• APDGreen Conversations – Quick Production Snapshot with Katja Handt

Katja Handt
Image (c) TheWomen’sPic

APDG member Katja Handt is a set and costume designer living and working in Australia since 2002. For the past 18 years she has worked on a wide range of projects in film, performing and visual arts as well as live events.

She is the co-founder of Flightpath Theatre, an independent theatre company with director Michael Pigott. Fusing form and content with an open, devised style drawn from architecture, objects and personal stories, Flightpath explores ways to connect ideas and engage audiences— weaving text, movement and design into new forms of theatrical storytelling.

In 2019 Katja designed THE SURFER AND THE MERMAID for Merrigong Theatre Company and Bleached Arts.

Based on Tim Baker’s popular children’s book, THE SURFER AND THE MERMAID follows the tale of a young surfer who is captured by a mermaid and led to the depths of the ocean to meet the whales.

To support the strong message about the human impact on our oceans, Katja’s set was designed to be built out of found and recycled materials, featuring a coral reef made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles.

APDGreen Conversation had a quick chat with Katja about her choices:

Q: Did you begin designing THE SURFER AND THE MERMAID with environmental sustainability as a core parameter/framework?

A: “Yes. The key message of the show was to make young people aware of the pollution in our oceans and encourage them to change their waste behaviour. Sustainability was a key parameter and discussed from the start with the entire creative team.”

Q: How did your initial ideas develop and become the final design?

A: “I wanted the design to have a strong architectural impact as well as being able to provide an interesting organic surface for Mic Gruchy’s projections. Early on we decided on using two massive waves to frame the story which could also be read as sand dunes, a wave tunnel, an underwater cave and a coral reef. For the construction of the set I wanted to use as much recycled plastic as possible.  

Our plan was to sculpt the framework for the waves out of bent bamboo poles, fill them with recycled plastic bottles and cover them with recycled shade cloth. 

The waves would then be backlit to reveal an amazing coral reef made from 1000s of plastic bottles. I also hung plastic bottles and bags.

Q: What problems did you and the production team encounter trying to keep the set made entirely from found materials?

A: It proved incredibly difficult to source enough recycled plastic bottles to fill the waves. It was labour intensive and involved a lot of dirty work to pick and sort through the recycling bins from WIN Stadium in Wollongong. It also became very expensive to construct the framework out of bamboo, so we ended up having to purchase new plastic conduit instead.

I discovered that it takes a lot more additional planning time than is usually available to most theatre companies during a production process to run campaign-sourcing of recycled material sources! There were unexpected obstacles we encountered through council regulations with regards to health and safety as well.”

Q: Has this production changed the ways in which you might design shows and create new work?

A: My practice was already focused on using recycled materials, prior to the show. I love using materials that are already charged with a past history. The smaller the project, the easier it is to design and build that way.

I also don’t mind recycling sets from past productions; it’s not only good for budget and leaves money to be spent elsewhere, but sometimes it can also give you a starting point for a creative direction by transforming one shape into another.”

Adam Booth as The Surfer; (c) Lisa Tomasetti for Merrigong Theatre Company
The backlit wave revealed the plastic bottles hiding within the set, filling the structure
Hundreds of recycled plastic bottles were held together within the ‘wave’ framework

Director: Leland Kean
Set and Costume Designer: Katja Handt
Video Media Designer: Mic Gruchy
Lighting Designer: Taryn Brown
Composer and Sound Designer: Daryl Wallis



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