Production at the Victorian College of the Arts: highlights from 2017

As the Victorian College of the Arts’ Production Graduate Exhibition nears, lecturer Anna Cordingley and BFA graduating students sum up some winning moments from the year. 

By Anna Cordingley, Lecturer in Design (Live Performance) at the Victorian College of the Arts

The Victorian College of the Arts’ Production Graduate Exhibition (21–23 November, 2017) celebrates the dedication, development and many achievements of our final year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production), Master of Design for Performance and Master of Production Design for Screen students. In the following short pieces, students from a selection of our specialisations elaborate on the major projects and opportunities experienced at the VCA.

Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) – Design Realisation

Here, graduating BFA students Natalie Gillis, Pia Guilliatt and Juliette Whitney discuss their final design submissions, a culmination of three years of set, costume and property design and construction subjects. Their projects are a response to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1973) and/or Tom Wright’s Optimism (2009).

Natalie Gillis: Following Bernstein’s Candide, I have designed and constructed a gown referencing motifs, designs and features from mid-18th-century Parisian trends. Organic motifs and patterns, common throughout the Rococo period, are openly explored in this costume, as you’ll see in the image below.

Natalie Gillis’s Cunégonde Costume on display in the Third Year Design Studio, VCA. Image supplied.

The over-sexualisation of the character Cunégonde is echoed throughout this gown. Both in the bold robe à la française, the open overskirt, the general palette and finishing trims, this robe is rife with Yonic symbolism. Silk flowers here represent virtue and virginity: Cunégonde wishes to regain such graces by plastering herself with blossoms.

Production photograph from VCA Acting Company 2017’s Occupied, for which Natalie was Costume Designer. By Lachlan Woods.

Pia Guilliatt: Candide is spinning decks while Cunégonde twirls fire and Paquette walks a tightrope high above the churning crowd; everyone is feeling pleasantly fuzzy – but is it optimism or the kick in Pangloss’ punch?

My version of Tom Wright’s Optimism is a colourful world of music, dancing, lights, acrobatics and drama – but don’t forget your rose-tinted glasses, because things are not what they seem. Part warehouse rave, part immersive theatre performance, this is an experience whereby the audience journeys alongside Candide and his friends through the deceptive haze of their own perceptions.

Detail of Pia Guilliatt’s Optimism Model on display in the Third Year Design Studio, VCA. Image supplied.

The space is in continual transformation as they adjust to new realities, harsh truths and moral dilemmas. Ultimately, the audience members are the agents responsible for determining the fate of the evening; they may make something beautiful out of its wreckage or fall victim to its decay.

In the spirit of sustainability and recycled art, I have looked at Optimism in the contemporary context of festival culture and the hedonistic escapism that it promotes. I draw on my own experiences in these hyper-stimulated worlds and note the jarring contrast between ecstasy and archaic mess.

Far from being condemning, I hope to offer a pragmatic perspective on the vices of waste and excess, demonstrating that with thoughtful cooperation, creativity and a healthy dose of optimism, we can still create a better world for ourselves.

Production photograph from VCA Acting Company 2017’s Nineteen Ninety-Nine, for which Pia Guilliatt was Set Designer. By Lachlan Woods.

Juliette Whitney: My Optimism resides in the golden age of the 1950s, a decade of marvellous consumer abundance wherein the “American/Australian dream” is a tangible reality. The Depression years are over and a prosperous epoch of optimism is beginning. Television is a step up from radio and enables a private window to the world.  

Detail of Juliette Whitney’s Optimism Model on display in the Third Year Design Studio, VCA. Image supplied.

There is an undeniably sinister aspect: advertisements and broadcasts have become tools for the manipulation of unsuspecting consumers. Political anxieties, curtailed freedoms and “the Red Scare” wreck havoc, while the population lives in the grim shadow of the Cold War. Nevertheless, “the best of all possible worlds” is yet driven by the persistent hope that the future is brighter. 

