INTERVIEW: With Morgan Moroney on Ghosts

APDG Emerging Designer Screen Representative, Courtney Westbrook interviewed 10th Anniversary APDG Award Emerging Design for a Live Performance winner Morgan Moroney about his work Ghosts.

  1. How did you begin the process of designing ‘Ghosts’?

Productions of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts can easily become museum pieces, and it is no secret that the plot’s melodramatics can seem archaic and distanced from a 21st century audience. 

The piece centres on a mother and son, brought together by the death of a husband/father, and over the course of the play an intricate web of secrets rises to the fore. The exposure of long-held grievances and scandals forces its characters to reckon with ugly truths in the face of suffocating 19th century ideals of morality. 

By today’s standards, Ibsen’s stage directions are dominating, prescribing the space and its surrounding natural environment in excruciating detail. The first page alone is dedicated to the description of a single garden room. And while the text is no doubt powerful in its evocation of Ibsen’s vision, in designing Ghosts we were faced with an immediate series of questions: what about this piece of writing actually resonates with the 21st century, and how could we create a production which earned its continued canonical status?

The process began with unpicking the core themes of Ibsen’s work. Stripping to its bones, what remains is a powerful examination of secrets – the way they can be held across generations, festering into monumental traumas if left unexposed for too long. Ibsen also critiques the sexual power wielded by the family’s patriarchs – a boys’ club who sought to subjugate and suppress. 

To bring these themes to the forefront for a modern audience, we resisted the creation of an archaic visual world and instead presented Ghosts under little pretence of Realism. There was no hiding the fact that these were NIDA students inhabiting characters vastly different to them in age, and the work was staged in a space clearly intended as a film studio. Embracing these contradictions, we arrived at a fragmented visual language which then permeated through all design disciplines, celebrating the anachronistic with a healthy dose of the contemporary.  

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts In a new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz From a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund Directed by Priscilla Jackman30, 31 Oct, 2–4 Nov, 8pm 31 Oct, 4 Nov, 1pm NIDA Theatres, Reg Grundy Studio

© NIDA 2020, Photographer Phil Erbacher

  • What were some of your artistic influences?

The story is positioned in the freezing fjords of Norway in Winter, a place where light is bright, expansive and diffused by clouds for much of the day. It graces enormous mountaintops and leaves tiny houses in their shadow. Images of the Nordic environment became a springboard for a literal language of light, but instead of evoking them in a naturalistic sense we grasped for a palette embracing a heightened psychological influence. 

I wanted the light to evoke a sense of this vastness and intensity, yet also find hints of an archaic, romanticised world brewing in our conservatory. Indeed, conservatories are places where the natural world can grow in artificial circumstances, yet their glass traps in heat to create a festering humid environment. This gave license to our space to feel sickly and over-saturated at times, drawing on a natural palette of colours but pushed to a place of claustrophobia. As some visual references, we looked to the work of painter Vilhelm Hammershoi’s haunting depictions of light and Gregory Crewsdon’s arresting, alienating domestic portraiture.

The projection’s visual language took inspiration from Neo-Impressionists of the late 19th century. I was interested in the ideological parallel between these artists breaking away from studios to find a more expressive form of capturing the world around them and Mrs. Alving as a woman ready to liberate herself from the past and bring truth to the surface.,_%22Moonlight,_Strandgade_30%22,_1900%E2%80%931906,_2012.203,_MET.jpg

© NIDA 2020, Photographer Phil Erbacher

  • How did this process evolve towards a tangible design?

As contemporary theatre-goers, we are comfortable with multiplicity in stage imagery. For this production, we conceived the world as layered across physical and projected realms. In one sense, projection could evoke the natural environment and offer a portal to major events beyond the conservatory. In a more expressive and psychological realm, imagery was driven by the family’s secrets and traumas being forced to the surface. Natural textures very slowly morphed and tore apart to reveal (dare I say) ghostly intergenerational figures haunting the characters.

Inside our conservatory space surrounded by theatrical artifice, real natural elements were present – the orphanage fire was achieved via a burst of flames in a wheelbarrow and the stage was divided via a curtain of real water. I augmented these elements via lighting and video effects including low fog, extensive haze and the visual nuance of projection flourishing to support these moments of high theatricality. Contrasting the stifling downstage space, a more dreamlike upstage space embraced a different quality of light – very cold, tight points of focus on leering figures echoing the past.

The famous dying moments of the play, as Osvald cries for the sun and its revelatory beams finally break through the clouds of dawn, was achieved via cyclorama light filaments directly facing the audience growing to a blinding intensity.

© NIDA 2020, Photographer Phil Erbacher

  • What do you find challenging or fulfilling when merging the disciplines of Lighting and Video design?

Video as a discipline is often lumped with sound to form ‘AV’, a term which for me discounts the work of both Sound and Video Designers in their respective fields. Video in theatre is light – emitted from a projector or from an active screen, and while the systems we use to control video in theatre are much more similar to sound than those we use to control light, for me lighting and video are disciplines which can complement one another in their visual storytelling potential. 

In a practical sense, the balance of technologies and logistics was challenging. Video content creation is time-consuming process at the mercy of computing power, and projectors often struggle to match the brightness of a full grid of theatrical lights (let alone a deliberately backlit window). It was a delicate balancing act not only to manage time in order to produce each element of the design to the best possible iteration, but to make sure each stage image was composed to draw the audience to each moment, hopefully in a subtle and subconscious-awakening manner.             Luckily, I was supported by the luxury of a supervisor for each department to manage them technically. 

I find the intersection of these disciplines most fulfilling when interweaved to create moments of beauty and nuance in storytelling. For Ghosts, I wanted the audience to be surprised by the projections slowly emerging from what appeared to be simple lighting effects as the action of the play took them there, not staring up at an enormous window and pixels dancing in front of them without cause. 

What I hoped to offer through my design for Ghosts was a glimpse into the realm of secrets left unspoken, and perhaps a warning of what happens when we ignore them.

© NIDA 2020, Photographer Phil Erbacher