“My language is drawings and models”

The stage set is the bedrock of every performance. It brings together all the technical and creative professions in theatre. What is the specific appeal of stage designing? How do stage designers approach their work? BTR consulted award-winning stage designer Etienne Pluss.

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Mr Pluss, you were born in 1971 in Geneva, gained a high school leaving certificate in art and went straight on to open a gallery. How did you get from there to stage design?
Etienne Pluss: I opened the art gallery with a girlfriend. We had free access to a location in the city centre, a basement. In this gallery there was a long room where you could work on installations. I usually completed the installations myself because the artists didn’t have the time. So, I saw exactly how the space was completely transformed each month.

Then you applied to study at the Universität der Künste in Berlin.
Yes, I really wanted to go to Italy, I wasn’t familiar with Germany at all. I could speak German because of my mother, who’s from Vienna. But the French Swiss tend to go to France or Italy, and rarely to Germany. I was very lucky to get accepted by Universität der Künste in Berlin. I started studying in 1991 under Achim Freyer and gave up the gallery.

What lessons did you learn on your course that helped you later?
Achim Freyer is a painter, director and stage designer and taught us a lot about approaching the dramaturgy of an opera or play by visual means. How do people move in the space? Just two people walking away from each other, for example, creates an arc of tension. This spatial sensitivity, which the director Peter Brook also negotiates, was always very prominent in Freyer’s art. Even small gestures, like whether a hand stretches forwards or points slightly upwards, make a difference to the space. We learned most about fundamentals like that. We had four or five days of workshops on the stage. And drawing was important. It’s amazing how you can encapsulate a character in just a few lines.

How did you then break into the profession?
Freyer asked if I wanted to be his assistant before I had even graduated. The first production was ‘Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern’, a world premiere of the opera by Helmut Lachenmann at the Hamburg State Opera (1997). Then, surprisingly, he immediately hired me again for ‘Die Zauberflöte’ at the Salzburg Festival. He needed me at short notice because I was good at technical drawing, which I still did by hand.

Drawing is, then, a central part of your work …
Yes, to me it is even the key to the job of stage designer – translating the sketch into a model and then into a space. So much happens over those steps! When you submit the model, you’ve done most of your work. But of course, there are still a lot of detail sketches to do, people to talk to and changes to make.

In 2019 you were awarded the FAUST Prize, a major prize for stage design in Germany, for ‘Violetter Schnee’. Your stage set for the piece created a second plot line with its projection of the famous Bruegel painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’ in its true surroundings, Vienna’s art historical museum. How did this come about?
The production was very conceptual. We talked to the director Claus Guth and dramaturgist Yvonne Gebauer to approach the work via the dramaturgy. And we came up with the idea of visualising the various perceptual states, as a parallel story, to illustrate the increasing sense of apocalypse. The painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’ – a highly iconographic and enigmatic picture of last days – was our starting point. Because the painting is hanging in the Art Historical Museum in Vienna, it occurred to us to let the museum stand for a site of collective human civilization. We wanted to create images that underlined this existential decay in a fluid way, with open scene-changes, with a crescendo.

You had previously worked with Claus Guth in 2017 on a controversial production of ‘La Bohème’ at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. In this production, the bohemians don’t spend their time in smoky cafés and rundown attics but on a spaceship …
We set the opera in the future, in space, and look back on everything humanity has lost. It’s inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’. There is no oxygen anymore, no supplies, and not even a destination within reach. The bohemian/astronaut Rodolfo longs for his Mimi, for emotions, human warmth. The audience, in turn, longs for the bohemian way of life, artistic liberty and all the clichés associated with the Parisian Belle Époque. Things that are out of reach, and perhaps don’t even exist. And in combination with the music, which is somehow cosmic and expansive, shifts occur, and impactful images are created. Some people said it was the first time they understood what the opera is essentially about, even though it was initially controversial.

You seem to respond directly to the piece and not, like some of your colleagues, have an instantly recognisable signature style. How do you see your role in a production?
Most of the audience don’t need to know who the stage designer is. It’s true, you have the freedom and obligation to create a visual language and that makes you visible. But ideally, if the individual language is recognised, it should happen spontaneously. The key principle I learned from Achim Freyer is: The audience pays to see something; respect that above all else. At the start of every job we need to ask a lot of basic questions: What position does the audience have in this piece? Do they look up to or down on the stage? Does the audience act as judge, witness or participant? That is largely determined by the view they have of the stage and its design, the visual evidence. In some modern theatres, you look down from high up, and at a steep angle, on the performers, who then appear small and human. In old theatres you look up reverently from the stalls. You need to take that into consideration and use it in your design and adjust it if necessary.

What advice would you give to young people considering the profession?
You need to be passionate about it because it’s often far too much work for the pay you get. People don’t often realise that. But you have an incredible amount of freedom, too. A negative tendency I can see is to take less care with model building. More people are working with fast 3D visualisation programmes. Although they can be a good aid, if you rely on them, you run the risk of missing out on important insights that can only be gained through building a model. Digital work is standardising visual languages, and stops you making chance discoveries or seeing the space from new angles. Theatre has a very direct immediacy that is only partially illustrated by a computer. Basically, everything starts very simply with observing, researching, drawing and crafting models of spaces. In that process, drawing is like a language, a tool, with which you can combine very many facets. A stage designer who can’t draw is like a translator who can’t speak the language. It’s a key requirement.

Would you choose a career in stage design again?
Yes, definitely. Partly because there are also times when you just rest, read and observe. And it is amazing how you start from scratch with every new production, as if it were your first. That is great!


BTR Sonderband 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 112
von Karin Winkelsesser

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