Michael Cox speaks with the director about the acclaimed production The Salon Project.
Last month, The Salon Project took over the Traverse. Dressing everyone in evening attire, the production was a re-enactment of European salon society and challenged its audiences to actively participate in conversations about multiple topics while watching performance art and listening to guest lecturers. It was an original concept that, due to its interactive nature, was unpredictable and unique in every performance. To get a better sense on how the whole project shaped up, I spoke with its director after its closing performance.
Michael Cox: The Salon Project was such an interesting production, I thought it would be fascinating to do a post mortem, if you will.
Stewart Laing: Okay. Yeah. Where do you want to start?
MC: I guess we’ll start by rewinding the clock. Where did the idea for The Salon Project come from?
SL: The original idea was from the idea of dressing an audience up, actually. It was the idea of doing a historical re-enactment of a piece of music and some poems that I had found that had originally been performed in a private salon in Paris in the 1880s. So the original idea came about from trying to recreate that environment quite authentically.
Lots of things fell by the wayside from that original idea, but the one thing that absolutely stuck right through was the idea of dressing the audience up. Every time I talked to people about the idea of dressing the audience up, everybody got very excited about it. It’s really the one thing that’s been constant right through from the beginning to the end.
MC: It’s such an ambitious idea. Were the Traverse ever scared by it, or were they completely enthralled by it?
SL: I think we were all terrified, actually. The logistics of it. I have worked in the film industry and talked to them about it because, obviously in the film industry if you’re filming you have to do that…you have to dress hundreds of people up very very quickly. We used the logistics of film production, and that’s how we worked it out. And then we did lots of tests in the year running up. First we dressed two people, then we dressed ten people…
MC: I’m from Southern California and have been on film sets, and that’s what hit me when I did the production. I thought ‘This is just like how they dress all the extras in films.’
SL: Yeah, and it’s an experience that I had five or six years ago. I trained as a costume designer, so I was always in the fitting rooms on the other side of the bench, and then five or six years ago my godson wanted to be an extra in a movie, and they wouldn’t pay for a chaperon, so I ended up doing it, and all of a sudden I found myself on the other side of the fitting room, and I just found that experience really really interesting. Somebody else making aesthetic decisions about what you look like and who you are. I just found that really engaging.
MC: It was a unique experience. I’m really glad I went through it.
SL: Oh, brilliant.
MC: Now, there were three different groups who came in, one every half hour. Had you originally thought of that in your planning stages or was that a logistic you came up with…
SL: No, that’s something that came up pretty late-on in the process when we realised we couldn’t do everyone at the same time. So it meant that, whatever we did inside the salon was going to be a very different experience for different groups of people, and rather than fight that at the end of the day we thought we should run with that and try to make those experiences different for the different groups.
MC: And how did you settle on the programme you had? Not only the guest speakers but also the different acts that happened in each turn?
SL: In our research on the historical salons we knew that music was a big part of it, and commissioning original music was a big part. Then we also found out that the idea of the tableau vivant was very much alive in the 19th Century salons, so we went down that way. And then the speakers…actually it was somebody within my company who actually organised all the speakers, so I was quite hands-off on all that, and a lot of it was a real surprise for me when it all came together in the end.
MC: So you didn’t plan on a certain theme for each night? It just kind of happened?
SL: Yeah, it just completely happened. That was the interesting thing that came out of it was that, often, themes would just sort of accidently come about, and there was something quite thrilling about that.
MC: Was there a performance in your mind that stands out…because you were at all of them, were you not?
SL: Yeah, yeah. I was at all of them. There were a couple that…I had a great night every night. There was one night where we were filmed, so we had a filming crew of eight extra people, and for me that night was a real buzz because the film process had been so much about what we were doing. It just felt like a logical thing, to have a film crew as part of the performance. And the last performance was really amazing because the two speakers we had were just sensational. One of them in particular was amazing, and that really blew me away.
MC: Is there something that jumps out in your mind looking back at it that you think ‘That worked much better than I thought it would?’
SL: The interesting thing for me…for all of us…was that we were really unsure about what it was until we let the audience in there because it so relied on what the audience would bring to it. So from that point of view, every single evening was a surprise, just in terms of the energy and the different energies that audiences brought in with them from night to night.
MC: The night I was there, you had a few conversation starters. Did you have the same starters for each performance, or did they come to you on the spur of the moment?
SL: No, no. That was all completely improvised between Rose [English] and I. We had a rule to not talk about certain things when we were outside the room, so those conversations were fresh.
MC: I’m pleased to hear that, because it felt genuine to me. The spark between you both.
SL: Oh great. Great. I’m pleased to hear that because I’m not a performer, and it really was Rose and I just talking about whatever was in our heads and whatever interested us.
MC: Was there a conversation you look back on and say ‘I’m really glad I sparked that’ or maybe a large group-discussion, or perhaps a conversation you had with one person.
SL: Actually lots of conversations. I’m still sifting through it all in my head, actually. I think the thing I’m really interested to do is see the film of it and actually hear what it’s like. I think that’s when I’ll be in a position to reflect back on it properly.
MC: Are you looking at doing this again somewhere else?
SL: Yeah. We’ve had tentative interest, so we’re working through that at the moment.
MC: This has been really interesting. Going by the nature of the performance, it just seemed right to talk to you about it after the fact.
SL: It’s something I’m still filtering through. Usually when I make work, it’s six months after I’ve done it I get it in some sort of perspective, and this one was so complicated because I was right in the middle of it I think it’s going to take an awful long time to filter through and try and work out what it was all about.