Sean Riley, known for designing sets that radically transform spaces into beautiful immersive experiences, is a key collaborator in Poetics of Space. Sean sat down with us recently to discuss his process and what it’s been like to work on Poetics of Space.
How did you become a rigger?
I started off studying theater as a director and was more satisfied with how much influence I could have over the framework with set design. I am pretty obsessed with simple physics, the force of gravity, and suspension. My designs back then tended to be about that, so I had to learn how to safely perform rigging in order to make those sets safe to do. The desire to suspend things and the uniform of physics in suspended objects lead me to having to learn a lot of techniques. I came to rigging as a desire to solve a problem, and to suspend something because I had a vision. I wanted to learn how to fulfill that vision.
What has your thought process been in designing the space in collaboration with Joe?
It is still unfolding as we speak. My process as a collaborator is different every time depending on the artist. I bend, shift, and modify my process to try and carry out their vision. There is no cookie-cutter process to rigging. I have parts of my thought process that go into the collaboration that I have learned work for me. One of them is that I discourage the use of pictures and imagery in the beginning. I ask my collaborators to only use words and text to describe their vision. When pictures are involved it is easy to begin, but also easy to get attached to. By taking the easy way, we are skipping the potential magic that happens in a collaboration. I also don’t want my collaborators to decide what is possible and what is not possible. I ask people to divorce themselves from budget, physics, and everything else to just imagine in a vacuum of possibilities. By taking away their self-censoring we get to the core of what they truly want to do in a completely pure undiluted sense. With Joe, I told him not to tell me how the space should be cut up, but how he wants the audience to feel. What I am trying to do is make the architecture and the shifting of it transform the emotional process of the audience from moment to moment throughout the show. It is unique because it is going to be more than one emotional experience.
Would you say this is the most challenging part of this process?
The process is challenging on a couple different levels. It is a challenge to make a space that serves a lot of different needs, and at the same time does not become generic. With a space that has the capacity to shift, become smaller, become larger, closed, open, you want it to be more than that. You want a space that one moment it is going to be scary, another moment exciting, sad, happy, etc. The architecture needs to be generic enough that the emotions can exist, but also support them. The constant of grey walls and accents of red throughout the set are there to remind us that even though we are in a constant shift, it is all one overarching experience.
What are the biggest achievements with this set?
Something that is a personal technical achievement is how clean it is. Just small things like being able to put the safety cables inside the tubes instead of outside is what makes the whole thing very special to me. When I look at it I see all of the small details, and the sum of all of these details is that it appears as a natural object in the space, which is pretty incredible. I want people to come into the space and feel as though the set belongs there, but at the same time it is a piece of surreal architecture. It is a powerful juxtaposition when things look like they belong and fit, but actually don’t. It makes us reexamine and rethink architecture.
What was the inspiration for “the apartment”?
I wanted the feel of looking into a section of an apartment where the audience can see simultaneous actions happening that the dancers can’t. It creates this interesting “rear window” feel. I started off with this vision, and then went into building it safely.
Overall how has it been working with Joe?
This is my first time working with Joe. His process is established, he has a roadmap of how he gets from the beginning to the end. I am still learning that. He is a great experimenter and he has an intuitive way of recognizing something important by seeing it, when he sees it he knows when it is right. It’s been amazing seeing his process working with his dancers, but it is a challenge for me with my medium. I can’t make multiple sets before finding the right one, and I don’t have the ability to fail in a grand gesture. I can have little moments to learn, but I can’t afford to rush down a path for a finished product and burn. The 3-D models I create have helped a lot with the visualization process. The constant revision of the modeling has been a huge part of this process with Joe. We have built quite a few large scale elements in 3D that we haven’t built in the space, this editing process is how I make sure that we don’t make huge mistakes that we can’t take back.
As a whole, what are your thoughts of the architecture so far?
I am really happy with the catwalk, it feels clean and elegant. The hidden safety is the best part for me. I think it is going to provide a location for the performers to achieve something that they couldn’t without it. You can build something that looks cool, but if it isn’t serving the piece then it isn’t as special. I want more than a fancy decoration, and I feel as though that’s what this is.
Make sure to check out Sean’s creation in the fall performances of Poetics Of Space!