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John Casey: "I would do it every year!"

17 May 2009 at 02:34 CEST You have already designed stage sets for several large scale events. How do you actually start working on a stage design, and how does it develop to the final set?

John Casey: “Usually, I literally start with a blank page, sit down and come up with some ideas, or basic concepts. Those are very loose ideas, as it’s the best way to find out what you are looking for. You just empty your mind and put it onto a piece of paper or into the computer. So, you start sketching, and at a certain time, you see how things develop. Of course, when we initially met with Channel One Russia, there was a certain amount of direction, but it was fairly flexible and loose. They wanted something which was very impressive looking, very large, big and as bold as possible. Still, they gave us a big range of variety and flexibility because of such a great amount of different performances. Other than that, everything was really flexible. However, the initial concept I came up with when we started, in October, is still the one you see today, so we didn’t go through a big amount of changes or different ideas.” Now we know when and how your work starts. But when are you actually finished? Is it when the technicians start building the stage, or even later, when the rehearsals are already ongoing?

John Casey: “Basically, that’s the moment when it really starts. Having the idea, the concept and the design finalized is actually the least time-consuming part. The most time consuming is actually seeing it through, the build, the engineering. You have to make sure that everything looks as good as it’s meant to be. As a production designer, it’s a big part of my role to work with the engineering company from Sweden and with the Russian companies that built parts of the set - you have to do technical drawings, getting the construction people to adapt their ways of building it. You might have an idea and then the engineering people say, no, you cannot do this. So, it is a whole process of eliminations and changes, which is quite evolving altogether.” The countries’ representatives started rehearsing two weeks ago. Was the stage already 100% finalized by that moment, or did you still have to make any changes afterwards?

John Casey: “There weren’t so many changes, but there were things that still needed to be finished or adjusted to work better. I’m sort of known for my detail-oriented mind, and I always want to make sure that everyone pushes themselves to get the best possible result. So, for example, we had to change some materials on stage as they weren’t quite fitting, like the whole lighting, and the metals were changed. You see the stage being built up in newspapers, on photographs, but until you haven’t seen the real thing in the hall, you don’t get the whole idea. Those are only small adjustments, though.” You said your design was inspired by several Russian artists, mentioning Malevich and Kandinsky, and, most notably, by Tatlin’s Tower, a landmark that was never actually built. Could you tell us more about that decision?

John Casey: “Even before I was approached to do this, I have always been a big fan of Russian graphic art, especially from the beginning of the 1900s, including the architecture style. I think it’s a very interesting era, especially when it comes to new ways of building and presenting things. Especially for Russia, it was a very iconic time, where they developed a style of their own, and that translated into everything - painting, sculpture, graphic design and architecture. So, when we made our first proposal to Channel One Russia, they told us that they wanted to relate to Russian art history, which was quite ironic, as I had always been interested in just that. So, we married quite well, even from the beginning. Tatlin’s Tower is just a very iconic symbol, even though it was never built, but its forms are inspired by the style of that time. We just took that as an inspiration when we designed the stage, and you will see it for example in the crossing columns on the set or in the geometric shapes if you look onto the stage from above.” You seem to cooperate a lot with your wife in your job. How can we imagine that - is their a split of duties, or do you discuss everything together, even at breakfast or dinner?

John Casey: “We started our company i.e. Design Events Inc. two years ago, and we left our former jobs for that. My wife’s background is in event planning, and mine in designing, so it was quite natural to join forces and talents. We actually complement each other, so this is really the key to how this works. I am certainly the creative element, so coming up with design ideas is usually my job. Cathy keeps me in line with all the other stuff - she is the organiser, the financial person, the one who runs the company. However, she is also my critic and helps me to decipher between things and to lead me into the right direction. That happens all the time, even at breakfast or when we are on holiday.” Which different challenges and approaches were there between building a stage for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997 and in 2009?

John Casey: “That was twelve years ago, and I was still living in Ireland back at that time. It was different in many ways, not just in terms of technology, which has advanced a lot since then. It was just one show with 25 countries, and there was just a build-up to one show. In terms of show and design, there wasn’t a lot of use of LEDs and video. We had just small monitors and video screens that were incorporated in the design. It was a wholly different approach, as it was just a smaller event, but still a big TV show, and I worked on it for eight months. The process was fairly different, as it was all handled in-house at RTÉ, where I was working. We had a lot of meetings and discussions, and a lot of people were involved. It was a great experience, but a lower key event. Nevertheless, it was still the most important show of the year! It’s interesting to come back to it after twelve years, when I have obviously grown and developed and the Eurovision Song Contest has changed a lot. It is nice to get another opportunity and to use all the technical developments that came up in the last ten years, which makes it really exciting.” During the shows, a lot of elements of the stage are moved or turned. How did you create or plan those interactive elements? And how did that translate into the performances of the 42 represented countries?

John Casey: “We were working with a animated 3D computer model from the very beginning, and we had most of the important camera shots incorporated in it. So even before we start building the stage, we know how big certain elements should be and where we can move them so that they still look great from the various camera angles. So, when we had finalized the set, the video people started creating packages for every song, and they have obviously worked on that for a long time in order to find the right style for every song. It’s all interlinked to Russian heritage and to the story behind each song. So you could say the stage really is a living thing, and it’s very exciting to see the reaction of the audience when things start to slightly move.” Were there some ideas and requests that you had to turn down during the process?

John Casey: “There were some discussions, which is great as it’s all part of the process of developing a set. One example was the large ring above the stage. In the earlier days, it was actually a lot bigger and it came out over the audience. When we looked at it from the camera angles and started moving the elements, we decided we should shrink it down in order to still see it in full on the cameras. We thought about what we can do with this ring - we started spinning it, it was flipping, it was tilting, turning, falling into pieces. But it’s all natural to have discussions like that.” Do you have one favourite configuration of the stage?

John Casey: “Honestly, as I have been part of the design process from the very beginning, I think every setup is great and looks fantastic and unique. But when I just watch the stage and how it develops with the song, one of my favourites of today is the Estonian song. You know, if you look at the stage, it’s almost always moving. The ring, for example, is oscillating all the time, and it’s the only song where it does that, constantly moving up and down and in and out. Other than that, my favourite is probably the interval act of the First Semi-Final, on Tuesday, with the Red Army Choir. It was actually a very simple idea, but very rich and bold - the red background, and the cobble stones on the floor. The set is a very strong statement of art and very theatrical. I would say the set is a marrying of old and new - you have all those new technical possibilities, but the whole way it looks is very theatrical and old-fashioned.” Would you like to do it again, creating the stage for a Eurovision Song Contest?

John Casey: “We will just sign a contract and do it for the next 30 years (laughs). You know, this kind of show is just the one I like most. It’s not just a huge event, but it’s also very collaborative, you have to work with all different people, plus you have so many different nationalities here, which makes it even more interesting. I would do it every year if I had the opportunity!” thanks John Casey for taking his time for this interview!