The Burnt City Part One: An Interview with Livi Vaughan

“Don’t worry if you get lost, you are already lost. That’s why you came here, into the dark to see the light. Not to be told a story, but to live inside a dream.”

Over the past few months, I have seen Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City two times and had the wonderful opportunity to interview several members of the creative team about what it has been like to create a promenade-style show of such a massive scale. The first four articles in this series will be interviews with Livi Vaughan [Designer], Andrea Salazar [Head of Production], Stephen Dobbie [Sound Designer], and Colin Nightingale [Audience Experience Curator]. The final article will be about my experience seeing the show, both before and after interviewing the creatives.

“Everything that you could explore, you can explore”

As a part of this series, I had the chance to interview Livi Vaughan, one of the designers of The Burnt City. She and Beatrice Minns designed the show along with Felix Barrett, one of the directors of the show.

Kat: Where do you start with designing such a large and immersive project like The Burnt City?

Livi: Where do you start answering that? [Laughs] It’s a really long process and it’s really collaborative. So the designers, myself and Beatrice Minns, closely work together. And we work with Felix [Barrett], the director – Conceptually, it’s coming from his brain, it’s his creation. We have the starting point of the text and the world we’re trying to create, but so much of the building influences what we end up creating. This project, we actually tried to do about eight years ago – We had a site in central London, that, unfortunately, we lost. But we already had this idea of two separate spaces, which really interested us and really lends itself to this idea of Greece and Troy. Often, Felix will come to a building with one show in mind, and once we get in and start moving around it, we realize that it’s more appropriate to do something else. So I think when they found the Woolwich building, it was fantastic because we have these two really different spaces, but they weren’t linked, so we actually had to build this structure to link them together! The main starting point is really figuring out what that journey through a space is. We often place the bar and the entrance first and understand where our two “lands” are. There’s a lot of work in ensuring we’ve got enough big ensemble spaces down to the secrets. And then the final design itself is layered in on top of that and continues until we’ve opened.

Kat: What parts of the show did you design?

Livi: So Bea and I designed the whole show together – We have a huge team. We have an associate designer, Maïto [Jobbé Duval] who’s also the head of design, so she worked closely with Bea and me. But all of conceptuals of the rooms down to the dressing and the detail comes through the two of us. We design everything together, but Bea goes into the character and the real detail of what you’re seeing in those rooms. I work more with Maïto, and the production on the architectural design as well. It’s creating a world so it’s layered. On this project in particular, these warehouses were completely empty, so we were building the physical structure of the spaces before we even got into the rooms to decide what they are! There’s a whole architectural design layer that we did on this project that we haven’t really done on any shows before. So hugely challenging and time-consuming, but really exciting because it means we can really craft that audience journey through those spaces.

Kat: So what is it like designing for an immersive show where you don’t get to fully control what the audience does? How do you design for these different experiences?

Livi: I love it! [Laughs] I think that’s why I’ve loved working with Punchdrunk for so long because it’s the only opportunity you have to do something that’s completely 360. Some people liken our work to film work in terms of the level of detail but even then, you can peek behind the curtain and it’s held up with gaffer tape, whereas in our world, everything that you could explore, you can explore. So it’s a really nice fusion of the architectural design to interior design to installation. We have all these plans and big ideas, but once you get an audience in the space, they’re not going to react the way that you think they are, as much as you try and preempt things. It’s about being really flexible and putting in options. Quite often, once the audience comes in, we change things in terms of flow in particular, and audience entry, because you can’t predict what’s going to catch someone’s eye or wherever bottlenecks are going to be. We try and plan, but then you have to expect changes to those plans as well. It’s a beautiful, rich design, but that’s only one element of the work. What’s special about Punchdrunk is we give equal weight to the lighting, sound, performance, and design. Everybody’s as important as each other. When our performers are creating their work with Maxine [Doyle] and Felix, our designs have to respond to that as well. Felix and I often describe it as layering and painting.

Kat: How do you go about designing things ranging from small scraps of paper with notes on them to gigantic set pieces? 

Livi: I think that’s the beauty of it, and I think that’s why Bea and I design it together – It’s way too much for one brain! The details by Bea are really fantastic. We have an idea of who the characters are through Felix and what the performers are doing, but we really work into the imagination of what those characters would be. When a character leaves a room, how do you express who that belongs to without them there? there are some spaces, particularly in the tenements, where performers never go, because there’s not enough space. If a performer goes to a space, they obviously draw a load of the audience with them. In terms of the flow I was talking about, we just couldn’t allow that many people into that area. So there are some rooms where the stories need to be told through the objects themselves. So Bea works with a really special detail and design team to create those storylines for those characters so you really can explore and find whole stories to what’s within them. Everything is detailed!

Kat: I’ve read somewhere that there are over 100 rooms in the warehouses – Is that true? 

Livi: I was actually wondering that earlier because I don’t know the exact number of rooms, I think it’s around 100. This show is quite different because usually, we work in a building that’s already got its interiors, so the rooms are laid out for you. In this show, there’s a lot more exterior space than we’re used to, so a lot of the corridors and things are classed as rooms. We don’t really have a definite number, but there’s certainly a lot to explore! With all our shows, we want that extra hidden bit, so the further you delve, the more you can find. 

Kat: Do you have a favourite thing that you designed for the show? 

Livi: There are some small secret rooms that I love. I’m extremely proud of the epic scale that we’ve created in this show – Having the dual height spaces and, hopefully, successfully hiding the building itself and making you feel like you’re on a city street or in a courtyard, or exterior space. But I always fall in love with the more intimate spaces because you can control them so much more. I like the feeling of calm and how they can change your pace within the show. So yeah, some of these small rooms are probably my favourites.

Kat: Is there any particular room that you’d recommend people try to find?

Livi: I don’t like to tell people what to do! Where you end up is so specific to your journey. Every show is so different – Every time you experience the show, you can have a different adventure. So no giveaways!

Kat: Was there anything about designing The Burn City that surprised you?

Livi: I suppose the thing that surprised us all was underestimating the architectural design that was required, in terms of our build process. It was epic – We put in the whole mezzanine! Like I said at the beginning, Felix and I are so used to responding to a space that exists. The first thing we do is walk around it. We take every staircase and elevator, we move through it, and we really react to that immediate response we have to a space and what it’s offering us. And although we knew this had the potential to offer us so much, there are almost too many options when you can do anything – Learning within limitations is what makes design exciting. Our shows are usually stacked on top of each other, horizontally, so we usually have a lift and we’re scattering an audience through that process. This is very linear – We’ve got two buildings but basically on one level with just the mezzanines. So trying to imagine your audience going the opposite way to what they used to do was kind of baffling. Then putting in this mezzanine and trying to preempt where we needed the staircases and the routes and so on, and then seeing how that affected the performance. And not being able to travel it until it was built – It took a good three to six months before the big build started! That was definitely the most complicated thing we did on this one.

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