Volume Five: WHAT MAKES IT THEATRE?

in conversation with Erin Guan

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Here is a snap shot of a conversation we had with the wonderful set designer Erin Guan. Talking largely about her latest piece CHAMBER404 created by her company Vroom.  CHAMBER404 is a radical explosion of 360 video. Experienced alone in your bedroom you follow a young woman as she navigates the disconcerting surreal cyber world.

Madeleine x

(Reading not your thing? Don't worry, you can listen to our conversation here

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Madeleine: As a set designer what has the shift into the virtual world been like for you?  

Erin: It’s very interesting for me coming from being a set designer to designing in the digital world completely, out of 3D software, and trying to construct this 360 environment using only the digital. 

Before, when I was working with a more traditional form of theatre, I was rejecting the digital world a little bit. I feel like a lot of people shared the same views as me. We wanted to retain that liveness and togetherness, watching something in the same space, and we thought that that was very important for what theatre is.  

I believe that still, but I think that because of that, a lot of people hold back from digital mediums because they feel like somehow you lose that togetherness. Which I completely understand, but I feel like there are ways to achieve that or alternatively, with Chamber404 we just went okay this is a one person experience, that's it. Because you know, there are limitations in traditional theatre experiences as well. There is a stage, you can’t forget about the stage, everyone can see it's a stage and it's not real. That's a limitation of [traditional] theatre, but a limitation of digital spaces, I guess, like with Chamber404, is it's not a shared experience. But we can still make art out of limitation. 

Madeleine: Tell us where the idea for Chamber404 came from?

Erin: I worked with my partner Sourrain, and it came out of our experience of working apart on two different sides of the world. For most of the making of Chamber404 we just had loads and loads of conversations online. Each sitting in our bedrooms. We came to this realisation that in Covid, and in this time of the internet age, our bedrooms have gone from a private space to a public space. You do everything there, you socialise on your phone, do your work, everything in your bedroom. I feel like lots of people don’t realise that transition; we all still view that as your private space. That's why we wanted to start from there [in a bedroom], it's a provocation for audiences to think differently. 

Dylan: How do you go about designing it? Did you make paper models of the set or...

Erin: We didn’t because I was kind of trying to be this ‘digital artist.’ I later found out that that was so hard; it would have been good for me to think of it as more of a tactile 3D piece. 

But the whole thing did go through a transition, at the beginning of the project it was more of an abstract bedroom, we wanted the whole thing to be surreal and dreamy. But later we came to the conclusion that we wanted it to start somewhere that felt more grounded, somewhere that feels like a real space for the audience. There is that journey that they go on from their bedroom, to the show's bedroom (which feels similar to their world) and then into this completely crazy cyber world. 

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Madeleine: I just wondered if you had any feelings about what would happen to 404 if people stumbled across it on instagram or it was at an art gallery - does it need the context of a theatre or can it exist anywhere?

Erin: That's really interesting, I feel like we framed it as a theatre performance because it has the framework of a traditional play, in the way that it has a script and it has actors, it was sound designed by theatre sound designers. It was created very much in the workflow of a theatre piece. It's interesting that you talk about it existing in galleries or other spaces because we had some interest from film festivals, it's almost as if it has become a piece that exists in many tangents. What we’ve been seeing over the last few years and particularly after Covid is that theatre isn’t the only area making the transition to being more digital, there are other fields like art galleries, documentary - short films. Many different media streams have gone more into the virtual world, because of circumstances, the world we live in.

Madeleine: For years as emerging artists we’ve complained about how hard it is to get our work seen and programmed. Do you think the digital landscape makes it easier to make work and to get work out there or is that a myth? 

Erin: I feel like it's a two way street, obviously it's easier to put out work sometimes, but I don’t think it holds the same substantial weight as your show being put on in a real space, because it's so widely available. The one thing I feel very deeply about putting digital work out, is that we are literally competing against everything that is online - we have Netflix and YouTube and all that to compete with. With Chamber404 I feel like we are still marketing to the theatre community, but not everyone accepts that this as a form of theatre, so the space is narrow to be honest, and [just] because it's accessible doesn’t mean everyone will click on it. So I wouldn't say it was easier...

Theatre is a big pot that you can pull things from...digital is just another ingredient.-m

Madeleine: You mentioned that not everyone accepts this as theatre. What did you feel was the reception to Chamber404, has anyone actually said that to you or can you just sense it? 

Erin: Yeah someone has said that to me  - because I’ve got some really blunt viewers I guess, (laughs) which is good. They question me on why this is theatre: a) it’s not live and b) it’s not a collective experience. I think my answer to that is that theatre is not limited within those two things, there is more to it than that. I feel that as artists and as an audience you need to be open minded to experience different types of theatre for it to be able to develop further, rather than staying put as is. 

Madeleine: It’s a really bold statement to make saying theatre doesn’t have to be communal and it doesn’t have to be live, I think that's really exciting to say it doesn’t have to be those things….

Erin: Personally... I didn't realise I made a really bold statement! (laughs)

Theatre is a big pot that you can pull things from. We've been doing this already. We pull from live art, we pull from film, we pull from different things to create this mixed thing called theatre. I feel like digital theatre is just another ingredient added into this and we shouldn’t view it in such a way as it is killing theatre. Theatre as a live performance and as a communal experience will never die, it is just that we are finding other directions that could exist to broaden the circle of what theatre is.

Madeleine: Finally, as this is The Future Project, are you feeling optimistic for the future of the arts?

Erin: I think I am because in a crisis people need art, and honestly recently I have been feeling that the theatre industry has been waking up, that's what it feels like to me at the moment. And I think what Covid has taught me is that we really can find ways to exist even within a time of crisis and we feel like it is impossible. So even though there are a lot of disheartening things going on, there is hope.