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Anna Orton - A Design For Life

Anna Orton never expected to be working with acting greats like Timothy West when she embarked on a theatre design course at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Neither did the thirty-one year old Gorebridge-raised artist expect to be part of a team that was headed up by acclaimed directors such as Sally Cookson and Tom Morris. As Orton makes the final touches on her design for Morris' production of King Lear featuring West in the title role, however, that's exactly what has happened.

The production forms part of an ongoing collaboration between Bristol Old Vic, where Morris is artistic director, and the Theatre School. The idea is that, rather than getting a twenty-something student to attempt the gravitas of Lear's title role, a genuine monarch of the stage such as West is brought in alongside other professionals, with the rest of the cast made up of acting students about to graduate.

As well as West, when Morris' production opens this week, David Hargreaves will play Gloucester, while Stephanie Cole, a former alumnus of the Theatre School, will play The Fool. This unique collaboration not only commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, but 250 years since Bristol Old Vic first opened its doors and seventy since the Theatre School was started.

In terms of design, as with other productions on the course, the year's four designers are paired together, with one concentrating on costume, the other on the set. After working on costume for a studio production of Trojan Women by Sally Cookson, Orton has been working closely with Morris on the set for King Lear.

“Tom came to the table from the very beginning,” Orton says, sitting alone in her studio during a rare moment of calm. “We built lots of different ideas together, and it was so good to get challenged, The imagery that came out of that for Lear's story was of a bridge crumbling, and Lear's knights are like mummers, so it's quite folksy, but in a dark way. But aesthetically, Tom's let me go absolutely wild with it. It's all very epic, but it has this minimal language as well.”

Student actors and designers working with leading professionals isn't anything new. At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, for instance, some of Scotland's major practitioners often direct and sometimes devise work with students. For students to appear onstage with the likes of West is something else again.

For The Trojan Women, Orton applied her fine art background from her training at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.

“Coming from a fine art background, I was used to setting up installations,” she says, “but not on that scale. That was quite a learning experience, but Sally Cookson has this amazing ability to pull the best out of you, so you just do it.”

Orton did it too on The Human Ear, a pub theatre show in which the ad hoc company was given a minimal budget to work with.

“That was with a student director and a student cast,” says Orton, “so it really felt like you were a real company.”

Orton applied for the course at Bristol Old Vic after doing her Masters in Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone. Having opted for a theatre design module, she contacted Dundee Rep, and was taken under the wing of the theatre's in-house design assistant, Leila Kalbassi. ended up painting scenery on shows as diverse as Woman in Mind, The BFG and Hecuba. She also worked as assistant designer on Scottish Dance Theatre's production of PARK.

“I loved it,” Orton says of the experience. “I really enjoyed the collaborative aspect of everything, and I loved doing the research. It's very similar to art in that way. You have to learn the language of something so you know what to do with it. Everyone around me seemed to have come from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and I really really thrive with that sort of collaboration, and I just thought, I want more of this. That was a big turning point, but I dunno, does doing this change your status as an artist?”

As well as working as a stage designer, Orton is one third of Ortonandon, the performance art-based trio Orton formed with her elder sisters, Katie and Sophie, who, like Anna, are both solo artists in their own right. To say Ortonandon were formed is maybe over-stating the case. The three sisters have been mucking about since they were kids growing up close to Gorebridge with their artist mother.

For three little girls living in the middle of nowhere, vivid imaginations and a penchant for play were heightened even more when they fell in with the offspring of their next door neighbour, theatre director and co-founder of Communicado Theatre Company, Gerry Mulgrew. There were local gala days, Orton remembers, at which they would all perform.

“I was about five, and we used to make a stage in the barn and paint backdrops and then perform. It was just something you did with the clan.”

With each of the Ortons going off to art school, the familial shorthand between them honed during their childhood gala days in the barn gradually led to Ortonandon.

“We tried lots of ways of working together. We had a painting show at the CCA We did sculptural work. We had a horse-riding incident together.”

Orton leaves this hanging before pointing out that “In the end it was much more fun to do something performance-based, because we're all in such different places in terms of what we do.”

Previous Ortonandon spectaculars have seen much plundering of the dressing up box, including one piece that focused on the machinations of a sole pair of yellow tights between them.

Beyond Bristol, Orton is keen to expand her repertoire. She talks of companies such as Kneehigh, and her awe of Catherine Wheels' sensational show for two to four year olds, White. The immersive constructions of the you me bum bum train company are also a key to her thinking. While in Bristol, as well as designing actual shows, Orton had to make hypothetical designs which were created working with directors as if for a real production. In this manner Orton designed an opera – La Boheme, Chekhov's The Seagull, and, closest to home, David Harrower's still startling debut play, Knives in Hens.

“That was amazing,” Orton says, “especially because it's set in Gorebridge, which is where I'm from, though nobody here knows where it is.”

In August, Orton will be back on home turf, designing Still Here, a new play based on the experiences of an Eritrean refugee, at the Zoo Venue as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With her sisters, she will also be taking part in a new performance piece by Ortonandon at Jupiter Artland, the West Lothian based contemporary sculpture park which seems to invite left-field interventions that sound a long way from King Lear.

Orton shrugs.

“It's all play, isn't it?” she says.

King Lear, Bristol Old Vic, June 18-July 10; The Bristol Old Vic Theatre Exhibition will take place at the Royal West of England Academy, June 23-29; Still Here, Zoo Venues, Edinburgh, August 3-24; Anna Orton will appear with Ortonandon as part of Nemoralia at Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh, August 6.

The Herald, June 14th 2016



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