In the first in a series of interviews with the artists, designers, makers and performers who reside here at Puppet Place, we meet Max Dorey, a theatre designer who specialises in set and costume design and who has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Bristol Old Vic and the Southwark Playhouse. Max shares his thoughts on his working practice, the relationship between theatrical design and puppetry and the worlds he finds inside his coffee cup…
PP) Can you tell me a bit about the work you do?
MD) Yes, I’m a set and costume designer, which I’ve been doing freelance for a while now. I studied at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in theatre design and I trained for a year in Stratford on Avon at the RSC as an assistant designer. I also do bits of my own projects on the side, some illustration – anything creative that I can do really.
PP) What are you working on currently?
MD) I’ve just finished working on a play that’s opened in London, Orson’s Playhouse, which is about Orson Wells and Laurence Olivier. I did set and costume for that. I’m currently working on a show called Nightjars, which is going to be on Theatre 503 and then transfers to Bristol Old Vic in October. And I’ve just started work in an adapted version of Henry IV at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. So I’m really busy. August will be the first month in the last six that I’ve not been opening a show!
PP) So, how are you involved in puppetry?
MD) Well, when I finished my studies in English Literature and Theatre at Leeds University, I knew I wanted to be involved in theatre practically but I wasn’t quite sure what precisely. I became very interested in puppetry and set myself up as a puppetmaker. The work I was doing was good, the experience was good but it wasn’t necessarily consistent, it wasn’t enough to support myself but it was a year for experience, to get as much experience as I could with theatre companies, which is when I first started doing stuff here in Bristol. I was in involved in a production of Pinocchio with Green Ginger at the Tobacco Factory Theatre. That’s how I got involved here, at Puppet Place.
PP) Is there a link between puppetry and costume/set design?
MD) Yes, absolutely. The course I did in Leeds allowed us to develop our interests in theatre through practical application. I’d initially thought I was interested in acting or directing but one thing that became really clear was that I had a really strong interest in design and theatrically I’m very interested in visual impact and what you can do to really get someone at a gut level. Toward the end of that course, we all had to create our own piece of theatre, so created The View From Down Here, a world war two puppetry play without dialogue. The challenge I set myself was to only use design as a way to tell a story; so to remove dialogue, to use music, to use sound effects, to use scenery. I wanted to shamelessly use all of these techniques that one uses to manipulate an audience. With puppetry I was saying not only do I want to make the costumes, I want to make the characters themselves and I want to audience to never be in doubt that what they’re looking at is an artificial thing and yet they will still allow themselves to be taken into it. So although I don’t get to do as much puppetry as I’d like, I always ask myself how one might look at it from a puppetry perspective because a puppet is pure performance, it only exists to be a performance, it doesn’t have any life outside that.
PP) What are your future plans?
MD) I think now that work is more consistent that I can ask ‘what really interests me?’ There’s a few things that I keep coming back to, I try to keep things new but there are always things that I find endless fascinating, and I don’t think that’s a problem. It’s good to develop one’s own style. If a director is completely onboard with your vision, that is so exciting. The best relationships are where there is some freedom.
PP) And last, what’s with the coffee cups?
MD) (LAUGHS) Well, to the degree that I’m trying to find things that interest me, I’ve found these. Modelmaking is something that theatre designers do. Often you’ll go to exhibitions and people want to look at model boxes and that becomes the way that you’re able to show work. So now I’m trying to something quite fun and creative with it. I had this idea that I could start doing fantasy designs for shows that I won’t necessarily get a chance to do but if I just do it, then when I do get a chance to work on another show, it will have informed what I’m interested in.
Every time you start a design you have to work within a venue, that always becomes the first inspiration. So I thought, what’s the most limited space I can think of, and I happened to have a coffee cup on my desk. What’s really nice about it is that the coffee cup is designed to be handheld; it’s a throw away consumer item. There was something quite pleasing about the idea that you could have something which doesn’t seem to have any integrity to it and then you look further and it’s got a little world inside.
Interview by Emma Windsor
Based in the heart of Bristol, Puppet Place offers workspace for artists and creatives including puppeteers, prop makers, graphic designers and filmmakers. Benefits of becoming a resident at Puppet Place include a profile on our website, advice and information, discounted rates on hire rates in the fabrication and rehearsal studios and more. To join Max and artists like him, contact Rachel McNally at rachel [at] puppetplace.org or call 0117 929 3593.