Log in


Herberger Theater welcomes world renowned performance designer

Emma Bailey creates one-of-a-kind stage for ‘Islander’

From left, Julia Murray and Lois Craig in “Islander,” a new musical with set design by award winning Scenic Designer Emma Bailey.
From left, Julia Murray and Lois Craig in “Islander,” a new musical with set design by award winning Scenic Designer Emma Bailey.
Photo courtesy of Steve Tanner

The 35th season at the Herberger Theater has much to boast about when it comes to curating productions with creative stage designs for its audiences.

In February, smokey figures on a dark stage keep viewers entranced during the bone-chilling drama, “The Woman in Black.” In May, audiences can experience an imaginary land full of wonders during “Mad Hatter The Musical.” But nothing quite compares to the ethereal landscape put forth by Glasgow-based Scenic Designer Emma Bailey in this season’s opening production of “Islander.”

“Islander” follows the story of a girl who dreams of a life beyond her lonely island. Myth and reality collide when the tide washes a mysterious stranger onto her beach.

With a score filled with contemporary Scottish folk/pop, “Islander” uplifts the value of storytelling while rethinking the transformative space of theaters.

At center stage is a bowl that gently cups the two performers throughout the entirety of the show. Like a rising tidal wave or an upturned boat submerged in the sand, Bailey says there is value in leaving much to the interpretation of the viewer.

“I like to push the presentation of what people are looking at,” Bailey said.

Composer Finn Anderson wanted the performers to stomp on the set to add reverberation to the score. (Photo courtesy of Nate Watters)
Composer Finn Anderson wanted the performers to stomp on the set to add reverberation to the score. (Photo courtesy of Nate Watters)


Hidden magic

Originally trained as an architect, Bailey now uses her design skills to engage audiences around the world with her award-winning theater sets.

What looks like a simple design actually houses a “world of tech” within and around the stage.

“It’s not just the bowl. It’s the lights, the bars, the fans. It’s kind of saying, ‘These are our humble tools and we’re not scared to show them,’” Bailey said.

Associate/Tour Director Eve Nicol agrees, saying that the creative crew wanted to show their work to celebrate the shapes and structures of the technical aspects rather than hiding them away in the background.

“I love seeing the cables and scaffold of the sound and lighting and being reminded about the connections and the structures between all of us,” Nicol said.

Above the bowl is a neon strip of light that represents the horizon which Bailey says conveys both chaos and beauty, both of which are intrinsic to life on this planet.

“It’s a brilliant collaboration between designer Emma and Lighting Designer Simon Wilkinson, realized by a highly skilled team of technicians,” Nicol said.


Material, shape and sound

The stage design is the culmination of multiple iterations developed for “theater in the round” which is theater-speak for a performance facing an audience on all sides. It was also meant to withstand the abuse that comes with performing a world tour.

“It’s like a playground for them,” Bailey said of the performers who dance and fall across the stage during the entire 90-minute production.

Composer and Music Director Finn Anderson wanted the performers to stomp on the set to provide an added reverberation in the score.

To maintain its durability, the crew decided on fiberglass material with a granular, transparent resin which offered a cloudy texture, perfect for diffusing its internal lighting and backlight. The bowl’s curvature allows for natural support along with a few internal ribs.

The idea for the shape, Bailey said, was to be anything but symmetrical. The team ultimately agreed on a version that they liked and 3D-printed a 1:25 scale version of the design before starting construction.

“It was quite fun and quite ambitious,” Bailey said.

Nicol worked closely with Bailey, storyboarding the entire show to determine where the characters would stand to ensure a tight yet fluid performance.

When Bailey first saw the performance at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, she loved seeing her set engaging with the theatrical tools of storytelling.


Thoughtful stage design

Bailey’s thrives on the fringe of what exactly performance theater is,  and it’s clear she is very good at it.

She also says there’s a sense of responsibility on the part of creatives to consider what is actually needed on stage.

Emma Bailey (photo courtesy of Emma Bailey)
Emma Bailey (photo courtesy of Emma Bailey)

While she doesn’t quite mean stripping everything down to its base form, Bailey says stage pieces shouldn’t dilute the value, adaptability and intensity of a performance.

As “Islander” begins its two-week stint at Herberger Theater Center, Bailey hopes audiences will feel the intention of the space she helped create.

“I wanted something magic to happen within that bowl that acts as a celestial carpet with a thousand LEDs working in tandem with other lighting effects and sound,” Bailey said. “It’s meant to be spiritual.”

“Islander” plays at Herberger Theater Center Jan. 11-28. Herberger Theater Center is located at 222 E. Monroe St. in Phoenix. Tickets and more information can be found at herbergertheater.org/islander/.

To find more of Bailey’s work, visit emmabaileydesign.com.

We invite our readers to submit their civil comments on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org. Cyrus Guccione can be reached at cguccione@iniusa.org.