Theater of Immersion

[Image: Photo by Jim Stephenson].

Architectural photographer Jim Stephenson got in touch the other week with some photos he recently took of an elaborate stage set, constructed by the group dreamthinkspeak, for a new play based on Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

The play was performed in Brighton, England, inside an old department store, the entirety of which had been transformed into a labyrinthine performance space, complete with a Russian supermarket, a simulated department store (within the very frame of the abandoned one), and a cottage surrounded by artificial snow.

[Images: Photos by Jim Stephenson].

There are nurseries and ballrooms, writing desks and dioramas, all stashed away inside a massive performance space through which the audience must walk, as if chasing down scenes.

[Images: Photos by Jim Stephenson].

I’ll let Stephenson himself describe the building:

The venue was the old Co-Op building on London Road, Brighton, familiar to most people who live in the city. Opened in 1931, the Co-Op was the largest department store in the city when it closed 3 years ago. It has been neglected since… A large department store, wandering around it was incredible to see how quickly it had fallen into such a bad state. It reminded me of the first few chapters of The World Without Us, where Weisman talks about the processes that would take place around, inside and on our buildings should humans disappear. Indeed, it could be a study of such processes—damp creeps in everywhere, stripping render from the basement walls and warping and tearing the plywood paneling upstairs. Plant life eases through gaps and cracks. Carpet has lifted and the building has a terrific smell of decay. Yet in the stockrooms, still evident, is graffiti from the early 70’s—name checking footballers that have long since retired, bought pubs and passed on. Locally, there has been calls, growing stronger and stronger, for the owners or the council to inhabit the building. This is where dreamthinkspeak stepped in to temporarily transform the former department store into an incredible series of set-pieces, opening up such a familiar building to a public for the first time in three years, curious to see what had happened the their local shop.

The ensuing world of the play included some interesting moments of self-reference; as Stephenson writes: “The basement of the Co-Op used to feature some beautiful leaded windows around the circulation areas and these have been re-used with elaborate models of show apartments and odd and surreal rooms placed behind the glass. Closer inspection shows that these surreal rooms are models of the rooms we’ve already passed through and (we’ll soon learn) rooms to come.”

[Image: The “leaded windows… re-used with elaborate models of show apartments and odd and surreal rooms,” photographed by Jim Stephenson].

Indeed, one of the most architecturally interesting details of the production was its use of small models that refer to, repeat, or reveal in advance spaces of the play itself. Or, as Stephenson writes, “Repetition of themes continues throughout the show, using increasingly imaginative set-pieces to remind us of where we’ve been.” It’s as if the play somehow stutters, blurting out smaller versions of itself—like an inhabitable 3D printer that can’t help but create images of its own surroundings.

In one of the images below, for instance, Stephenson writes that we see a table “covered in a forest of formerly lit candles”—and within the melted wax, “models of the couple from earlier [in the play] sit drinking tea.” It’s microcosmic self-repetition—a kind of ontological splintering in architectural form.

This takes on a somewhat mind-bending dimension when we learn that, in the fake department store (within the ruined department store…), attendees are confronted with architectural models “lent to the show by the architects Conran & Partners (so, interestingly, these models are for actual redevelopments that may someday be built).” That is, real buildings, constructed perhaps ten or more years from now, could someday be realistically interpreted as hypertrophied spatial aftereffects of this particular stage set.

[Images: Photos by Jim Stephenson].

In any case, I’ve included many of Stephenson’s photos here, documenting the experience, but there are more on his website (along with a much longer description of the space).

[Image: Photo by Jim Stephenson].

You’ll find that I’ve barely even begun to describe the set’s intricacy: there are internal CCTV networks covering the unfolding of the play, multi-lingual actors and actresses wandering through the scenes, and even a secret passageway through a department store cupboard. The final space, like the boss level of some massive new game, “is a huge room, almost an entire floor of the Co-Op,” Stephenson explains, “filled with the remains of a former orchard. A deforestation scene, with woodchips all over the floor and tree stumps left.”

[Image: Photo by Jim Stephenson].

And, with that, this particular variation on Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” comes to an end.

(Also check out Jim Stephenson’s straight-ahead architectural photography while you are at his site).

4 thoughts on “Theater of Immersion”

  1. this needs to happen to a lot more forgotten / dilapidated buildings across the PLANET!!! otherwise its only the people who break in and snap pics of abandoned buildings that get all the excitement!

    The Tempest on hashima island anyone?

  2. That sounds like a really cool thing to see.

    It reminds me a lot of the movie Synecdoche, New York, where a model of the real world is built inside of a warehouse and the actors relive the lives of real people, even to the point of building a model of the model world inside of a model warehouse.

  3. Intrigued by this as I grew up in Brighton and used to spend my pocket money at the Co-Op on plastic soldiers, lego etc. with which to construct model cities at home. That was before the centre of gravity in Brighton shifted definitively away from the London Road area – quite a long time ago now – leaving a sad atmosphere of decline around the shops that remained.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.