Wild Swans Wild Swans photos copyright of Lucy Sierra
Miriam Buether is the Theatre Set Designer of Sucker Punch, Wild Swan and Chariots of Fire, to mention just a few. Her set designs are some of the most innovative in the theatre world. She likes to ‘wrap the set and the action around the audience’. Curious to find out more, OffScreen went to talk to Miriam.
Where did you study?
I studied Theatre Design at Central Saint Martins in London and Costume Design in Hamburg, Germany.
What were you creating as a student and what influenced you?
As students working on a project we used to be not only designers, but also directors, writers and choreographers, all in one. So my designs often incorporated a strong performance element, were very ambitious and mostly totally impractical.
I was and still am influenced by so many things: architecture, film, installation art, photography, and fine art. And theatre groups, like the Wooster Group, Punchdrunk, and directors like Romeo Castellucci, and German Theatre (people like Christoph Marthaler, Andreas Kriegenburg). I used to see a lot of shows in London and Berlin.
How and why were you drawn toward set design?
After studying Costume Design in Hamburg I worked with an installation artist for two years and discovered ‘space’. But I found working as an artist quite lonely. I’m a very collaborative person so I moved into set design, which is a much more collaborative process.
Your parents were architects. How did their work influence you?
My father is an architect, my mother a landscape architect. I grew up with models, plans and many ideas. I used to colour in my parents’ technical drawings, not to their delight. My brother also became an architect. He used to laugh at my theatre budgets.
You grew up in East Berlin when Germany was still divided. Did East German theatre influence your theatre design?
East German theatre was very political; places like the Berliner Ensemble or the Volksbuhne were very proactive. Brecht’s followers, like Heiner Muller, were a significant influence. But as I was only a teenager when we left East Germany, it influenced my whole life rather than just my theatre design. I think growing up in two different political systems, first in a socialist communist country, and then in a capitalist world, influenced the way I think in that I take nothing for granted. Anything can be questioned, because I know both sides.
What was the first set you designed?
It was Martin Crimp’s play, Attempts On Her Life, which I designed for two friends of mine who studied directing at Goldmiths College at the time. The two directors split the play and rehearsed separately with a small cast of women, each without knowing what the other did. I was the link. I gave all the women that were cast basic underwear, and one group blonde wigs, the other brown wigs. I designed it as a promenade piece, different installations all over the theatre that the audience had to follow. The costumes were part of the installation and the cast put them on just before or while playing the scene. It was a great show and very enjoyable, and it was wonderful that Martin came and liked it very much.
How did your collaboration with Sacha Wares start? How do you work together?
Katie Mitchell introduced me to Sacha Wares. I remember Katie saying that there was someone as bad at compromising as me who I should meet. So I met Sacha, and we clicked straight away. Although our artistic relationship took a couple of years to develop, we are now not only great collaborators but also very good friends, and so are our children.
Sucker Punch model - Courtesy of Miriam Buether
How many projects have you worked on together? Creatively, which has been the most rewarding?
Bintou (Arcola), Platform (ICA), Guantanamo (Tricycle), Trade (Soho), Generations and Wild Swans (Young Vic), My Child and Sucker Punch (Royal Court). They were all very rewarding for different reasons. Sacha is a visionary. Set design is very important to her. I guess Platform was one of my favourite set designs, although strangely it didn’t cause such a stir. Audiences were sat in individual peepshow booths and watched the action through a letterbox, listening to the story over headphones. We built four identical shabby hotel rooms that were divided by a wall made partly of glass panels and mirrors, which reflected the room opposite and showed parts of the other rooms. People could not work out how it was done. It is one of the few models I keep, in the top shelf of my studio.
What is the last thing you and Sacha Wares worked together on?
Wild Swans at Young Vic Theatre in the spring of 2012. It was a project that had to be coordinated and held together in three countries on different continents – the UK, China and the States.
The idea for the set design was to put thirty years of China in a box, to keep the story focused, but we also felt we had to keep everything moving. So with the help of the actors we transformed the stage in full view of the audience from tableau to tableau. Walls changed from bamboo to hospital white, to propaganda posters, then to video, and meanwhile the floor of the stage is changing from dust, to earth, to wood, to water, then to concrete. For the poster wall we used a screen print effect that was only visible when the set was brushed with water by the actors as part of the action. The print images would magically appear and then fade to white by the end of the scene. It was a prototype, and very difficult to trial on that scale.
When you get the script of a play, how do you start your creative process?
I tend to ignore all stage directions when I read a play. It’s a conscious choice to do that, to keep my own responses open and free. I read a play a few times and scribble down spontaneous thoughts. I then meet the director, sometimes take some images or books, or we go and see an exhibition together or a film, things which seem to relate to the script even though there mostly is no direct connection. It’s always great to meet the writer (should he/she be alive) and discuss the play or see images he/she has in mind.
It has been said that your designs are ‘totally uncompromising and very complete’. How do you make them so?
Thanks. I just don’t like to compromise. There are a number of circumstances in which you may have to compromise, like budget, lack of time, difficult spaces. But if you work through these problems with the right people and everyone is creative about it, the compromises are reduced.
