mutually imperative now.”
There’s a sense in which that stretches beyond design. “When I was young,’ says Devlin, “art was interesting. Now, it’s essential.”
And there’s no delineation between high and low, no trace of snobbery in that statement. “If you’re with 80,000 people, with the sun going down over Wembley Stadium, a man standing 20 metres high and a song everyone knows blaring out, I challenge you not to give in.”
Photograph: Johan Rosenmunthe