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Director Marlie Haco and Designer Justin Nardella give us an insight into designing Proud

Now Proud is up and running, director Marlie Haco and set & costume designer Justin Nardella talked to us about the process of designing the production for the King's Head stage.

Marlie, why were you drawn to directing this new drama?
MH: I was delighted to be given the opportunity to direct Proud in the intimate space of the King’s Head Theatre this year. From a first read of the script, I was moved by the personal tragedy each character endures and how this complicates their ability to trust and communicate with one another. I was immediately excited by the challenge of realising the collision of these three unusual lives on the stage. The decision to make movement and music integral to the piece came from a desire to use more abstract forms of storytelling, in tandem with the play’s naturalistic dialogue, to dig deeper into the emotional lives of the characters.

How did you arrive at your concept for the production? 

MH: Bren’s choice to begin and end the play on a basketball court sparked my interest in the parallels between aspects of the characters’ relationships, elements of a game, and features of the dramatic form: power, chance, unspoken rules, and conflicting objectives. Since the drama primarily stands as an exploration of male relationships, I became curious about the way men often use sport and other games to overcome verbal or emotional barriers. This then formed the foundations of my concept for staging Proud on a basketball court and where the players’ athleticism is foregrounded.

The expressive potential of the body is central to the piece: Amir’s PTSD is manifested predominantly through visceral reactions to external triggers, Roland and Amir have a strong physical connection that transcends their linguistic and cultural divide, and Gary turns to violence or music to express what he fails to say in words. I therefore wanted to develop a non-verbal language to represent the unarticulated aspects of the characters’

Justin, can you tell us a bit about your process as a designer?

JN: The design journey for me always starts on the page, using the text to spark my imagination. Much of the process is about the practicalities that the director and performers need to tell the story, but designing for theatre is also about searching for a feeling you want to capture, often requiring us to think outside the box. Beyond the script, I'm always looking at the world around me in search of inspiration: a discarded object in a charity shop, the person in front of me on the bus, a quiet street sweeper and their broom. This conversation with the world and the characters found within it continues until I find a visual truth and honesty that (I hope) lives up to the imagination of the playwright.

How did you find a way to tell this particular story through the design? 

JN: When Marlie and I started to pull Bren’s work apart, we began to explore how we could make the play’s multiple locations co-exist in the same literal space on the King’s Head stage. We interrogated the importance of the play’s main setting being Roland’s flat, and how this was going to tally with Marlie’s ‘game’ concept where all the action takes place on the basketball court. By digging into this basketball idea, we developed a design language in which the set functions as a reflection of Roland’s character - a playground for adults where he can escape from his past and celebrate his new-found identity. As a lonely fitness enthusiast, Roland lives in a gym-come-apartment where he can do push-ups on his sofa and pull-ups on his doorframe. For the duration of the play, we are in his world, a world in which the other characters join him to become players in the game of his life, and where he strives to win the affections of each of them.

Although we stripped away the living room setting, we wanted to preserve key elements of Bren’s vision for his play, most notably, the zebra chair. We searched for one that felt stylish and comfortable, but not too incongruous with the sporty vibe of the set. Eventually, we landed on something that could echo the shape of the basketball hoop. Finally, we wanted to use the object of the basketball as a symbol of a little world we would like to live in, one that is made up of many colours, one where we all belong, and where everyone’s story is worth hearing.

As artists whose work relies on live theatre-making, what have you taken from the last two years?

The past few years have affected us all, placing individuals, families, and industries in a crisis of uncertainty. The rainbow flag, which has long been a symbol for pride and diversity, was popularised during the pandemic as a representation of the invaluable hard work of essential workers, particularly those within the NHS. It is this emphasis on inclusivity and kindness that lies at the core of the play’s themes. We hope our rainbow basketball acts as a kind of anchor for the characters, drawing them together even when their personal struggles are pushing them apart. As theatre makers we don’t save lives, but we do hold a mirror up to our audiences. This capacity to provide a social commentary on our existence is what drives us to make art, entertainment, and culture.

Theatre is a truly collaborative artform: when we play as a team, we hold up our industry, and together we return to the stage to celebrate our diversity with hope and pride.

Proud is showing until March 12th - book now.