Cloudstreet at the Malthouse Theatre

The house at number one Cloud Street is a great continent where two damaged clans collide. The two families—the Lambs and the Pickles—are as contrasting as the Australia they inhabit. Teetotallers and tipplers, workhorses or wastrels, fate makers versus chance chasers. But really, they’re two sides of the same coin; one that was tossed during World War II and remained in motion for decades. The power of this staggering Australian saga is more haunting than the ghosts who speak out from the walls. It’s more elusive than the serial killer who prowls their neighbourhood. It’s transcendent, like the Lambs and the Pickles themselves, whose lives and loves live on today.

Rosie spoke with set designer Zoe Atkinson about this epic work and what goes on behind the scenes of the shows we see. Read the full interview below:

Zoe Atkinson

Many theatre fans are quick to analyse and appreciate the work of an actor or a director, but often design gets overlooked, and it’s hard to have an idea of the incredible amount of work that goes into creating the phenomenal sets that we see on Australian stages. Can you break down your role as a set designer for our readers, and just how long you’re working on a production for before we see the finished product?

It rather depends on the production, but for a show like Cloudstreet it can be many months. The process begins with reading, talking with the director and other collaborators, and researching; during which time there's a great deal of drawing (I've sometimes measured drawings by the kilogram- a necessity of FIFO theatre design), model making and sometimes sewing or experimenting with different media. The actual role is simply one of storytelling. Scenography is a language just like spoken word, dance, music or painting.

You’ve got an impressive CV that spans across Australia, New Zealand and London, with a strong focus on operas. How has your extensive history in opera productions informed your creative decisions on this multi-generational epic?

Well... To be very honest... as much as I'd love to claim an extensive history in opera, I've really only done a very small handful. Opera, theatre and dance are all different forms, but I personally find them the most exciting when their edges blur. They're all commonly defined by a relationship between an audience and a performer.

That said, I suspect design plays a different role in opera than it does in theatre. Opera seems to afford grand gesture (you can get away with that when people are bursting into song, and the narratives in opera are often extreme). Cloudstreet has enormous themes running right through it- what is a soul? What is our relationship as contemporary Australians to a land that was stolen? What is the nature of god? I can imagine all of that in an opera; but not the domesticity which makes Cloudstreet so known, and familiar, and honest.

Cloudstreet has been a popular piece of Australian theatre for over 20 years; did you look to previous productions for inspiration? Why do you think artists want to keep telling this story?

I saw the original Belvoir/Black Swan production at the Festival of Perth many years ago, and I don't really remember that much about it in terms of detail. I recall that it was deeply moving, and that the ensemble nature of story telling was beautifully apparent. But I find generally it's not useful to reflect on previous productions of a work in the process of creating your own.

I think we're drawn to Cloudstreet because it somehow manages to be vast and beautiful not in spite of, but because of its ugly realism and its domesticity.

Cloudstreet is opening at the Malthouse Theatre, a venue that you’ve worked at several times before. What is it like approaching a familiar space and transforming it each time into a new world? Did designing the Cloudstreet set come with any particular challenges?

The best thing about building a relationship with a venue is getting to know its audience as much as its architecture. On the downside, I suspect I need to avoid relying on formulaic treatments of the space for solving particular technical issues. The Cloudstreet set has few genuine design challenges, but the ones it does have are simply enormous... luckily the production team at Malthouse is one of the very best in the country.

What did you hope to achieve with your design for Cloudstreet? What do you hope audiences will take away from the production as a whole?

We wanted to describe Fish's glimpse of soul ... and how that experience is held just beneath a surface; in a way that the other people in his life can't quite touch or see.

I always find it hard to say what I hope an audience takes away from the work. I can only create work that I personally understand and relate to. On occasion I've had things from shows I've worked on interpreted back to me by an audience member. Perhaps they've drawn a different meaning from a choice that I've made; which often delights and fascinates me. I love that there are so many different vantage points in the world: each time an audience looks- obviously through the lens of their own experience- they make a personal connection to it... could be good or bad. I like the possibility of that.

 

RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:

 

Favourite production you have ever seen?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Fractus Five. I wandered speechless into the Rotterdam night until my feet bled; and even then I couldn't rest.

You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?

Home. But if you asked that while I was actually back there, I'd decline the airplane and drive down to Nornalup, a small town in the deep of the South West, which is where my heart lies. If I had to get on a plane then I'd get off it in Finland.

Dream show to work on?

I think in terms of teams as equal to material, and naming names would be hard. But I have always wanted to tackle Patrick White.

Plays or musicals?

Definitely plays.

What’s next for you after this show?

The Life of Galileo at Belvoir

Cloudstreet is currently showing at the Malthouse Theatre until 16 June 2019. You can get your tickets here.

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