When the opportunity arose for PRG XL Video to support London’s latest in-vogue theatre venue, Found111, and Emily Dobbs Productions’ latest show, Bug, we quickly realised the potential of the space and talent connected to it and were delighted to come on board working with Lighting Designer Richard Howell lighting the play, as well as supplying a small, but versatile lighting package for the themed bar area.
Found111 is a pop-up theatre performance space run by Emily Dobbs Productions in the old Central St Martins School of Art & Design on Charing Cross Road. Emily explained her reason behind embarking upon such a project “When the prospect of taking on an alternative space in the heart of the West End came along, what really attracted me to it was the chance to create a level of intimacy that is rare in the West End. A venue where the space becomes an integral part of your experience, from the moment you walk in, climb the stairs and take your seat. Found111 is a temporary space, and this allows us to be bold and specific in what we produce. Spaces that sit alongside the traditional and reflect the different kinds of work being created are vital to theatre’s evolution.”
The close quarters of Found111 make for an intimate experience where the proximity between the front rows and actors is a matter of inches, and at times even less than that. It’s an environment which puts the audience in the show. From the actors unpredictable histrionics as they follow the deranged plot in the second act to the lone moments awash with paranoia, you frequently find yourself glancing over the set, at other audience members, relating to their reactions as they too watch the story progress. Susannah Clap of the Observer describes Found111 as a theatrical breeding ground which is fast becoming indispensible. She goes on “the physical conditions—the low ceiling, the cramped room where the audience almost spill on to the stage—mean that the space itself becomes a magnifying glass for actors.”
The theatre is rapidly gaining an excellent reputation, having been decorated with countless five-star ratings and gleaming reviews for their first production, Richard Greenburg’s The Dazzle, which ran through December and January. One notable area which Emily and her team excel in is their enviable ability to assemble a stellar creative ensemble, from designers to cast and Simon Evans’ direction of both The Dazzle and Bug; there is a powerful connection between all those involved with the play, including the space and audience.
Emily Dobbs Production’s latest spectacle, American playwright and actor, Tracy Letts’ 1996 play, Bug, stars James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley), Kate Fleetwood (London Road, Medea), Daisy Lewis (Downton Abbey), Alex Newman (The Motherf**ker With the Hat) and Carl Prekopp (Love for Love/Queen Anne). Set in the tense environment of a dingy motel in simmering, summertime Oklahoma, the gripping play explores the relationship between lonely cocktail waitress Agnes (Fleetwood), hermitised in the mid-west hotel and free-wheeling Gulf War veteran (Norton), Bug starts off serenely enough with slick dialogue, timid introductions and darkly comic interactions before ascending into a maelstrom of paranoia, delusion and insecurity centred around Peter’s insistence on the infestation of insect invaders. The acting and direction are virtually flawless, and will pull you from laughing one moment to wincing the next. However, Bug is a multi-dimensional experience in which the design and effects play as big a part as the visual talent.
Lighting Designer Richard Howell said “From the outset, I worked closely with the Director (Simon Evans), Set Designer (Ben Stones), and Sound Designer (Edward Lewis); we met up during rehearsals to discuss the visual tone of the piece and then put it all together during the technical rehearsal.” The brief Richard was given for lighting Bug was very specific, he explained “We wanted to create a realistic ‘seedy motel’ environment within the Found111 space, and one that felt natural to the audience who will pretty much be in it! The lighting also needed to work in tandem with Edward Lewis’ incredible sound design to push the piece into increasingly heightened and twisted territory as the story progressed.”
Reviews of the play lean heavily on how the tensions build to near breaking point and the production’s incendiary climax. Lyn Gardner of The Guardian noted “Letts exploits audience uncertainties and the play benefits enormously from the claustrophobic intimacy of a space capable of making scripts seem more convincing that they might play out elsewhere.” What’s on Stage’s Matt Trueman wrote “it’s a play that gets under your skin and gnaws away. Like Peter it’s deceptively easy-going to start, but, boy, does it work itself into a frenzy. Initially distracting, the claustrophobic confines of Found111 suit it perfectly. That we’re packed so close to catch our neighbour’s nits only ups the itchy intensity of Simon Evans’ production. Richard Howell’s lighting adds an X Files glow, while Edward Lewis lets the outside world of coyotes and sirens and unidentifiable whirrings bleed through the thin motel walls.”
Explaining the design process, Richard said “I approached Bug like any other play: using the text as a jumping off point for a creative process with the director and other designers. Specifically, I was interested in creating a naturalistic environment with lighting which I could then twist and abstract to help take the audience inside the mind of the increasingly un-hinged characters.” PRG XL Video’s theatre Account Manager, John Pauls, facilitated Richard’s needs, he was excited about our close relationship with Found111. John said “The technical requirements for lighting Bug were pretty complex, due to the rawness of the space, however, Richard knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and we worked together to ensure he had the most appropriate lighting products for the space. The venue’s an excellent space to use for theatre, we’re delighted to be associated with Found111.”
Continuing to explain his work on the project, Howell continued “PRG XL Video supplied me with a mixture of tungsten and LED lighting equipment. The tungsten units (a mixture of Source Four profiles and Acclaim Fresnels) were used to create the initial lamplight and sunlight whilst the LED units (moving heads and pars) created the artificial neon world that invades the characters’ minds by the end of the play. I found everyone at PRG XL Video to be incredibly helpful. John Pauls worked especially hard to make sure we got what we needed.”
Discussing the characteristics of the performance space, Richard said “Found111 is certainly a unique venue. Although I tend to do most of my work in more conventional theatres, it was exciting to be working in a space where the audience/actor relationship was so immediate.” Staging a theatre production in a limited space will always present challenges, and it is testament to the ingenuity of the creative technicians as to how they overcome these complications. “The Found111 space has no permanent infrastructure for lighting. All dimming, cable and rigging points had to be installed from scratch during the two day get-in period. This proved to be a big technical challenge, but one which my brilliant production electrician, Jai Morjaria, and his team rose to superbly.” Howell explained. “From a design perspective, the space is also extremely challenging to light. The ceiling of the venue is very low and combined with an additional scenic ceiling piece and an in-the-round seating configuration, it was a challenge just to get light into the space!”
Richard is a London based lighting designer who trained at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, he has an impressive CV of lighting for theatre, opera and dance productions in the UK and around the world. Notable shows Richard has designed for include: East is East and the Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios, Privacy at Donmar Warehouse, London and The Public Theater, New York, The Crucible and The Life and Times of Fanny Hill at Bristol Old Vic, My First Cinderella and My First Coppelia for the English National Ballet, and a collection of critically acclaimed shows at Opera Holland Park. Emily Dobbs commented “It’s been hugely exciting working with Richard on Bug. He has an imaginative and clear vision, bold desire and exceptional skills in execution.” Richard’s next projects include Jekyll and Hyde and the Old Vic, and The Grinning Man at Bristol Old Vic.
Bug runs until 7th May, but sold out long before the opening night. Critics couldn’t fail to be impressed by the audacious venue orchestrated by the ambitious and visionary Emily Dobbs. Reviews are ladled with superlatives such as: magnetic, feverish, seedy, intimate, claustrophobic, gripping and compelling.
PRG XL Video’s joint head of theatre, Peter Marshall commented “PRG is pleased to support Found111, this intimate performance space, and work along-side Producer Emily Dobbs who has an excellent reputation for producing critically acclaimed and ground breaking new material in a very unique venue. It was also good to collaborate with Lighting Designer, Richard Howell, and give him the tools to create the various scenes, and to portray the diverse moods of this exciting new production”.