Anna Tregloan has designed staging and costumes for a wide variety of independent theatre companies and artists in Australia and overseas. Here she discusses her approach to the exhibition design for Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced with MAAS fashion curator, Glynis Jones.
Can you describe your design practice?
I am best known for designing staging and costumes for theatre but even within that medium I have been lucky enough to work in so many different forms, from contemporary dance to opera through drama and physical theatre and from tiny one person shows through to big spectaculars. Additionally I conceive and design installations, sometimes these include live performance and the focus is on creating immersive experiences for the audience.
I trained at the Victorian College of the Arts but am a great believer in learning through experiment and experience. In my early career I designed but also worked extensively with other designers making props, painting, making costumes, as a design assistant. Not only did this keep me afloat financially it exposed me to many different approaches, techniques and types of production. Additionally I was heavily involved in the construction of my own designs, I taught myself patternmaking, costume construction, carpentry, mould makings as well as 3D computer drafting. This has given me a much better understanding of what is possible (or not).
Can you describe your creative process?
I approach just about all of my projects the same way – very, very slowly. I am not the type of person who walks in with big fully formed ideas. Often enough they turn into big ideas but I prefer to spend as long as possible collecting information, looking everywhere for inspiration and getting to know the people involved. I attempt to discover the key that will make it work. From experience I know that if I can find that ‘key’ everything else will follow more naturally.
Working in theatre you design spaces which the actors animate with their presence.
How did you approach animating the exhibition?
While it is absolutely true that the performers are what give theatre productions life I have always considered the audience essential in truly activating the space. This is particularly true in the installed performances I present, where the audience are essential in completing the picture. The animation of the exhibition I considered in the same way and to a large extent it is the movement of the viewers in the space that’s does this work for us. By imagining the audience’s path I then wanted to conceive spaces that would both subtly and overtly shift in texture and perspective as they were traversed.
Additionally elements like the large scale video projection add an essential, constantly shifting landscape. By amplifying this with multiple mirrored surfaces we were able to have every surface in the room shifting and shimmering. Mirrors, because what one can see in them relates to your position, are an excellent way to utilise the momentum of the audience.
We also considered Collette’s amazing use of shining sequins and crystal and by using lights, rotating plinths, as well as the shimmer walls (that move in response to visitors in the room) worked to not only play on the light but give movement to these mannequins.
Theatre productions and exhibitions are both about enabling an emotional, visual and intellectual connection with the audience. How is making those connections different for theatre and exhibitions?
The biggest difference is what you are responding to. In a theatre or even more so for a dance production you are usually responding to words or ideas. Compared to solid objects these are very malleable and interpretable things and part of the preparation for a production is deciding what position to choose for that interpretation. While in the museum context there is still great scope for interpretation the items that are to be presented or framed cannot shift in same way; for example a sentence can be understood very differently depending on the inflection and the performer, it’s substance can change greatly and that is before the designer even adds their framing.
Objects within an exhibition can be framed in ways that give the audience a different impression of them but they can only ever be that object with its particular history.
Beyond that stage I see more similarities than differences. Both are about investigating the content and histories, working collaboratively with the writers, actors, directors, curators and ultimately using space and its augmentation to evoke the meaning and emotional resonance that best aids the audiences experience.
What is your favourite space?
There are two areas where I really enjoy the stories that we have enabled through the objects. They are the inspiration board area and the pattern pieces that fill the cabinets in the “XRay” room. Both are moments that shift the focus away from the glamour of the runway to express the details of process and rigorous backstage work that goes into creations as magnificent as Collette’s.
My liking for these spaces may well reflect my own experiences; a first-hand knowledge of how many people and how much commitment and energy is required behind the scenes for a moment in the spotlight to be. It might also be a reflection of the way in which these spaces had to come together, with each item in the Inspiration cabinets needing to be precisely placed but organically and according to intuition and the physical necessity of various (and numerous) museum staff needing to climb right inside the cabinets to arrange the patterns.
I remember being in awe of the first pattern maker I had the privilege of being in the studio with. From sketches, sketches conceived as three dimensional, she was able to draw these two dimensional shapes which when cut into fabric would fit and become truly three dimensional. In this room I adore the apparent contrast between the dowdy and apparently rudimentary shapes that fill the walls and the spectacle of the dresses in the centre. They are part of the same equation and I, still, after many years, think this is remarkable.
Now that the exhibition has been open for a while I also have a new favourite area in the amazing paper doll outfits visitors are creating to fill our beautiful Parisian setting. When we conceived this area I am certain none of us expected quite such a beautiful, anarchic and inspiring display.