Monday, 28 September 2015

Guest Blog: James Perkins - Design and Deduction

James Doherty in Eventide
I go through the same process every time I make a new design. I begin with an empty space. Then I do my best imitation of Sherlock Holmes, and from this, a design emerges.

Perhaps I should explain myself. Sherlock Holmes once explained his process of deduction by remarking that ‘once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth’. I’m paraphrasing slightly, but so was he – Arthur Conan Doyle, a doctor as well as an author, was probably drawing on his scientific background when he came up with the idea, because it owes a lot to null theory, the basis of all scientific research.

In null theory, rather than seeking to prove a fact (apparently this is difficult to do), you work to disprove every possible alternative fact (apparently this is easier). Rather than proving a positive, you hem in the truth by disproving one thing after another until the space left for the truth to inhabit is so small, there could only be one thing in there. This is how scientific research is conducted; it’s how Sherlock Holmes solves crimes; and it’s how I make my work.

I’ve been thinking about this process a lot while designing Eventide, Barney Norris’ new play for Up In Arms. At a surface level, the design I’ve created for this show resembles a departure from much of my previous work. My designs are often quite abstracted, but on this occasion I’ve come up with a detailed, realist image. What’s surprising about this, and has led me to thinking about process, is that it doesn’t feel like a departure at all, despite variations in visual tone. In fact, I’ve gone through the same process I always use.

As I said, I begin designing by imagining an empty space. My process from there is the progressive application of restraints to that infinitely malleable potential space: the auditorium we’re playing, the budget, the text, the director’s ideas and style, the ideas of the lighting and sound designers, and so on. I proceed by narrowing down my possibilities. What emerges as I go is something which comes to feel strangely inevitable as it clarifies – a shape defined and formed out of nebulous possibility by everything it could not be, by the juxtaposition of a thousand restraints and specifics that eventually hem in a final definite image.

With Eventide, the surface impression that I’ve adopted a different style to other recent work is actually a reflection of the impact of other factors on my process, not really of me. So the design is in part a reflection of the text, which is rooted in location but also in good technical stagecraft, and doesn’t need its dots joined up visually; it’s a reflection of the meticulous, intricate detailing which is characteristic of Alice Hamilton’s direction; and of the commitment to staging the real lives of people and giving authentic voice to quiet corners of this country which I’ve found to be at the heart of Up In Arms. By using these facts to eliminate the impossible, I hope that I’ve got to the truth.

James Perkins

James is the designer of Eventide which runs at the Arcola Theatre until 17th October 2015. Please visit Following its run in London, Eventide tours to Bury St Edmunds, Oxford, Salisbury and Bristol.

Photo Credit:  Mark Douet 

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