FranÁois Sťguinís stage designs range from Cirque du Soleil spectacles to stage adaptations of Kafka to contemporary oratorio. He has been the production designer on award winning films such as The Barbarian Invasions and The Red Violin. At the New Zealand International Arts Festival for the double bill staging of Bertold Brechtís The Lindberg Flight / The Flight Over the Ocean and The Seven Deadly Sins, directed by FranÁois Girard, Sťguin talks with CATHERINE BISLEY.

The Lindberg Flight

CB: It must be a big task getting a show of this size all the way to New Zealand.

FS: Oh for me it was easy. They just told me where to go [laughs]. I came here. It looks big but it is not so big. And the people who put it together are muscly. Thereís no panic, no heart attack.

CB: The Lindberg Flight was originally intended for radio, wasnít it?

FS: Yes.

CB: Did it this affect your approach to designing the set?

FS: Well the director [Girard] is a friend of mine. He listened to that piece a long time ago and he was always interested in doing it. And Lyon [Opera] asked him to propose something and he did. They were not sure about it because it was a radio thing. But he had a conceptÖ not visually resolved but, you know he wanted to play it as a radio oratorio. When Lyon accepted the double bill we sat down and went through different phrases. You know, how to abstract this, how not be too literalÖ

CB: This is a longstanding collaboration with Francois Girard. It must be quite easy working together?

FS: Itís easy. Yes yes yes.

CB: Is it quite an intuitive relationship?

FS: As a designer you always have to try and find a language, basically a directorís language that you can see on stage. I know his language now after all those years. So for us itís back and forth Ė itís easy. I donít doubt him he doesnít doubt me. Sometimes we go in one direction in a common accord. Sometimes we have to go back to stage one, phase oneÖ Itís never a big drama. No drama.

CB: Francois Girard has done lots of musically based projects. Have you designed for opera before?

FS: We did a piece in New York City an oratorio called The Lost Objective which was a contemporary piece by a collective called Bang on the Can. So that [the Brecht double bill] was my second adventure in opera.

CB: Brecht was a man of strong opinions. How do you find his philosophy of the stage?

FS: I went to theatre school in the seventies. And Brecht was the big thing: at school you read and you study and you perform Brecht almost every year. Itís all naivety about the communist era and politically itÖ the whole dream now, fifty years later, itís over. Nobody wants to go there anymore, for all kind of reasons. But for him the dream was still very alive. Everyone knows what happened [with communism]. But I still relate to his principle of distanciation, and the acting method. He did amazing plays, basically.

CB: In the footage Iíve seen of the Berliner Ensemble productions the stage is always quite bareÖ.

FS: Yeah. He was at the beginning of abstraction in the theatre. He was against naturalism. You have to remember he started in the 1930s where everything was like a big backdrop painting with even light effects. So he cleaned it up. For starters itís all cabaret setting.

CB: Brecht was very interested in new technology, as you see with Lindberg flight. How did he use technology?

FS: I donít think he used big machinery. He was just after Wagner. So Wagner was a big big, major thing, and he [Brecht] decided to use a wholly other language.

CB: So does your set design use alienation techniques? Exposed lights etc?

FS: As I said, itís fifty years later. Those things have been done so many times that you have to re-approach them. Brecht is not naturalistic. You start with a bare stage. Itís kinda formal what we did. Itís very formal. Itís a 3D kinda sculpture. But there is no emotion in the set. None at all. Itís very bare and very stark.

CB: What is your own philosophy about set design?

FS: It is a function of telling a story. I design plays and I design moviesÖ and you go with the best way to tell a story. As a set designer you go with the directorís vision. I wouldnít mind doing a Busby Berkeley kinda setÖ. You know it the 30s, the sailors all that, but it's fine.

The Seven Deadly Sins

CB: Having worked on vast array of projects in both film and theatre, do you find the different mediums interconnect and influence each other in your designs?

FS: Some people would say that when I am designing a movie Iím theatrical [laughs] and when I am designing a set it's more cinematic. For me itís been a mixture for so long, you know, I go on a project and have all these ideas behind me. Itís true, sometimes I make a very emotional set for a movie but when I do stage Iím moreÖ trying not to be so emotional. So why? I donít know.

CB: You have been working on a big project for Cirque du Soleil?

FS: Yes yes, again with the same director.

CB: So itís a huge spectacle?

FS: Big big big big. Since I came to New Zealand I received a couple of photos of them putting the set together. Itís so big I donít have to show up for a month because there is nothing for me to do. Itís going to take a month for them to get the basic elements together. Itís so huge.

CB: On the other hand you have also done a design for Kafkaís The Trial recently - quite the opposite of the Cirque du Soleil piece really?

FS: Yes. Itís not the same scale. Itís not the sameÖ ahÖ. Money. There are not many companies that can afford the kind of stuff you can do with the Cirque du Soleil. Itís good and bad. Itís amazing that despite the fact we have a wealthyÖ healthy or wealthy budget [laughs]. You still have the same drama of cutting ďitís too bigĒ ďwe donít have money for thisĒ. Itís the same but a big, big scale.

CB: Turning back to the current show. What do you see as the triumph of your set design?

FS: Itís two maps, itís the world. Itís America meeting Europe in the first and then the other one is just the USA. I like this kinda metaphor of the building rising behind the map while Anna is working basically and sending money to the family. At one point I was trying to incorporate the Exxon building in Texas [laughs]Ö the shape Ė I couldnít figure it outÖ and then we decided, no, itís too literal.

CB: Do you have a metaphor that describes your process of designing a set? For example, I once heard scriptwriting described as making a cut and controlling the bleedingÖ

FS: Woah [laughs].

CB: Yeah, pretty full on.

FS: I guessÖ Iím not sure this is actually answering the question. I guess I would have loved to have been a storyteller but Iím not good with words. But by projection I go to people who tell stories and I want to be part of telling the story. You know, I bleed sometimes [laughs]. But even if I take the whole process very personally, itís still not me. Itís still somebody else Iím just in the back. I donít have the fame but at the same time I donít have the wound that goes with it.

CB: Where do you see as the future of the stage? Whatís changing?

FS: Just in my own lifetime, the cost of putting a show togetherÖ. so like 30 years ago you can do a show for very little money. And I think the kids are still doing it but itís kinda growing up. Itís good and sad at the same time, but I canít go back there - building my own set along with a hammer and a friend. But I did it, Iím happy I did it and I learnt a lot doing it. With theatre I think everything is possible - from two guys on a corner of the street to Miss Butterfly and Cirque du Soleil. I think historically too there has always been from the small to the big. The Roman the Greeks, the... Itís not the same energy to see a little show in a fifty seat place and to see a spectacle in an arena. But itís still people coming together to witness and enjoy.

CB: The Lindberg Flight / Seven Deadly Sins would appear to have both these elements. The spectacle element is matched with a whole lot of meaningÖ

FS: Yeah yeah yeah. Itís challenging music in a way, even though it is very modern. It is hummable, you can sing. But itís not pop music. It will challenge you but it is beautiful music.