Q&A with Anna Orton - designer of Orpheus and Eurydice

1 Jul 2023

Orpheus and Eurydice, our brand new community production is now full-steam ahead in rehearsals. This Bristolian take on the Greek myth gives new meaning to the term EPIC, starring over 150 community performers from across the city (and across generations). 

We'll be delving into the process in next month's newsletter, but in the meantime we caught up with designer Anna Orton to give us a hint of what's to come.. 

When did you decide you wanted to be a designer?

How did you make that dream a reality?

I went the long way round to figuring out that I wanted to design for theatre. I went to art school, up north in Scotland. After about 10 years doing all jobs under the sun, exhibiting, residencies etc I started to feel a shift away from fine art, and I realised that collaboration is what made me creative. A talk from a designer and scenic painter opened my eyes to the fact that there was such a job. I was 27. I hassled the scenic painter in the local theatre until I got a foot in the door and worked with them for a couple of years until I decided that I wanted to understand and learn what the designer does. I applied to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, I spent a year applying for funding and with a lot of hard work saving I moved to Bristol and started the course the week I turned 30.

On stage rehearsal for King Lear (Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production), designed by Anna Orton 2016
Orpheus and Eurydice

What can you tell us about O&E?

How do you approach a project of this sort of scale? 

I was brought on for this project last year for a development process. Over 100 participants (taking over the whole of BOV!) were involved in the research and development process. The team involved are incredible. Each group was headed up with a belter of a leader, holding all the pieces together. The writer (Adam Peck) director (Lisa Gregan) composers (Chloe Thurlow and Jack Orozco-Morrison) and I, dipped in and out of each of the seven groups, hosting workshops, taking notes, watching development. Adam then spent time afterwards collating all the info, questions, wishes. He’s created something really exciting! 

With this number of actors the immediate design constraint is often 'how do they all fit on the stage together?' - something that holds them but is open enough for movement. The offstage areas (the wings) will be packed, we can't have big changes of set pieces. Keeping it simple and light on its feet is key. The script itself is a huge consideration; part Bristol streets, part underworld - easy! ha! 

We took inspiration from the whole urban culture in Bristol rather than specific locations. I like trying to capture atmosphere. I've designed for this stage quite a few times now and the thing that still takes my breath away is the depth. I love it. It’s such a generous space to work within. The underworld really uses the space - that’s all I’m giving away. 

Street Art inspiration

Have you worked with the engagement team before?

I have, and to this day it is one of my favourite shows I’ve worked on - I can categorically say not enough people in the world saw it. Make More Noise, was such an important piece devised by an incredible group of women inspired by the 100th anniversary since the Representation of the People Act was passed, giving women the right to vote. Lisa Gregan (director) has such an ability to land these massive subjects and scale in a way that's true, beautifully heartwarming and hard hitting. Of course I was going to work with her again! 

Make More Noise (2018)

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had to design? 

 Oh there are lots - if I’m given the freedom to go for it I’ll take it.  

Perhaps the most recent that comes to mind is the interpretation of an alien invasion, which metaphorically represents the actor's internal state. This naturally became a sky dancer (the wavy blow up tube man you see outside car showrooms) being attacked by silly string whilst the actor defeats him during a Beyonce-style choreographed extravaganza - wind machine, glitter drop. The lot!

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud when it works. When the collaboration with all the departments comes together to create something that holds a world together equally. Sometimes that means the set isn’t the important piece and sometimes it needs to be the elephant in the room. But what's an absolute necessity to me is the collaboration - I've done the fine art, the solo work. It's refreshing to not have to create that way anymore. 

Model box design for Messiah by Anna Orton
Actual stage design for Messiah by Anna Orton