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Lysander Ashton, Director of 59 Productions, talks set design, live video and projection mapping with Eleanor Turney

59 Productions’ Director Lysander Ashton is no stranger to technical wizardry. The company is a Tony Award-winning group of artists behind the video design of the Opening Ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games, globe-trotting smash hit War Horse, the design and creative direction of the record-breaking David Bowie is exhibition and the decor concept design for The Met Ball, hosted by Anna Wintour. Made up of designers, writers, directors, architects, animators, artists and technologists, 59 Productions works in a range of disciplines, from projection mapping to exhibition design; from VR experiences to events; from theatre to technical consultancy.

Recently, the company worked on a new stage adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel, City of Glass. The show featured incredible projection-mapped video design (by Ashton), allowing the set to splinter, dissolve and take the audience right into the novel’s mysterious, noir-ish world. Auster’s multi-layered story keeps you guessing about what is real and what is imagined, greatly helped by the instant changes in scene and mood that the projections allow.

A still from the VR experience; A room with with a wooden floor and assorted furniture with shadows cast from a slatted blinds

Ashton says: “I think there's something in the narrative of that story, in that it talks about different realities existing simultaneously on top of each other. With a turn of phrase, it can flip between two realities. It's so fast and so deft in the book, and we wanted to be able to do that on stage – to change the set in a fraction of a second from one location to another. We were able to essentially do a hard cut – like a film but on a set – between different locations. It also allows you to create two locations on top of each other; a kind of superimposition of these different realities. And those were the kinds of things in the book that we really wanted to try to do with the technology.”

Keeping it live

Ashton’s ‘like a film’ comment struck me, because a live production comes with hiccups, fallible actors and all the idiosyncrasies of theatre – nothing can be edited out. “Yeah it's definitely a challenge,” laughs Ashton, “particularly for the lighting designer who has to tie the two worlds of theatre and video together. But I think it works well for the performers, because they are able to see and inhabit those worlds.

“In terms of how to keep it live, we've had a lot of experience with projection mapping for music shows. The music changes – an orchestra is made up of tens of people, and a conductor who may vary their tempo from night to night. The video to go alongside it is built to be flexible, so you can stretch and squash and squeeze it to the tempo and it'll still work. It's not rigid like any other video file might be. Everything is broken down into lots of layers, all of which can be controlled independently, so you can cue things very precisely off actions onstage, or musical cues.”

New realities

As well as providing video and stage design for the production itself, 59 Productions also made My Name is Peter Stillman, a virtual reality experience inspired by Auster’s work. It opened at HOME in Manchester in February 2017 and transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith in London, alongside the stage production of City of Glass, in April 2017.

This experience combines hand-drawn animation and VR technology to distort the line between reality and fiction, placing audiences at the centre of Auster’s strange and haunting story. My Name is Peter Stillman uses an Oculus Rift VR headset, and although it feeds into City of Glass, it is also a story to be experienced in its own right.

The character in the VR experience is looking down at their grey legs and hands while sitting at a wooden desk with a computer keyboard and pile of books.A still from My Name is Peter Stillman VR experience

For Ashton, this is a direction the company is interested in: “We’re working on more virtual reality pieces after the success of Peter Stillman. In terms of storytelling projects that are specifically self-contained VR pieces, that’s very interesting to us. The idea of combining that with theatre, using VR or AR technology, is really interesting as well. So I think there’s definitely going to be some intriguing work done with that in the next year or two.”

A woman wearing a VR headset looks out a window at a character from the virtual reality experience. She is sitting at a desk with coffee and a typewriterA woman using the My Name is Peter Stillman VR experience

Beyond traditional design

What was so interesting about the stage production of City of Glass was the way that Ashton and his team integrated the digital design so thoroughly with the physical set and actors. “The physical set design that we do uses a lot of digital tools, whereas a lot of designers do their design work using beautiful cardboard models and then hand that off to the production manager to make. Our design process is much more based in architectural fields, so everything is modelled in 3D in software. That meant we were designing the 3D architectural physical design and working on all the visualisations for the projection mapping in 3D at the same time.

The two digital workflows meshed together, which meant that we were able to do things to a much finer level of complexity than would be possible using a traditional theatre design process. So, for example, we had to hide all of the projectors on stage so the audience can't see them, but they also had to cover all areas of the set without causing shadowing. There was a huge amount of back and forth – if we move that projector here, we have to pull that bit of wall out by 2cm so it doesn't cause a shadow. That fine level of detail needs to happen in 3D rather than on 2D plans, so the technology was part of the process right from the beginning.”

Focus on story

By embedding the technology from the start, as Ashton describes, there is a danger that the tools could overwhelm the artistic intention, especially in such a convoluted story. “We’re very conscious that the technology shouldn’t overshadow the storytelling,” explains Ashton. “That’s something we’ve always been scared of, because that is the danger – people can get carried away about what the tools can do, and forget why you’re using them at all. The key for us is that the technology is always a tool to be used to tell good stories and move audiences. Technology can be a good way of achieving that, but it’s not an end in itself. We don’t try and do something with video that would be better done by performance.

“Auster’s novel is a complicated piece of modern fiction in which the narrative is not immediately clear,” continues Ashton. “How one could put that on stage was an exciting question. Because we use technology in almost all of our work to differing degrees and we've been doing video design for stage for a long time, that had always been a part of how we might do it. From the very beginning of talking about how we'd put this on stage, we knew the video design would be enormously important.” Whatever happens next, 59 Productions will be continuing to explore what video and projection-mapping can bring to the world of theatre, virtual or otherwise.

Eleanor Turney is a freelance journalist, editor and arts consultant.