Covid-secure design doesn't need to limit our ideas

I was in Sheffield as the first wave of Covid-19 came across Europe. We opened and closed Coriolanus early. As lockdown was enforced, I, along...

Ben Stones

Sheffield Theatres creative associate Ben Stones explains how designing in lockdown using a virtual reality theatre saved time and money

I was in Sheffield as the first wave of Covid-19 came across Europe. We opened and closed Coriolanus early. As lockdown was enforced, I, along with other freelancers, watched as our projects and livelihoods crumbled. 

Like most theatres, Sheffield went through a traumatic financial time. But in the midst of the darkness Robert Hastie and his team were dreaming up a plan to focus resources on employing as many people as possible. The Together Season would engage casts and creative teams that had been postponed over the summer and reimagine the productions in these unique circumstances to welcome back a reduced audience.

Appointed as season creative associate, my first duty was to provide Sheffield’s Crucible with a sustainable, socially distanced and cost-saving design to unify the season. Searching through the scenic stores, after the intense loss I had felt since March, all these beautifully crafted items felt like artefacts of a past era – like the vast storage hanger in Indiana Jones. I began to imagine a box full of the curiosities of a producing theatre’s past, celebrating the creatives and the craftsmanship that makes Sheffield so special.

I recreated the auditorium with intense detail and atmosphere on my computer

Designing in a Covid-secure world posed new challenges: smaller budgets, reduced teams, limited access to the theatre. The design process can naturally be lonely unless you are lucky to have an assistant, but Covid-19 enforced loneliness on us all. 

I struggled to convey art and ideas over Zoom, so a new process had to be found. I had explored 3D modelling and visualisation in other commercial art forms so with a combination of tools I recreated the auditorium with intense detail and atmosphere on my computer. 

I took this one step further and began to learn virtual reality. The magic of sitting on my sofa and being transported to the Crucible helped me see clearly what I was proposing and, crucially, also feel the space as an audience member. This cut masses of material waste from the usual model design process and, more importantly, time.

What that time afforded us was to think sustainably. My design for 2017’s Julius Caesar – transforming the Crucible into a forum-shaped senate – seemed appropriate to this moment. Custom decks from that production inserted a moat around the stage, which usefully created a two-metre distance between audience and performer. 

That original design also involved 52 pairs of LEDs. Recycling these to create a new installation gave the brilliant lighting designer Lucy Carter – who designed a flexible rig for the season – the opportunity to play with colour and kinetic light.

The final element was an architectural gesture to embody the spirit and ambition of putting on an eclectic season of work in these tough times and to inspire each creative team bringing their works to the space: the Play Box.

This is an OSB (a fashionable but cost-effective wood sheeting) clad, adaptable cube with an interior of wood and scaffold that allows elements to be suspended, extended and adapted affordably to each show’s needs. Sustainable and relatively cheap substrates provided a foundation to achieve height, shape, structure and space. 

At the time of writing, Sheffield moved into the national lockdown forcing the closing of three productions. It has now emerged into Tier 3, which forbids live performances. I have every hope this will lift and audiences will get to see what all the designers in the season are imagining. Sheffield’s investment in the season, and all those across the country making similar leaps forward, have proved theatre’s adaptability and resilience in tricky times. While we are limited on budget, we shouldn’t have to limit our ideas. 

Ben Stones is season creative associate at Sheffield Theatres