Twelve Ophelias. • Photo courtesy of Isabel Le

Movement is important to set designer Isabel Le.

Le believes that good design for the theatre stage is dynamic, rather than static, and that the best set designs incorporate many other artistic and social aspects. “I am always inspired by artists with bold ideas who challenge the existing world,” Le said, “such as performance artist Marina Abramovic, dancer Pina Bausch and director dimitrius papaioannou.”

In particular, Le makes an analogy to the social sciences. “Set designers are similar to anthropologists in a way, in that we keep exploring the areas we don’t know by doing deep research,” she said. “We are also building a world out of nothing but a script or music. This world contains some part of me and the other creative team members, and it has a life beyond it and keep growing.”

One part of Le included in every set design is her love of drawing. “I found the joy of drawing ever since I began to have a memory of the world,” she said. “My grandma bought me a set of color pencils and let me draw anything freely.”

Le took drawing classes for more years, before being trained as an architect. “The diverse ways to explore space really interested me and lead me to love the process of design,” she said.

This fondness led Le to become inspired by other set designers. “I love Christine Jones and Bunny Christie’s works a lot,” Le said. “There’s deep understanding of the dramaturgy and sophisticated interaction with the story and performance involved in their design. And surprisingly, they are able to express their philosophical and intellectual perception through simple and elegant language.”

But good design for the theatre doesn’t come easily. “I usually spend a long time doing research, which includes both intellectual and visual one,” Le said. “I would read scripts, and listen to the music if necessary, many times until I get a clear sense of it, and do a lot of research about the literature and criticism about it.”

Of great importance is the dramatic action that will be put in motion by the actors. “How to play with the space in the venue and how to make full use of it is always one of my biggest concerns in set design,” Le said. “Designing the set for me is not only about designing the scenic pieces on the stage. It is about designing the whole experience for the audience, and guiding their journey of the whole show.”

This journey starts, for Le, from the moment that audience members walk into the building. “I love playing with the lobby space before the audience entering the theatre and let it be an organic part of the show,” she said. “The different venues will lead me making different choices for transitions of the set, as well as the actors’ movement routine.”

Collaboration with the full artistic team is also key. “The revision of the design always involves sharing perception with the director,” Le said. “When the first concept is generated, we would examine it together and discuss how it helps to unfold the director’s vision of the story.”

This process goes through several iterations. “Several versions of development would then be followed to let the story tell better,” Le said. “Then of course adjustment according to our budget limit and practical considerations.”

Of all her projects, Le feels the most formative and illuminating was her set design for Twelve Ophelias in Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre, a theater in the round. “It’s a story about Ophelia’s afterlife since coming out of Hamlet’s world,” Le said. “I found in research that artists since 19th century has been falling in love with Ophelia’s death in water and over-beautify it.”

In her design, Le wanted to push back against this trend. “I redesigned the lobby area surrounding the theatre, and changed it to an art gallery of Ophelia in Art, which displayed the different interpretation of Ophelia’s images in painting, photography, fashion cover, etc,” she said. “When the audience stepped into the theatre through the only operating gate, they saw a girl in an oversized white dress, lying in fabric water, in a giant golden frame tangled with flowers. This reminded them of the stereotyped image they just saw.”

Le tied this lobby and set design to the play’s action. “At the end of the play, Ophelia removed all her costumes, and stepped out of the frame naked as a feminine statement towards the male’s desire,” she said. “This set design idea is quite conceptual and immersive. It is a response to the old cycle of women’s misogyny in a visual way, that might help the audience to recognize and generate a new vision of it.”

After this and numerous other projects, Le is still ready to investigate other areas. “In future phases, generally I wish to explore more fields that I am not familiar with now, like designing for opera, film, concert, and dance,” she said. “I would like to broaden myself a bit, and try to work on projects requiring different approaches and styles and working with people with different personalities.”

Le’s aim in all this is to take audiences beyond merely the physical realm into the social. “I always believe theatre performance is an open-ended interactive process,” she said. “It is a dialogue between the audience and the people who create the show.”

This dialogue, Le hopes, will help delve deeper into the human experience. “As a set designer and visual artist, I feel blessed and empowered by offering the audience a visual approach to witness the story unfolding and sense the emotional journey,” she said. “I am trying to create a world beyond rational, illustrative, or literal space, and more towards spiritual dimension.”

Connection is key for Le. “I wish I could build a bridge between the story we create and the inner self of the audience,” she said, “and let the show generate an ever-growing gift for the audience.”

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