When Landscape Architecture proved restrictive to the impatient, creative impulses of Peter England, designing for theatre and live performance offered an unlikely, but enduring diversion. Owen Lynch reports.
July 4th, 2013
It’s mid afternoon when I meet Peter England at the stage door of The Regent Theatre in Melbourne, one day before the world premiere of what is potentially the most ambitious live production ever staged in this country: King Kong Live on Stage.
Costume workroom at The Regent Theatre © James Morgan
On our way to the auditorium, we wend through a labyrinth of costume-lined corridors and tight staircases – we pass beneath the vast stage glimpsing large piston-like struts rolling and pitching the stage floor above us like a flight simulator – the cacophony of drilling and banging momentarily ceases as a crew member sights England and hurriedly, curiously, assures him: “it will all be fixed by tonight, I promise!”
Backstage/Beneath Stage at The Regent Theatre
With over 2000 empty seats facing a brilliantly lit, albeit bare stage, the relative calm of the auditorium is mirrored in England’s laid-back demeanour.
“Any date that we’ve had in June 2013 has been something of a fantasy, it’s just not possible for that month to happen… and yet here it is!” He muses dryly with only 26 hours until curtains-up.
Fire – Peter England for Bangarra Dance Theatre © Jeff Busby
I ask him if the extended development period had proved tedious for someone as impatient as he admits to being,
“It is an exception… I would call this about three or four productions in one, it’s that big.” A tall claim from the man whose portfolio includes Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Sydney Harbour New Years Eve celebrations, ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’ Arena Spectacles for Global Creatures and countless productions for Opera Australia, STC and Bangarra – to name just a few.
How To Train Your Dragon Live – Peter England for Dreamworks and Global Creatures
As a school leaver, England enrolled at the University of New South Wales in Landscape Architecture,
“I came across this world of design and found it all incredibly exciting,” he recalls, “I graduated and worked with what was then called Forsite Landscape Architecture, part of Ken Maher and Partners. I worked with them for a year and was doing a lot of international design competitions and that was what I thrived on.”
Kong in production © Global Creatures
The appeal however was clearly short-lived; I press him on the reasons for the diversion,
“I found, in effect, the slowness of architecture just too slow for my impatience – but the ideas of it are really beguiling. The notion of theatre is a bit of a diversion, a bit of a random one, and it was one of those spontaneous things; I thought ‘wait a minute that’s something that has a quick turnaround, you’re dealing with music, ideas, literature’ – the idea of visual storytelling has always been a fascination for me.”
Concept Drawing of NYC I-Beam Motif – © Peter England
Taking any and every odd job on offer at Opera Australia’s Surry Hills centre, England worked his way from filing in accounts to receptionist to props making. A gentle nudge from his colleagues to apply for the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) resulted in a 1994 Bachelor of Performing Arts in Design and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Taking this on with a slightly architectural background it really feel like it paid off. I’m a man about form and physical environment. I see every stage or performance space as a little landscape; they are all like little landscape architecture projects.”
Set Model of Kong Breaking Out Of Time Square Theatre © Peter England
Which brings us to the Gorilla in the room. How is it that a multi-award winning production designer (just this month nominated for another Helpmann Award for King Kong) tamed one of the most iconic ‘monsters’ of our time – enough for it to be contained in a traditional proscenium arch theatre?
New York City set pieces backstage, suspended from overhead © Global Creatures
“I love large scale productions, I kind of feel like I’m fearless when it comes to large scale, it doesn’t worry me, I have a sufficient practical sense of construction and reality to be able to take them on in an achievable way but not sort of undermine any kind of courage when it comes to ideas.”
Making room for Kong – extensive reconstruction work at The Regent Theatre in late 2012.
A pretty fair self-assessment; the sheer scale of the King Kong production called for some substantial capital works on The Regent Theatre to accommodate the show.
“Quite literally we have had to rebuild the idea of The Regent as a theatre for King Kong,” England concedes, “It has meant stripping out all of the fly-floor mechanisms it meant putting about seven tonne of steel into the roof to sure it up from a structural point of view.” This scope of works demanded a bump-in period considerably longer than your average production.
The complexity of the show’s inanimate lead player becomes apparent as England describes the infrastructure that must be afforded space just to bring the beast to life for two hours each day.
Scale Scenery Models © Peter England
“He ‘lives’ in the grid – and he’s essentially a marionette puppet,” England explains, referring to the 1.1 tonne creation by Sonny Tilders from Global Creatures.
“He is suspended from what we call his apparatus, which is basically a disc of winches that itself weighs over six tonne. That disc is about four metres in diameter and one and a half metres deep – a dense amount of weight. It travels on a frame that we call the X-axis, moving across the stage. That frame then travels up and down the stage on two massive Y-axis I-beams. Covering the entire upstage, downstage depth.”
Part of the I-Beam tracking infrastructure required to animate Kong.
When later, on stage, we peer up fifteen metres into the darkness above; I get a sense for the enormity of this hulking puppet, suspended menacingly overhead.
“His disc also rotates, so those three axis of movement mean that we can place him anywhere on the stage.” Terrifyingly, the combination of all the above (totalling 70 tonnes), means that Kong can move at speeds of up to one metre per second, “That weight behind him is a hell of a lot so we don’t really run him at that rate or else he becomes a wrecking ball!” England reassures me.
3D Computer Model of Kong for scale reference – © Global Creatures
The magnitude of all this is enthralling; but how, serving as the production’s visual narrator, does England keep the visuals in step with the storytelling, avoiding a washout?
“In some ways you want the creature to take over – there is a bit of surrender to that. That said, it’s a ‘beauty and the beast’ story in the archetypal sense, about a fear of the unknown. The King Kong story is in its simplest form very well known and in a way it’s well known because its simple.”
Kong Face Development – © Global Creatures
England runs through the central themes of Kong and lists the numerous, iconic visual cues that render the tale a classic even for those that have never read the novella or actually seen the many film remakes.
“We wanted to do New York City, we wanted to do the ship, Skull Island, the 1930s, we want to have that sense of The Depression and because of the simplicity of it and the wonderful things we can do with lighting and projection, we’re doing it all… but we’re not doing it in literal ways.”
Times Square set at The Regent Theatre for King Kong © Global Creatures
“People say that it is like nothing they’ve seen before…. It’s not musical theatre,” he asserts, “Its got music, its theatrical, but to call it a piece of musical theatre… no, its much-much more than that.”
Advanced projection and lighting techniques have been employed © James Morgan
And he might well be right; the merging of this legendary tale with all the latest in puppetry, projection and LED light wizardry within the conventions of a traditional theatre don’t really allow it to be neatly shoehorned into any existing genre.
A scene from King Kong © James Morgan
With plans for the show to relocate to the US within eighteen months of opening, and only one sleep left until the world turns its attention to the fruits of five years of production development, England is remarkably sanguine.
I ask him if the journey so far, the years invested in workshops, prototypes and rehearsals feel like they’ve paid off, a pause and he smiles:
“It’s our best shot”.
(hero image: King Kong and ‘the kings men’ © James Morgan)
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