Meet Cécile Trémolières, the French designer behind one of 2017’s most visually stunning and critically acclaimed plays – The Yard’s This Beautiful Future (back for a second run by popular demand this November).
“The first masterstroke here is Cécile Trémolière’s design. […] I genuinely don’t think a design and opening of a play has made me grin so much in ages.”
— Andrew Haydon, Postcards from the Gods about This Beautiful Future
But you may already have seen her designs in The Mikvah Project (Yard Theatre), The Iphigenia Quartet (Gate Theatre), Punkplay (Southwark Playhouse), My People (Clwyd Theatr), Invisible Treasure (Ovalhouse), Madame Butterfly (Arcola Theatre), Harajuku Girls (Finborough Theatre) and Impermanent Theatre for Impermanence Dance Theatre. Her work has been exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial 2015, the V&A and World Stage Design 2017, Taipei.
So let’s start at the beginning. I think most people don’t even know how designers work, or what the hell they do. Why don’t you just start by telling me when you first heard about This Beautiful Future?
I had worked with Jay [Jay Miller, director] on The Mikvah Project [2015, The Yard]. So we worked together before and then he was just like “I’ve got this play I don’t really know what it is about, and I want you to read it.” And that was in December, maybe, or January, and then I read the play and the play was, I don’t know, maybe ten pages long.
So it was just a draft version?
It was a draft. I mean, the last draft was maybe three days before the show opened, so the play carried on changing…
Did you have a conversation about what you might do or how you might approach it?
A tiny bit, but I think it’s always hard to… you don’t really come up with the design straightaway. You just have a feeling about the play, that you’ll like being part of that project.
There’s two things. Usually my brain is quite slow [laughs], I don’t find ideas straightaway. They just take quite a long time, I’ve got to rest with the play for a bit, and also when I read them it takes me a while to warm up to them. Although this one I really liked straightaway.
But I found it really strange because… there wasn’t mention of the karaoke when he sent it to me and it was just happening in the 40s and it was just that, like, really tiny little version of a really sweet story. I was just like “Why should we do this at The Yard?”. But at the same time I could feel, because I know Jay… I knew that something really special would happen.
So the karaoke idea, whose idea was that?
That’s Jay’s idea, yeah. I mean, that was something that he really wanted to explore. I don’t know if he wanted to explore it before the play happened. But it made a lot of sense, actually, with the project.
What I liked a lot about the design – it doesn’t look like what you’d expect if you just read the play. I mean, as you’ve said, the play is set in 1940s, occupied France, and the design is not at all like that. So where did the design come from?
So we knew we needed two karaoke booths and we knew that the karaoke booths were some sort of link to our world. We knew that we needed some sort of dreamy world for the youngsters. Jay really wanted a bed and some wallpaper [laughs]. He was just like “Can you look at wallpaper? And I want a bed.” Then in the beginning I was just like “Oh no I really don’t want to put wallpaper and a bed! It won’t work with The Yard.”
So the first ideas we had were… We basically make a model and then we try a lot of stuff inside the model. So what I did was to cover the back wall entirely with a repetition of one motif, like different types of wallpaper.
We had this idea of a village, this idyllic landscape, and Jay had this idea of this, kind of ‘pre-impressionist’ french painting type of landscape. So we played around with this for the backdrop by cropping things, repeating motifs, changing colours on photoshop…
And then for the bed… At the beginning we were thinking more of a structure – so it was this kind of tower where those two young people lived. And then, maybe February, we had an R&D with just the two actors, and it was mainly for the text, not for the design. But I really wanted to hear the text, because I always feel that unless you can see two people saying something you can’t really imagine it.
So I came along and then I taped on the floor what we had at that moment. And it just didn’t make sense: it felt really small and really bulky and clumsy at the same time. So we binned all these ideas and then what mattered was having a big space for them to play on. And then something very soft – the softness and the prettiness of it was really important. But then not having it be a full bed. The bed as a specific space and then the rest as a soft playground. And this is how I thought of grass. Grass is soft, it’s pretty, it’s natural, it feels right for the play.
It also contrasted with the architecture of the theatre, which is grey and solid…
Yeah, but I think design is not so… You play around with stuff in the model and suddenly there’s something that feels right. And for me it’s quite instinctive. I know that the green would look nice with the white and the grey, I knew that it would feel right for people to run on it, it would feel like this kind of Eden. You know, when I was thinking about “what is my dreamy place?” – it would be a garden, something green. And I think I’m sharing this with a lot of people.
And then afterwards it made sense on another level, which is that it’s supposed to happen in a Jewish house and it reminded me of the ruins of this concentration camp, near Auschwitz, and they’re all covered with field and white flowers and so it makes sense that you don’t want to represent that Jewish house, but that something has been covered with nature. It made sense as well. So you’ve got a meaning but I think it started with the instinct of how the actor would feel free in the space more than the meaning. This kind of came after.
So when you say that it takes you a while to get familiar with a play or that you need to hear a play to start to understand it… How does it work inside your head? Is it gradual? Or does it sort of suddenly make sense to you?
It feels like it suddenly makes sense but I think that’s because gradually I’ve been listening to it. You know, when you work in opera you can listen to the music and it’s really helpful because you can feel it straightaway. When I read the play, I can’t really put the right intention on it. And also, you know, when you read a novel what makes you think about the space is the descriptions. The stage directions usually are quite constrictive, and they don’t make me dream. So it’s about reading the emotion and at the same time understanding what’s behind it.
So when you’re having difficulty working with the play, what do you do? Especially since you don’t have actors to play with all the time.
When I struggle now I like to force myself to go to the library. Because you can go on the internet and go on Pinterest and look at loads of images and try to find something that makes sense to your instinct response to the play, but it is not as good as a library. You can’t really be surprised on the internet while you always find some gems in the library and you’re like: “That! I don’t know why it makes sense.” And then you understand why it makes sense.
And when you make it make sense to yourself, how do you then go and make it make sense to the director?
I’ve been lucky, because I work with people who are on the same page. So usually, if this makes sense to me it will make sense to the director. I think for This Beautiful Future I didn’t really have this moment of emptiness because we had the time with the R&D with the actors. It all made sense really quickly after that. But for Suzy Storck [opening at the Gate Theatre on October 26th], for example, where the director does not live in this country and we did not have pre-rehearsal time with actors, I had to kind of stop and then go back to the library and then kind of try to articulate very clearly why I wanted to go in that direction.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Suzy Storck?
Yeah, it’s very different from This Beautiful Future. It’s really dark and quite a complex play. Again, with this one, I had quite a lot of trouble understanding it when I read it the first few times. But now I really love it.
It’s a very complex play, with different types of language – sometimes poetic, sometimes super naturalistic. It’s hard to get all the emotion behind it. And it’s for The Gate, which is a very small and long and narrow space.
So – The Yard for me is an easier space to design for because it’s a space that I feel matches what I think about when I think about good theatre. I think The Gate is a great space but I find black boxes harder to design for, because you’ve got to create a space that you completely immerse people in.
I think with The Yard you can’t go against that space – it’s just saying “I’m here, and just play with me!” [laughs] You’ve always got to work within a certain space and when the space is completely aware of itself it makes your job more, kind of, genuine.
This Beautiful Future opens its second run at the Yard from the 2nd to the 25th of November. You can also check out her work in Suzy Storck at The Gate Theatre (26th of October to 18th of November) and La Tragédie de Carmen produced by the Royal Opera House at Wilton’s Music House (3rd to 11th of November)