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Surry Hills based Alphabet Studio have recently unveiled their designs for the Belvoir Theatre 2013 season, and to celebrate this milestone we’re taking a look back at Alphabet’s 13 year long working relationship with the theatre company.
It’s an interesting case study for long-term partnerships in design, demonstrating how the developing styles of a studio can be aligned with the evolving focus of the client. In this first part of my conversation with Tim and Paul from Alphabet, we take a look at how they have addressed the challenges of working in Australia’s cultural sector, and examine the decade of work leading up to a significant re-brand and repositioning of Belvoir.
How did your relationship with Belvoir begin?
Tim: Paul had worked with Peter Wood, the marketing manager at Belvoir in 1999, on other projects. At the time Paul was working for Bell Shakespeare theatre company, so when the opportunity became available he put Peter in contact with me. It just kind of rolled on from there. I started working on B Sharp (the downstairs theatre season) and eventually the marketing for the main stage.
What is the philosophy of Belvoir, and how has it changed over the years?
Much of the philosophy has remained the same for the past 25 years, with a few key differences with each new artistic director. Belvoir, then known as Company B Belvoir, has always been about resourcefulness, given the small budgets they have to work with and also the very nature of theatre-making where the story-telling process is aided by the inventive use of props to suggest something more all-encompassing than the confined space of the stage.
What was the concept behind the initial campaign you designed for Belvoir?
From 1997 through to 2010 Neil Armfield was artistic director of the company and his vision was the primary influence on the style. He had developed an aesthetic with graphic and set designer Robert Cousins and I continued to evolve that look in the early 2000′s. It was a look inspired by the the raw materials and hand-made quality of theatre making. Canvas, floorboards, paint, simple props, combined with the excitement and animation brought to all of this by the actors. The infinite wonder of what the human face is capable of expressing became our key area of creative exploration in the photography.
Who was the Belvoir audience over this time period, and how did your designs communicate with them?
The audience was drawn to the hand-made quality of theatre making. The rawness of the theatre experience as opposed to the 2 dimensional experience of film, for example. The aim with the graphic style at the time was to emulate that experience.
Humour seems to have played a big part in your designs over this period. It’s a tricky thing to get right, and not something we see all that frequently in design these days. How do you achieve that particular tone?
We relied very much on spontaneity in the photo shoots. It was important not to be too specific going in to the shoot, and allow enough room for the us to play around with different ideas and expressions or physical interaction with the prop at hand.
What were the tools and processes used to create the looks of these seasons?
There was a lot of ink. Dirty hands. Traditional pen nibs. The aged empty pages in the front or back of old books provided a good base for the designs. Lots and lots of scanning of hand-made elements rather than creating the effects on computer. That said, once the raw elements were scanned in there was still plenty of manipulation on computer. The idea though was that you didn’t really see the evidence of the computer’s role in the process.
You’ve worked with a number of different arts and theatre companies over the years. What are the particular challenges in working with these types of organisations?
Tim and Paul: Budget is always a major consideration. Economical and resourceful ideas are often the most appropriate. Marketing a long way ahead of when the product is to be released. So imagining a compete 2013 season in The early half of 2012. Generating interest in a production that doesn’t yet exist, in some cases it may just be a loose idea, with a title, an incomplete script, no rehearsals as yet, no set design cues, maybe just one actor cast, and a director appointed but who hasn’t yet begun to develop a complete vision for the production. Unlike a film or book, for example, which will be mostly compete by the time the marketing collateral is being designed.
Coming Up: Belvoir (2011 — 2013)