Queensland Theatre | Designing Cost of Living
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Designing Cost of Living

Step into the world of inclusive theatre design with Michael Scott-Mitchell, Designer of COST OF LIVING. From navigating dual venues to crafting accessible spaces, he details the intricate process of designing for disability, emphasising the significance of collaboration and personal experience.

06 15 24 Cost of Living Production Morgan Roberts 23

What were your first impressions of the script?

My first impression was that it was a very beautifully written piece. It has an apparent simplicity, but there are complex devices at play in terms of language use and how the themes evolve. It’s very sophisticated and won a Pulitzer Prize several years ago. It is a beautiful place to work.

What has been your approach to designing Cost of Living?

This play has existed for about five years and is commonly performed in a naturalistic setting. What we're trying to do is evoke certain environments, but not in a strictly naturalistic way. It's always interesting to explore that territory. Just how much of the real world and the real objects that people use do you need to signal place. Especially when trying to keep the production lightweight, taught and able to move rapidly.

Are there specific considerations involved in designing for accessibility and disability?

You must be careful with the physical environment in terms of mapping it out and how people will use it. For example, if you have a performer in a wheelchair there needs to be a ramp and that ramp has to be one in 14 gradient. So in other words, it'll take 14 metres to reach a height of one metre. In both venues, QT and STC, we are lifting the stage 315 mil to give us a better sightline arrangement with the audience. And that immediately opened a series of requirements backstage.

One of the other complexities with this production is not just the accessibility of the space, but the fact that it has to move between QT and STC and they're not identical theatres. The basis of both the theatres is a thrust stage but they have their anomalies. So it's been quite a juggling act trying to get the physical environment right and to make it fit for both venues and to accommodate accessibility requirements.

Were there any exciting opportunities presented by designing for artists with a disability?

It’s exciting to find solutions that facilitate accessibility and fit the style of the design language that you're using to resolve the piece. I think that what you're always looking for is fluidity in terms of transitions. This production just has the complexity that you might be waiting for somebody to get off stage in their wheelchair or that some cast members can't always participate in the transitions in the same way as other performers. You just have to be mindful of who your cast are and what their physical capabilities are and off you go.

Does this process present unique opportunities to collaborate with the actors themselves on design solutions?

Oh, absolutely. There's been a hell of a lot of dialogue in the rehearsal room about how to achieve certain outcomes. The design is tailor made to the actors' abilities and that demands communication.

How have the unique perspectives of the production's co-directors found their way into your design?

Priscilla, I've worked with a good deal. In fact, she was a student at NIDA when I was head of design there. So, we've known one another for a long time and we've done quite a number of shows. There's a shorthand that happens between us.

I met Dan for the first time in person, on day one of rehearsals. Dan is hugely experienced in doing productions where one or more of the performers live with a disability. He works in that environment regularly and understands the subtleties that are required.

It's been a really good mix actually because they both bring very different things to the table, and they complement one another hugely. It's been a really enjoyable process.

Pictured: Michael Scott-Mitchell and Priscilla Jackman. Photo by Morgan Roberts.

How will this experience impact your design practice going forward?

My own disability has informed my thinking about the human body in space and how to accommodate it practically. It gives me a far better understanding of what the possibilities and limitations are.

I've had Parkinson's for 10 years, and we renovated our house about eight or nine years ago. In doing that, I had to design the bathroom to allow for my increasing disability. I was having to think about the width of the doorways and how they stay open for wheelchairs. So that sort of thinking has been built into my own understanding of space for at least 10 years.

You always consider the practical components of a design and how they're going to be used by performers, but disability introduces specific considerations. I think when you're looking at it openly and trying to find a solution that is elegant and fits with the space, that just makes you a better designer.

Cost of Living is on in the Bille Brown Theatre until 13 July 2024.

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