Set design - Concept

by Julian Marbach

What does POSTWEST mean to you, and how is that reflected in your set design (as a whole, in individual elements, in material selection, etc.)?

POSTWEST – A conceptualization of our current socio-political situation from a European perspective. The post-East/West era – a time when the clear demarcation between East and West has been dissolved. Where fusion and transformation into a cohesive European (cultural) sphere is possible.

POSTWEST – A framework for engaging with and confronting the post-East/West era. Beyond conversations about national borders. New ways of looking at East and West – what and where are East and West?

SET DESIGN – As a space in which life and culture happens, Europe is a fraught arrangement in perpetual flux. A complex idea that requires never-ending work on many fronts – political, social, technological. A multi-faceted organism that is as strong and powerful as it is delicate and fragile.

A shape-shifting mantle surrounds the core of the European framework, held together by a glue-like myth. A happy haven and inaccessible fortress – open to everything on the one hand, and closed to everyone on the other.

A sculptural, symbolic object – a wall that rages up from the deep and reaches to the sky. Bound to earth and thirsting for heaven in equal measure – ethereal and imposing.

A scaffolding – a place of work – Europe the construction site – a space in which to live – a building.

A central structure, which can be expanded by various modules that dock onto and off from the scaffolding. An edifice in constant change.

What impact did your conversations with the directors over the course of the three workshops held in Berlin have on your ideas?

It exposed the existence of very different, sometimes wildly divergent (Eastern European) views on East + West – as terms, as conceptual and real categories, as a way to see the self and define others.

It raised awareness of the diverse social, political, and economic living conditions in Eastern European countries, with emphasis on the last century and then specifically on the period from the mid-1980s and post-1989.

There were new perspectives and insights – and there was the positive surprise that such a border-transcending project can work, in spite of the completely different experiences had in the East/West era, especially with respect to relationships with the former Soviet Union.

Your task was to create a single set for six different plays. What did you have to pay special attention to? What ended up posing difficulties, etc.?

A space had to be created that didn’t just work for six diverse international teams and their productions, whose content was still a relative unknown at the start of the set design process – but one that ideally also referenced the POSTWEST theme.

It meant uniting topical words and visuals with the logistical and artistic requirements of each individual production – and presenting it as a cohesive concept.

The set design allows for so many different kinds of encounters to take place – how did you make that happen?

To achieve the greatest possible variability – during productions as well as between productions, i.e., moving from one production to the next – the set design centres around an open structure that offers myriad ways of staging a performance using the constellation best suited to it. Each unique element – the massive wall of scaffolding that defines the room, the various projection surfaces, the individual modules – can be implemented singly, all at once, or not at all.

Because there are no text- or scene-specific elements in the design, participants have so many opportunities to play with the arrangement of the set and so much freedom of choice during the development stages of the production.

Does design work in the context of a collaborative international festival differ from “classical” theatre work? If yes, how so?

When I began work on the project, I knew very little about it apart from the festival’s theme – which informs each of the various productions – and the approximate number of theatres and artists involved. That’s in stark contrast to the more “normal” productions, where there’s clear information about the directorial team, venue, and above all, the title and text of the play. In addition, there was no mental or physical participation in the rehearsal process.

Due to tight deadlines and physical distance, there was less possibility for exchange with the directors and teams than usual about their visions for a set design and aesthetics that would best underscore the work. As such, it was my responsibility to harness all that uncertainty and design something that everyone would be able to work with. On the other hand, that also meant greater freedom in my work.

Julian Marbach
Stuttgart, June 2020

All images by Julian Marbach, except:
Image 1 - Igor Starkov,
Images 7-8 - Alina Aleshchenko, Volksbühne Berlin
Image 9
Image 16