“The space should be the key player”
Ms Newton, you were born in 1976 in Munich, where you also went to school. After gaining your school-leaving certificate, you studied architecture in Dresden and then set design. What interested you about spatial concepts, both in architecture and stage sets?
Lena Newton: Spaces, and the stories they tell, always fascinated me. After doing various internships at theatres I was hooked and enrolled at the Dresden Academy of Arts. The course there was an excellent foundation, but I also wanted some freer training.
So, once I had passed the first set of exams, I went to the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam to continue my studies.
What was the course there like?
The director there, Arthur Kempenaar, is a painter so stage design was approached far more freely. I painted there, made videos, and generally took a step back from the ‘black box’. It was only in my last year that I joined the directing class, where I met Susanne Kennedy.
After graduating, you stayed in close contact with Susanne Kennedy. How did your cooperation evolve?
Susanne Kennedy went to work at the Nationaltheater Den Haag in 2007, where she put on two productions a year on which I could regularly cooperate. We were lucky to be able to work there although we were only beginners. Looking back, it was a very privileged situation. Back then in Holland there was a more-or-less permanent team who we could rely on for each new production. That was also when I got the opportunity to intensify my work with video and film at the Piet Zwar Institute in Rotterdam – through an MA course in Media and Design – which has always been an important part of my work. I am interested in how a screen works in cinema and how it works in theatre. The proscenium opening is to theatre what the camera frame is to film.
When Susanne Kennedy started working at the Munich Kammerspiele in 2011, you continued your cooperation there. But the conditions were no doubt different than in Holland.
It’s a wonderful place to work; the workshops are highly competent. The staff there live for their work and are proud of it! And we were often invited to work with other venues.
Your team was an immediate success in Munich with ‘Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt’, for which you received several awards. How did you create that claustrophobic, grey space?
The set for ‘Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt’ was based on my work with film. It is made up of a filmic sequence of images, interspersed with blackouts. The space itself is meant to be the key player, the aggressor. Because the piece is about violence within the family and the small-town community. It shows how the home, which is supposed to be a shelter, can become an aggressor. We used the stage machinery to produce blackouts, underlined by loud noises. The machinery provides the rhythm: There is a blackout, an image, then another blackout etc. That was a reference to film. And it generated an oppressive atmosphere that hangs over the characters like a threat.
In ‘Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt’ we experimented with playback for the first time. By separating the audience’s visual perception of the actors from the aural perception of their voices, we made the recorded voice an independent element. And here it is part of the machinery, too, from which nobody can escape, not even the audience.
Enclosed, often dual spaces, and spaces-within-spaces, are a characteristic feature of your work. But for ‘The Virgin Suicides’ you came up with a different concept, a multifaceted stage that protrudes into the auditorium. How did you come to associate death with a multicoloured space like that?
That production was very close to my heart. Dealing with death, working with the strong colours and different materials just seemed right. Death is celebrated in a colourful way in many cultures, like the Mexican Day of the Dead. We consulted the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It describes how a person’s consciousness enters a transitional state when they die. For 49 days, the deceased is taken through three transitional states, or bardos, until they are reborn. Theatre as a ritual, where we rehearse dying – that was my initial idea.
We see a kind of temple, an altar. The altar’s symmetry focuses the viewer and encourages concentration, and its depth draws them in. I was inspired by the architecture of Nō theatre, which has a strongly ritualized form. The shape, and especially the combination of painting and figures, was also influenced by Christian winged altars.
You are a graduate of Media Design and interested in media usage. What role do modern media play in your work?
I’ve always been interested in video and other media in theatre. I like to find out when they work and when they smother everything else because they demand all the attention. And they have dramaturgical implications as well as technical. Our viewing habits have changed. For example, we’ve got used to films being faster paced. Ultimately, how we deal with media also influences the way we watch plays or look at art. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of blending, and different art forms influencing each other and bearing new fruit. Through my collaborations in theatre, I was lucky enough to find people who share this fascination. In Dutch they have a nice word for it – kruisbestuiving – cross-pollination!
Since 2019 you have held a professorship at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, so you are in permanent contact with the younger generation. What and how do you teach there?
I take the stage design class, which currently has 18 students, who each stay for about four years. Many of those who join the class are independent artists who are not only interested in stage design but also in other performative arts. That suits me, having lived with my family in the Netherlands for many years and taught there too. Combining theatre with visual art or digital media is far more usual in the Netherlands. With my experience in that field, alongside the standard theatre subjects of dramaturgy, technical drawing and lighting and video technology, I also offer block seminars on performance and space in Düsseldorf.
Do you see stage design as a career with a future, which you would recommend?
Definitely. I would choose it again! And it is changing, too. I find current developments really exciting. One example: While we were still discussing whether and how we should hold seminars online because of the Corona restrictions, one student had already devised an entire theatre project on Skype. Students’ ability and willingness to adapt to new situations is amazing compared to when I was a student.
In my address to mark the start of my professorship, I talked about working methods. When I said that the stage sets all end up in the rubbish tip, I could see that the students thought they should be re-used … and that it went without saying for them to handle resources accordingly. Its an inspiration and a relief to me that the upcoming generation gives far more thought to things like that. They can teach me a lot.
Running a modern theatre involves around 50 different professions, from traditional crafts to high-tech media specialisation. Young people are urgently needed to make up the next generation of stage craftspeople, especially in the manual, technical professions. Working in the background, they are far from the limelight – but essential for creating it. Reason enough for BTR to take readers...
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