My final design submission is an immersive work responding to Tom Wright’s Optimism; a work that occupies the cellblock of the Old Melbourne Gaol. The audience is escorted throughout the floors and each tiny cell corresponds to the journey of our protagonist.

The design is a dialogue between the jail’s own gruelling history and the suffocating iconography of the 1950s, allowing a forceful investigation of Wright’s fraught characters.

Production photograph from VCA Dance Company 2017’s Doughnuts, (un)REALITIES & GROUPNESS, for which Juliette Whitney was Designer/Maker. By Jeff Busby.

Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) – Stage Management and Performance Technology

Elizabeth Gallagher, Alysha Watt (Stage Management) and Thomas Lloyd (Performance Technology) discuss their final-year internships, a program providing opportunities to engage directly with the performing arts industry, learn from industry leaders, be involved in the day-to-day of major companies, festivals and events and begin to establish vital career networks.

Elizabeth Gallagher: I interned with Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza for two months, and my second month is when I started really stepping up.

Peter Anastassi (General Stage Manager) tasked me with creating a list of every single movement that happened onstage, and then deciding who was in charge of it, so at the end of the show when the show caller was giving notes they knew exactly who to talk to.

The team was very impressed with my work, which was really rewarding. My favourite acts were the Wheel of Death and the Teeterboard. On my very last day at Cirque the artists brought me on stage for bows and gave me a bouquet and some gifts.

I left Kooza feeling like I was a part of a family, which was amazing.

Production photograph of VCA Acting Company 2017’s Mother Courage and Her Children, for which Elizabeth Gallagher was Deputy Stage Manager. By Jeff Busby.

Alysha Watt: I interned with The Production Company’s Dusty for six weeks. When envisioning my career at a younger age, even before discovering Stage Management as a potential career path, I had wanted to do something that would change daily.

Growing up and moving around in foreign countries, and constantly having to adapt to new environments, taught me the importance of that. I also wanted to experience working on a show in a well-established venue with large audiences.

Throughout the rehearsal process of Dusty, a major asset was being able to take advantage of the Stage Manager Meg Deyell’s brain. She has a wealth of knowledge and encouraged me to ask questions. What she taught me ranged, through anecdotes and elaborate analogies, from how to maintain focus in the rehearsal room to the difference in roles of a first and second assistant director on films.

Production photograph of VCA Acting Company 2017’s Never, for which Alysha was Stage Manager. By Lachlan Woods.

Some information was directly pertinent to what we were doing; some wasn’t but was valuable nonetheless. Another of Meg’s skills I admired was her ability to remain completely calm in any situation. That kind of flexibility and calmness is something I have attempted to apply to my own work since.

I was able to grow a lot personally and professionally while working on Dusty. I was presented with the opportunity to observe and learn and complete tasks as a real professional Assistant Stage Manager with those around me able to support my learning.

Thomas Lloyd: I interned with Opera Australia for King Roger and Carmen. I wanted to observe and shadow the technical management or production management process.

Within Opera Australia I became the personal secondment to the company’s Production Manager James Wheeler for the duration of the Melbourne winter and Sydney spring seasons.

My first day involved a scheduled technical hold for King Roger whereby, after the preview, priority was given for lighting fix-ups. It was there, watching the team doing notes, that I learnt my first obvious titbit: that when going through the show with notes, run the scenes in reverse chronological order.

Production photograph of VCA Acting Company 2017’s Speak of the Devil, for which Thomas Lloyd was Co-Lighting and Sound Designer. By Sarah Walker.

I was lucky enough to join the floor crew of both Carmen and King Roger for three days of the season.

I also sat in on some meetings for future productions, which was illuminating – I hadn’t anticipated the degree of planning that went into a production: they were already starting conversations for a show that was slated for the 2021 season.

The educational value my internships had on my professional development was abundant, most critically boosting my confidence with regards to being ready to join the industry.

Banner image: The VCA production of Caucasian Chalk Circle (2017) featuring Acting Company 2017 and Production students. By Jeff Busby.