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Fracture: A love letter to set design

Set designer, Brooke Soulsby discusses her biggest lessons and discoveries working on Fracture.

I was first approached about being one of the two set designers/builders for “Fracture” in November last year. The project was pitched to Scott and I by our Artistic Director, Jacob, as a historical/verbatim piece, which will draw on a series of survivor stories from the 1931 Napier Earthquake. Even though this is one of our country’s most prominent natural disasters, many of the specifics remain unknown to much of the younger generation of New Zealanders - including myself. In the fostering of Echo Theatre NZ, we collectively watched the survivor story interviews and underwent a portion of research on the disaster. After much discussion and performative experimentation in the early stages, we found ‘community’ to be one of the strongest angles of approach, in order to bring the stories together for the purposes of the piece.

While looking at the disaster from a design perspective, I was informed that the existence of effective building codes in New Zealand was next to none prior to the earthquake. There were also extreme geological changes in the area with the loss of the lake.

Coming into this project as a set designer, having just completed by Bachelor’s degree, I felt that one of the biggest challenges would be to capture the dynamic of the disaster in relation to the unfamiliar environment that it created for the people who called Napier their home. A facet of this which we explored as a company is that of Canvas Town, which was a haven of tents set up by the army and navy groups due to the destruction of many houses and residences. We learned from watching the interviews that this was a place which greatly encouraged a sense of community and hope in a time of loss. Temporary as it would be, it was at the time, all that a lot of people had.

Eventually, we reached the final concept for the set as depicting a sort of no-place, which will present audiences with a vague image of the broken street, but also with influences of canvas town coming through. The use of sheets, to be found threaded around the piles of wreckage, and will at times be harnessed by the actors to assist in their transformative, movement based retelling of the survivor stories and create a powerful image.

Working on this piece has combined a love of storytelling and history with design for myself and the rest of the team. We hope to pay homage to the people we are representing, to protect their stories, and to generate, ultimately, the feeling that even with great loss comes hope. I feel really proud to be part of ‘Fracture,’ and I am excited for the public to see it!

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