Describing set models

An audio descriptive guide to the exhibition ‘Playing with Scale’ can be downloaded from the National Theatre’s exhibition page. The guide is designed for blind and partially sighted visitors and includes all the caption text on the walls and descriptions of the visual elements of the exhibition, as well as basic information about navigating around the exhibition. The accompanying programme also included a tour advertised as accessible to blind and partially sighted visitors. 

Storyteller Liz Porter and I led a joint workshop tour of the exhibition on Saturday 2 March. We began by talking about how models relate to our experience of performance. I described how the scale model is a site of interaction for many different people who need to understand how the performance space will work in three dimensions: from actors to prop-makers, production engineers to box office staff. Each of these will be paying attention to different aspects, depending on their previous experience and what information they need to get from the model. Liz talked about how some theatre companies, including Graeae, make set models available to the audience to explore before the performance. As a partially-sighted theatre-goer, she can gain an understanding of the space and an idea of the design concept from the model. This might be supplemented with a touch tour or live audio description through the performance.

We invited participants on the tour to collaborate in describing the set models in the exhibition, finding words to describe their visual impressions. We set aside previous knowledge of these plays or productions to draw out the rich detail contained in the physical models. We were using a methodology drawn from creative writing sessions with school groups at the Wallace Collection and elsewhere – starting by assembling a collaborative account of the object, then playing imaginatively with the world it evokes.

The first model, Geoffrey Scott’s design for The Plough and the Stars, was described by one participant as a ‘dilapidated Georgian building’. Using a torch, we picked out details that might have been unremarked at first: broken panels in the fanlight above the door, torn net curtains at the windows, battered iron railings. People standing on the left-hand side noticed the wooden trusses bracing the wall. Details like these are crucial in creating an overall impression, and are closely studied by scenic artists.

The exhibition focuses on designs for the Olivier Theatre, so we then considered some of the specific features of the space, especially the drum revolve.

Heading to the model of Anthony and Cleopatra, designed by Hildegard Bechtler, we looked at two scale models of ideas for the scene of the party on board Pompey’s ship: an early design in white card, and the final design, painted and complete with detailed door furniture and props. The group felt that the first room, with its upholstered curved benches, had the feel of an ‘exclusive’, ‘club’ setting, while the second was more of a utilitarian space, with strip lighting, a metal wall and plastic beer crates. What kind of party would happen in each place? The chance to compare early and final designs gave rise to discussion about how design and performance ideas evolve together through the pre-production period.

Splitting into two, we speculated about the kind of performance or storyline invited by two very different models. One group imagining a new ‘rags to riches’ musical from Bunny Christie’s set for The Comedy of Errors. It began with its impoverished fashion designer protagonist in a monochrome world, but burst into colour as the set revolved, with characters singing from the balconies. The second group looked at Anthony Ward’s set for Exit the King, focusing on how senses other than the visual are implied in the model: cast-iron radiators that might be boiling hot but have no impact on the vast, draughty space with wide cracks in the back wall; the speakers mounted high on the wall that suggested a police state, with broadcast announcements alongside the live speech of the actors.

The workshop was an experiment in collaboration with the participants: we hoped to   make the visual elements of the exhibition accessible to blind and partially sighted visitors, exploring the emotional and sensory worlds evoked by each model, but also to suggest that can be no single, ‘correct’ or ‘complete’ verbal description of any set model. What we ‘see’ depends on many factors, and can be enriched in conversation with other people.

The exhibition continues untill 11 May. 

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