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Credits: Ia Ensterä in the midst of working during a lockdown. Photo Jere Kolehmainen.

From designer to facilitator… to designer again?

Wouldn’t it be lovely to unapologetically plunge into pondering over theatricality, emotions, politics, music in performative arts, and anything and everything we used to discuss to no end? As a scenographer, I would like nothing more than to do just that.

However, this would be like trying to ignore the gigantic, overpowering elephant in the room. And if I have learned nothing else from this incessant global pandemic, I have learned that our responsibility is to roll with the punches and pay attention to all, everything, and everyone. And that we must continue to do so, no matter how uncomfortable and exhausting things may get.

Is art even art if there is no audience to view it, to experience it? I believe most would venture to say art is the making of art not necessarily the viewing of it. What about performing arts? Is the performance to an audience what makes it art? And is that just the case for the performers, or is the same classification given to those who make their art for the visual or auditory aspects of the performing arts? These questions and answers span quite a gray (or rainbow) area, and have had me questioning them even more since the COVID-19 lockdowns. As the carcasses of our art -the sets and set pieces- await in the wings and storages, are they art as they are or are they art only once an audience can experience them? And if the latter is correct, what is the responsibility of the designers, specifically scenic designers, to make our art become possible for audiences to experience?

As a scenographer- the one responsible for the design and execution of the visual aspects of theatre, dance, opera, and circus productions- I have noticed our responsibilities have grown and molded immensely during the pandemic. (And by what I am about to state, I am in no way minimizing or downplaying the immense obligations faced by others in our profession.) Scenographers, especially if currently involved with immersive productions, are expected to have knowledge and understanding of the exact national and local directives given by the powers-that-be for the most up-to-date COVID-19 guidelines…and design according to those guidelines…and do so with the knowledge they will inevitably change…and will continue to evolve and fluctuate periodically. Designers must stay completely fluid and flexible, for even the smallest changes affect the audience, the cast, and the crew, and the dramaturgy of the production at large. But, let’s face it, change has always been a catalyst of art, and can be used as exciting and even a delicious opportunity if we learn to harness and employ it.

A few months before COVID-19 would take control of the world, Orange Theatre Company (https://www.orangetheatrecompany.com, Amsterdam, ND) contacted me about set designing for “Lux”, an original immersive theatre production where the audience plays an integral role in the dramaturgy of the project. The audience would move around en masse from location to location, and the cast would mingle throughout the audience. Of course, scenically, this is not a new concept, however, the introduction of a global pandemic threw a large wrench into the customary job description of a set designer. Almost overnight, set designers were expected to go from designers to facilitators. Just to get audiences into the theater, first there were 1,5meter restrictions, followed by 2meter restrictions, then masks required, then complete lockdowns, then travel bans, then return to 2meter restriction, and I believe we are back to 1,5meter at the writing of this article… and these were just the ones in Amsterdam. Every country and city has its own sets of restrictions, and a scenographer doing work on a global or national level must stay abreast of them all…including audience, cast, and crew access to restrooms before, during, and after the performance. Personally, my experience during this time has spanned from Finland to the Netherlands and the United States, and I am just one designer… And this does not include projects that were outright canceled due to the pandemic.

Image: Rough model of audience seating at 1,5m, with some side-by-side for parties of two. These models had to be kept simple for mere ease of modification and mathematics. And this is all without the actual set design. Image: Ia Ensterä

In addition, in order to reach audiences wherever possible, designers had to quickly adapt and learn how to properly stream and live-stream productions…and how to best modify theatrical design to video. It’s a good thing COVID has given us time to do just that (said dripping with sarcasm). The learning curve has been sharp, for audiences have expected the streamings to be as smooth as those of the National Theatre in London. Maybe one day when all or most theatre budgets actually include video services, the quality of the video may rival that of the vision onstage. For now, though, most designers are eagerly awaiting the return to normal (or the new normal) where the direct communication lines between thespians and audiences are once again open.. where set designers are no longer facilitators, but artists in their own right…and our art can be experienced as it was designed to be: Art “of the people, by the people, for the people”.* 

And to be quite honest, I look forward to returning to deeper discussions about theatricality, emotions, politics, and music in performative arts, and the return to live performances by transformative performers and artists such as Oblivia. 

*borrowed from President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. He was referring to government, but…even the greatest can be brought down by an actor in a theater…

Minna Kivelä and Tiina Weckström in Open Road Show, now FINALLY open at Teatteri Avoimet Ovet, Helsinki
Set, costume, and puppet design: Ia Ensterä. Lights: Jere Kolehmainen. Photo: Mitro Härkönen
The puppets from Open Road Show getting painted just prior to the lockdown.
Quite apropos, considering the show takes place during an apocalypse.
Puppet construction: Anne Svensk and Ia Ensterä. Photo: Ia Ensterä


IA ENSTERÄ has designed sets and costumes for 200+ theatre, dance, and opera productions in the United States and Europe. She earned her BFA in Acting from Texas State University, and her MA in Design for The Performing Arts from Aalto University. In 2015, just before relocating her home base from Austin, TX to Helsinki, Finland, she was awarded the John Austin Award for Conspicuous Versatility (a sort of lifetime achievement award) by the Austin Critics Table. Her collaborators have included creatives such as Salvage Vanguard Theater, Breaking String, Zachary Scott Theater, Hyde Park Theatre, Capital T, Rude Mechanicals, Sky Candy, Orange Theatre Company, Teatteri Avoimet Ovet, and En Route Productions (for which she served as Co-Artistic Director), and educational entities such as St.Edwards University, Texas State University, Johns Hopkins University, and Austin Community College (for which she served on the advisory committee to design their scenic construction program). For her work, Ia Ensterä has been awarded the B.Iden Payne award six times for sets and costumes, the Austin Critics Table award for scenic design for 12 productions, and a few “Best of Austin” nods by the Austin Chronicle. She is currently working on various theatrical, dance, and operatic productions in Finland, the Netherlands, the United States, and one set design/art installation for Salvage Vanguard and the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, TX.

Ia Ensterä

Freelance skenografi (lavastus- ja pukusuunnittelija)