Es Devlin doesn’t have clients. She only has collaborators. In fact, she banned the word from the room.
If you saw Abstract on Netflix, she’s episode #3. And if you haven’t, you’ve at least heard of or seen her work. She stages sets for U2, Adele, Beyonce and operas I will not pretend I know the names of (I have my Maria Callas on repeat moments as my neighbours will testify, but let’s not fake it here). She even did one for Miley Cyrus and set the art world into an eye-rolling contest.
Yes, I met her in London. Yes, it was the same Frieze Academy creative direction flavoured brain spa I wrote about here. And yes, I was having a blast. I even asked a question. Stay tuned till the end for my could-have-been moment of glory. It’s rich.
To take Es literally, when staging a show, “deliver on the anticipation and do not get in the way.” So let me not creatively dillute this, as she very specifically instructed not to.
She’s not for the “client” word, by the way, because it comes from the Latin for “to cling.” And who’s into clingy anyway? Not Es.
Here’s what she is into: analog. Very analog solutions. She’ll take a cube, fill it with actors and props and spin it on stage to see what happens. (A lot). She’ll take a huge cone and present it as THE set, have an opera singer deliver a whole aria in there, ear plugs on or else he’ll go deaf, sitting in a puddle of coke as cone is slippery and one must be protective of said singer. But the effect: pure joy. Worth the fights with the talent and the theatre management.
She’s not the first to say keep it simple, but she’s certainly produced the evidence: napkin sort of sketches for Adele’s show, and Miley’s, for that matter (a huge roll of tongue lined by clumsy strings of teeth). It’s train of thought for a story arc, looks crazy easy except it’s not. It’s all easy if you have the idea, and that, whoever’s done this will know, never is. (I am yet to meet a creator who doesn’t agonize over being dumped by whatever spirit whispers into their ear.)
What do you do to make it look so simple, though? For starters,
- develop ideas, come up with iterations in sequence, and when you think you’re there, have four more options. (Get dirty with collagey photoshops, you’ll get lucky.)
- have a bank of ideas, lying around in your lab, ready at a moment’s notice.
- learn from one medium and then jump with the loot into another.
And rely on words, on their etymology. Words, said Es quoting a poet friend I wish I knew the name of (Es, if you read this, would you drop a line, pretty please?) have a reliable muscularity. We lean on words and trust they will take our weight.
A nugget of wisdom for teams: stay true to oneself and to the collaboration. Ever noticed how everyone does the best job they can and it just chips away off your initial plan? Hold on tight to that consistency of idea.
When Es says it’s all immersion and story as we peek at her drawings for Beyonce, scattered lyrics on the page, it seems so obvious.
Execution is a whole different matter, I mumble to myself, thinking of my imaginary guittar solos with Whitesnake’s Sailing Ships on repeat, as I work some idea threads into taglines.
I gather my strength and ask about how we keep that instrument that does it all sharp, clean and in tune. (Because it is an instrument. To play the piano, the recipe says you need a piano, music sheets and a player. To come up with concepts, headlines, etc. what do you need? We’ll just leave it unnamed for now, the IT.)
What does Es Devlin do to stay sharp? I was so articulate in my head. I was Mulan leading troops into battle. Out loud I sounded like the village coward. Nevermind, after 15 seconds of deathly adrenaline, I sat down. Back into my comfortable anonymity, on my mind sofa, I casually nodded in agreement to Es’s generous reply: puke and do it anyway. Listen. Do not stop people from their ideas, if only not to bore yourself out of your mind.
That evening I went into a pub and had a beer on my own (personal record!) as I waited for my friend. Nobody came to talk to me, I must have looked intimidating. I guess when I shut up, Mulan takes over. It’s when I talk it gets problematic. Luckily, other than Es Devlin, very few people know it.