Jean Chan's design for The Garbage King

For any young designer fresh out of university, winning the prestigious stage design award the Linbury Prize, and with it the opportunity to design a full-scale production at the Unicorn Theatre, would be a remarkable achievement. Yet Jean Chan has gone one better, with not just one, but two shows featuring her designs running alongside each other at the vibrant London children’s theatre in October. Not only will her award-winning vision for The Garbage King be transporting audiences to a rubbish heap in Ethiopia, but her half-submerged New Orleans landscape will be helping to relay a teenager’s memories of Hurricane Katrina in The Day The Waters Came.

The Linbury Prize is awarded to theatre design graduates, providing them with an invaluable opportunity to showcase their work and design a production for one of a number of participating theatres. From an initial portfolio, the finalists are selected and then work collaboratively and competitively in small groups with directors and theatres to develop design concepts for the shows. At the end of the process one member of the group is selected and continues working on the project until the show is finally performed – Royal Welsh College of Drama and Music graduate Jean Chan was the finalist chosen to create her design for The Garbage King.

It is practically unheard of for a stage designer to have two shows running in the theatre at the same time, and while Jean sees it as just a lucky coincidence to have “taken over the Unicorn” in this way, she nonetheless feels the buzz of finally seeing her design, so long in the making, realised on stage. “Since I designed it it’s been such a massive period of time where I’ve gone and done other things, and it feels a bit crazy that it’s my interpretation on stage at the moment.”

The Garbage King is an adaptation of Elizabeth Laird’s novel about two boys’ journeys through the rubbish strewn streets of Ethiopia. With research and development for the project starting long before the script was even written, the book had to provide the starting point for Jean’s own understanding of the setting. “I always research the historical background, and so for this show it was Ethiopia – what does it look like, what smells are there, what are the people like, what do they wear? It’s the same for any show – you find the essence of what it is, take it on board, and then ideas come out of that.”

“The show is about Ethiopia flooding into the space,” Jean adds, explaining how the audience walk into the auditorium and are confronted with a massive garbage heap that has filled the theatre. “They collect cans and plastic bottles and anything to sell on to make money. There are moments in the book where the kids go scavenging on garbage heaps, looking for things they can sell. It is a statement that you don’t need to throw something away – that bottle can become something else, and you can do something with it. It’s all about turning objects into something else.”

This comment on the stark differences between attitudes to waste in Ethiopia and our own society has influenced both design and performance, with the set brought to life by the actors ‘recycling’ and transforming its various elements. “It’s a living set because things move constantly – the puppets come out of it, the costumes and the scenes.” With a clear Brechtian influence in her design, Jean says that this staging is about “bringing theatre back to its original form, so that you see things happen. You get to see people using the counterweight system, bringing things into the space, and you see people getting changed on stage into the other characters.” However it’s not necessarily easy on the performers: “the actors don’t hate me yet, but they might by the end of the show. I’ve given them the hard task of having to put a costume on whilst moving a crate around. There is no actor in this show that is just sitting down backstage doing nothing.”

Alongside The Garbage King, the Unicorn Theatre will also host Lisa Evans’ play about a teenage girl’s memories of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. There are clear parallels between the two worlds Jean has been asked to design – the poverty experienced in countries such as Ethiopia is a constant reality that no-one should ignore, and yet when a vibrant city in the world’s richest country was devastated by flood waters there was universal outcry as yet again the people with power failed to act to alleviate the suffering. Jean admits that while there were obvious similarities between designing these two impoverished landscapes, she tried hard to avoid making them too alike, resisting the obvious pull to represent post-Katrina New Orleans as a similar “space filled with rubbish.” Instead the design for The Day The Waters Came is a combination of half sunken objects and naturalistic items that, just as in The Garbage King, are used by the cast to create the world they inhabit. Yet because “every theatrical experience should be different”, Jean hopes that audiences won’t necessarily recognise her hand in designing both productions.

Designing Theatre Centre’s touring production presented its own practical difficulties, but by keeping the stage as open as possible it provided space for the teenagers to run around as much as they needed to in the fast paced show. Despite its simplicity there is still space for magic, which seems to be a central part of Jean’s work in children’s theatre. “Designing any show has always got its difficulties, but with children’s theatre you just have to make it receptive to them. Anything that’s got puppetry involved, or fairy dust, just something that makes them go ‘oooohhh’. With The Day The Waters Came, as an audience member, when you walk in you have this sense of ‘why is there a car floating in my school?’”

Despite the prospect of budget cuts looming over all the arts, Jean is understandably optimistic about her career. “Since I finished college it’s constantly been just working on bigger and bigger things, and hopefully trying to make my own way to where I want to be.” Yet the truth of the matter is that whatever the future holds, Jean will probably never face critics as tough as the youthful faces in the audience at the Unicorn. “I find it a lot harder to design shows for children because they’re more receptive to things that could go wrong and they’re very critical. They’ll just say anything they’re thinking, no matter how horrible it is, whereas an adult will wait until they’re out of earshot.”

While talking to Jean about her training and work as a designer, one word pops up time and time again: collaboration. From the all-nighters she pulled at university to help her friends prepare for productions, through the input of directors and production managers in assessing the feasibility of her professional designs, to her experiences painting a set at 2am in Edinburgh, it is clear that as far as she is concerned the secret to success in theatre design is collaboration, an ethos that was drilled into her from at university. “Everyone’s there, working together. If somebody needs something painted and they’re in a rush, you just do it! I think that’s what theatre is about – it’s about collaborative work. You do it because you know at the end of the day you’ve been in that situation where no-one can help you but you need to get stuff done.”

Theatre comes alive because people are passionate enough to never go to sleep, and supportive enough to work together – a refreshing and powerful message that applies to all aspects of the arts, and is embodied utterly by Jean Chan’s career, stage designs and work ethic.

The Garbage King is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 31st October and can be booked via the website here. Theatre Centre’s The Day The Waters Came is playing at the Unicorn Theatre between 5th – 9th October before going on tour. Tickets can be booked through the Unicorn Theatre website here.