It’s a nice way to describe my sets, as complete. It’s another way of talking about attention to detail. Everyone involved has to work very hard, right up to press night.
You are known for making ‘environmental theatre’. Can you tell me what it’s all about?
Environmental theatre is about getting closer to the audience. Rather than produce a set design that is just being inhabited by the actors, you create an environment where the audience member also has a place or role. You could say you wrap the set and action around them.
What attracts you to environmental theatre?
I believe it makes an audience more alert when watching the play, as they can’t lean back in the dark, but they are part of it and share responsibility. But environmental theatre doesn’t suit every play. You can’t be dogmatic about it.
How did your relationship with the Royal Court Theatre begin?
Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia came to the Court, which we had created for the National Theatre in Scotland. It was a milestone in my career.
Your set design for Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch combined the physical and the emotional landscape. What was your aim for the play and the audience?
With Sucker Punch we were trying to stage another kind of event, in this case a sports event, as a contrast to what you expect from a theatre experience. The ring itself was so central to Roy’s play; that’s the way he wrote it. We used the ring in the gym. It worked as the training ring, but it also worked for the fights. Mirrors flanked the ring to reflect and amplify the action of the play and to resonate the emotions.
What were the main challenges of designing and installing the set of Sucker Punch at the Royal Court?
We had to turn the Royal Court into the round, as the boxing ring had to go in the middle. So we built a new balcony on stage which mirrored the existing balcony in the auditorium. As it had nearly the same number of seats it had to be looked at by a structural engineer. Once the technical drawings were completed, Paul Handley, the production manager, said the whole thing looked more like an oil rig than a set. We took all the seats out in the stalls and replaced them with ‘80s bucket chairs.
My Child. Photo courtesy of Miriam Buether
The set for Mike Bartlett’s play My Child was revolutionary. What inspired you to create a huge white tube carriage for the staging of the play?
It actually wasn’t just one thing. I wanted to create a public space, a mixture of tube carriage, Starbucks, a road. The advertising was very important, telling us how to live our lives everyday. Mike wanted the actors just to step forward and play their part, so they had to mingle with the audience from the start.
We took all the seats out in the stalls and built another complete space, with ceiling, from the back of the stalls to the back of the stage. People who saw the show didn’t know where the Royal Court had gone.
Environmental set design may be considered to be for experimental theatre. Your set for Chariots of Fire breaks those rules. What inspired you to make the set as you did?
Chariots of Fire was all about staging the races. Each race was different, and each separate race is a separate moment in telling the story. We had to have a set with options and the breadth to do that. It was originally designed for Hampstead Theatre, which was easier to configure than the Gielgud later.
There was a risk with Chariots of Fire that without finding a way of staging the running itself, the physicality and elegance, the speed and effort, there was no reason to adapt the film. This was something that Ed Hall and I discussed at the start of the process. In the film, there were wonderful slow motion sequences, and that’s a cinematic response to the same question. With the theatre, we used the auditorium, and brought the running track as close to the audience as we could. We weren’t trying to be “experimental” in that sense. We were trying to stage the play, although it wasn’t easy to make that argument to West End producers when it transferred to the Gielgud.
Your set design is always bold and challenging. To date which of your sets has been the ‘stand-out’ one for you?
I like different sets for different reasons. And with every new play comes a new challenge. It’s nice to be the first to configure a particular theatre in a new way, and sometimes that can give a lot to the production. But the most successful designs are the ones where everything comes together: the configuration, the use of colour for example, the lighting design, the way the actors inhabit the space.
Can you tell us about a set you designed that you thought may have pushed a step to far, but worked in the end?
Mostly my sets are very ambitious, costly, and not so straightforward to realize. And as theatre is all about collaboration, you are dependent on the people you are working with. You mostly have to push for all the ideas to get realized; the better the team, the easier the process and the better the production in the end.
Is it possible to make set design for opera environmental? If it is, can you give an example taken from your work?
It is certainly more difficult, but I have tried to do that together with Richard Jones for Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House. We made a replica of the front curtain in bright pink, and rather than the Queen’s initials it had Anna Nicole’s. We hung a medallion of Anna in front of the Queen’s. In the foyer we replaced all images with headshots of Anna. We put her facemasks over the cherubs on the balcony and we put paper bags with her face over the statues in the foyer. People felt it was provocative, and it was meant to be. We wanted to colonize the building as Anna had colonized the media for such a long time. It was a lot of fun.
Is there an opera you would like to do the set and costume design for that you haven’t designed as yet?
I have only designed five operas so far, but I like working in opera very much. Fanciulla del West for ENO with Richard Jones is my next project.
Is there a playwright or director you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with?
I’m lucky… I have worked with lots of great people. I’d like to work in Berlin maybe.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m actually on maternity leave as I had another baby three months ago. I will start again with Public Enemy at the Young Vic in May. At the moment I’m just trying to be a good parent, which is every bit as challenging. It’s not at all easy trying to reconfigure your own children.