We spoke to Minglu Wang, who designed the stage set for the first Ukrainian adaptation of Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale.
What is stage design?
I prefer the word 'scenography' to describe what I do. A rough distinction would be that stage design is a straightforward, practical discipline, but scenography is a developing concept, with fewer limitations. I really like what the scenographer Simon Donger said, when I asked him about this. He described scenography as 'an approach to the body in space and time, wherein the relations between each component are... questioned and transformed'.
Can you give an example?
I recently saw a performance of The Encounter by Simon McBurney at the Barbican. The piece was set in the Amazon, which was amazingly designed with sound. The stage itself was very simple and austere, but its design corresponded to a complex world of sound. Even though there was nothing on the stage that looked like a rainforest, the audience was still able to aurally immerse themselves in the jungle. It's a good instance of how stage design means not simply designing the space on the stage, but the space inside the audience's heads.
Where does your inspiration come from?
The starting point is the text of the performance. Sometimes the first inspiration will come from a line in the text, or even just a word. You need to read and study it again and again, throughout the whole process.
To find inspiration, I collect ideas from daily life, art, and history. I love this part, because it brings me the joy of ideas floating together in my mind. In my design for The Winter's Tale, I had the initial idea right after I talked to the play's director, but the research took nearly a month. I looked at many installations of falling sand, circles, clocks and dry landscapes, in art exhibitions and in theatre productions.
I experimented with other elements too, like trees and the rings inside their trunks, to represent the concept of time in the play. But in the end, I went back to the images of clocks and dry landscapes. Not all of your research needs to appear in the final design.
How did you incorporate these concepts into the physical stage set?
I created a clock mechanism in the form of a platform on the ground. The pointer 'hand' of the clock actually rotates to draw a circle within a dry landscape, in which the play is performed. Even though I didn't end up using the idea of tree rings in this final design, the circle drawn by the clock acts as another form of ring. I also created an installation of sand falling from the centre of the theatre's domed ceiling, as though we were inside an hourglass. Everything intersects within the space.
What's the most beautiful or unusual set that you have worked on?
I will never forget an experimental video I did for a performance of The Tempest last year. I was trying to be Ariel in the play, and decided to use his/her journey as a point of reference to understand the text. I cast my own body into a full-scale salt sculpture, then carried it into the sea. I stood there holding it until it melted away into the seawater and left me alone.
You took a real salt sculpture of your body into the ocean with you?
Yes, a real salt sculpture. I was holding it while standing in the sea. If you are interested, you can watch the video:
What did you learn from the experience?
It was early June in the UK, but the sea was still extremely cold. While I was in the water, I kept wondering, 'am I going to die for this project?' People told me I was crazy, but I am glad I did it, and it certainly was a unique experience.
The process deepened my understanding of the play and its characters, and brought me new ideas. When I was immersed in that moment, it made me understand the power of nature, the wind and ocean; the power of Shakespeare’s words in my mind; and the fear inside me. These might be things I already knew and could talk about, but experiencing them physically is an entirely different thing.
Has your Chinese background influenced your work?
Certainly. Sometimes I use Chinese elements in my work on purpose, and sometimes I bring Chinese aesthetics into my work subconsciously. I'm especially influenced by the artistic conception of Zen in Chinese paintings and calligraphy, and the theory of the void-solid combination.
What's the void-solid combination?
It means that I am not only designing what the audience can see on stage, but also the empty space that they can’t see. To explain simply, the void-solid combination in Chinese painting or calligraphy is the combination of the space left empty, and the space occupied by the ink. It's similar to the British director Peter Brook's theory of the Empty Space, which he wrote in the 1960s: the idea that any empty space can be a bare stage, in which an act of theatre can take place.
As an artist, what do you make of the stereotype that Chinese people are not creatively original?
There are some Chinese artists and theatre designers who are highly creative and have been my inspiration. They are fighting to show amazing new work to people in China. However, sometimes it can be hard. When I was studying in Beijing, I had all this passion and belief in art and theatre, but I found it difficult to express. Studying in London liberated all that passion outside my body. So, what I believe is, education and the working environment for creative people in China could be better, and there is no doubt things will take a long time to develop. But I am happy and proud to be part of this process.
Are there many women working at the top tier of stage design?
Yes, this is quite an interesting thing. Professional stage design is still a male-dominated field, but there are more and more brilliant female designers emerging now. We are fighting for opportunities.
Which women stage designers do you admire?
There are many female designers I love, like Es Devlin, Pamela Howard, and Vicki Mortimer. They have had a practical and theoretical influence on my work. This doesn’t mean I am denying the contribution of male designers; I love their work as well. What interests me is the work itself, rather than its designer's gender.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get involved in stage design?
I think it is important to accumulate experience so that you're prepared when opportunity knocks. Go to see performances, try to add good work to your portfolio, and look out for prizes, exhibitions, and festivals. Pay close attention so you can spot opportunities and jobs. Building relationships with people in the same field is very important, so be open-minded and generous about sharing information with others.
Minglu is a finalist for the Linbury Prize, the most prestigious UK award for stage design. Finalists were able to apply for a special award to design the stage for A Winter’s Tale in Lviv, Ukraine. Minglu won the award, and the next performance is 20 May 2016.