Lian Bell studied Drama & Theatre Studies at Trinity College Dublin, followed by an MA in Scenography at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London. She works in Dublin as a set designer for contemporary performance and as an arts manager.
As a designer, most of her work is with companies who make devised performance or contemporary dance, often in non-traditional venues. The use of the space by both performers and audience is a key factor – in non-traditional spaces she works closely with companies to design the audience experience as part of the performance.
Since many of the productions Lian works on have no pre-existing text, the final structure of the piece and how it interacts with the space changes throughout the rehearsal period, often up until the last minute. Because of this, she concentrates on finding a feeling or atmosphere that works for the piece and creating a practical space that remains relatively flexible and open to change throughout the process.
Lian draws a lot of inspiration from visual art when researching for designs, particularly sculpture and installation, and has been studying Visual Arts Practice at the National College of Art and Design. Lian has designed for Moonfish Theatre, The Corn Exchange, Brokentalkers, junk ensemble and Catapult Dance.
We knew from the beginning that the intensity of the text language, not to mention the content, meant that we were going to have to be extremely careful about not overloading the space – and this was before knowing what an extraordinarily intense performance Aoife Duffin was capable of.
Once we realised we needed a very minimalist stage, the director Annie Ryan and I worked in detail on all the visual decisions – what shape the aperture of the space should be, what shape the platform should be, what the floor texture should be, what height Aoife Duffin should be at in relation to the audience, and what should be behind her. The smallest change had a huge effect on the atmosphere of the space. In a way, I felt like we were making a kind of dark zen garden for Aoife – muted greys, a space she was suspended in (or trapped in) and absolutely nothing to draw attention away from her performance.
The flooring was simultaneously old carpet, was the mossy banks of a lake, was the dirt that had accumulated over time. The broken horizon line was the edge of an empty field, the meniscus of lake water, fluorescent bulbs in a hospital. An audience member said they thought they were stretched full stops, which I loved. Lighting designer Sinead Wallace and I minutely worked through the lighting states on the horizon line and decided on an internal narrative coherence, which gave a constant micro-shift to the space without distracting from the performance.
Model version & sketches
There were a lot of practical needs to fit into this design – multiple locations from a famine ship crossing the ocean to America, to the fields and bogs of the west of Ireland, live foley sound effects made on stage, a honkey piano and live-made projections of imagery and text. As the production was devised, we decided to make as simple and changeable as possible to respond to the changes.
Moonfish are a company that make magical things happen using simple things – the sound of a broom sweeping becomes the sea, twigs and pebbles on an overhead projector become a windswept landscape. We wanted to show all the workings, while keeping the shipshape sense of ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. The stage was stripped of all masking. Two long tables stood at either side of the stage to house all the practical props and equipment. A series of hessian hangings could be raised and lowered, being simultaneously the ship’s sails and the mountains of Connemara. A simple line across the back wall could be lit to give a sense of a distant horizon.
Model and sketchbook
A dance performance in a non-theatre space – a ground floor with a ramp walkway that spirals up the building over three levels. When we used it, the building had been used for storage for nearly ten years.
We had expected to make the performance for a different venue entirely. All our research and planning was thrown up in the air a couple of weeks before opening the show, when we had to reconfigure the entire structure of the performance, how it would relate to this new space and what the audience’s trajectory would be.
The audience were split in two as they entered the space and had different, intersecting experiences – one group started in the ‘studio’ space with a red floor, while the others went to the first level of walkway, where they were separated from each other by a cloth roof that got pulled back part way through the performance.
I played with ideas of just-abandoned spaces in a couple of small installations that the audience walked through, and we all talked a lot about people shut away in closed rooms. Two big visual influences for me during the preparation were the films of Roy Andersson, such as You The Living, and the (at the time) recently released photographs of the underground spaces that Elizabeth Fritzl had been kept in for 24 years.
At the heart of Silver Stars is a song cycle based on interviews with older Irish men, about their experiences of being gay. From a practical point of view it was a squeeze, with 11 performers and 4 musicians in a very small studio space, and there was the need to integrate a space for projections throughout the performance.
My first inspiration was memories I had of an older gay couple I knew as a child, who lived in Cabra, a very ordinary working class housing estate in the north of Dublin. They were not living a hidden life, exactly, but were carefully not very visible (homosexuality still being illegal at the time). I walked around Cabra and took lots of photographs of the estate, looking at objects and colours that could be translated to the space. Patterned carpet, orange Calor Gas cylinders, simple fences, washing, net curtains.
I wanted something very domestic, very personal, for these epic and emotional songs about everyday lived experience. I also spent time photographing small knick knacks – little objects that I always associate with being in older people’s houses. Dolls dressed in flamenco dresses brought back from holiday in Spain, china figurines, religious pictures. Crocheted doilies for the armrests of chairs. Video designer Kilian Waters cleverly worked out how to project video and some of the knick knack photographs on the multiple surfaces of the washing lines.
Research images and projected images
This is Still Life was Dublin Youth Theatre’s 30th anniversary production, devised by Brokentalkers with the cast – a messy, fun, chaotic, anarchic show.
Most of the design was absolutely abstract, and was there to respond to practical needs and create something interesting to look at. An on-stage ‘TV studio’ was set up behind a screen for music videos, impassioned monologues to camera, and kitch telenovela scenarios. The live feed from the studio was projected onto the front of the screen. I made lots of props as backdrops and tricks for the television studio – a skyline for superman to fly across, a test screen for the girl and her teddy, a spinning vortex to fall into.
There was a vague sense of the cast having grown out of their surroundings – teenagers still in a world of slightly childish things. People getting to the age where they could take over the spaces that were made for them, and use them to their own means.