Nominated as part of the Outstanding Design team for The Shaw Festival’s production of Edith Wharton’s long lost play The Shadow of a Doubt, Haui is a multi-hyphenate filmmaker and mixed media artist whose live video work added beauty and depth to the ambitious production.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My initial exposure to theatre occurred in the United Kingdom, where I was born in the southwest of England, in the city of Bath. Bath is renowned for its history, fashion, and theatre, and this is where I was introduced to ballet, theatre, and pantomime at an early age. My uncle, Clive Davis, serves as the chief theatre critic for The London Times, making theatre a significant part of my life from an early age. One of my earliest memories involves performing at the Theatre Royal in Bath, known for being home to the alleged Grey Lady. Since then, I’ve transitioned into directing, designing, and devising my own work for stage and screen.
Do you remember the genesis of your getting involved with The Shadow of a Doubt?
I am fortunate to collaborate with Peter Hinton-Davis, both in life and work. We carefully choose the projects we work on together, and when this opportunity arose, Peter approached me, and I was intrigued.
When Tim Carroll, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival, approached Peter about directing this Edith Wharton piece, numerous discussions ensued—between them and naturally between Peter and me—regarding the responsibility of interpreting a relatively forgotten work by Edith Wharton, rediscovered in 2016 by two scholars. This led us to contemplate the intriguing notion: What would it be like for someone to produce something you may not want read aloud 100 years from now? It’s a provocative idea.
It’s no understatement to say that Peter is a master of mise-en-scène for the stage. His meticulous approach to every dramaturgical detail precedes him. There’s no stone left unturned. He and I shared an interest in juxtaposing Edith’s musings on Victorian England and subverting it by addressing themes of voyeurism and surveillance central to the play. This is how the idea of incorporating video emerged, evolving organically through interior excavation.
Delving into Edith Wharton’s literary work, although initially seeming to have few surface connections, revealed profound critiques of privilege and class. This intrigued me, especially considering my perspective as someone of mixed British and Caribbean heritage. The elite class historically excluded people of colour, prompting me to explore ways to project, highlight, and acknowledge those historically maligned within those spaces. When there are so few female writers of that time, it is worth leaning in and listening to what they have to say.
The live video worked on both thematic and visual levels. Could you walk us through some of the conversations around its purpose within the production?
In the play, several characters, like Kate Derwent, the new wife of John Derwent, are being interrogated, creating doubt about their motives. The live video allowed us to zoom in on subtle moments, providing a unique perspective often missed in traditional theatre. As someone who enjoys blurring theatrical mediums, incorporating a language of film into theatre was particularly exciting. This is definitely my milieu.
How did the live video concept evolve throughout the development of the project? Could you walk us through the technical execution of the video?
The video evolved very organically. With the nature of repertory theatre, it was a challenge as video was not introduced until onstage rehearsals. However, by that time, I had had time to watch rehearsals to understand the specific staging, informing the camera placement and types of technology we would need.
The show utilised six cameras: two offstage left and right (Black Magic) and four onstage Marshall CV346 cameras with varifocal lenses. This allowed us to telescope in while keeping the cameras at a measurable distance and essentially fading into the background. The cameras were controlled through a Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini with a 4-Channel Live Stream HDMI Switcher and a video technician (live switcher) offstage. This allowed us to choreograph and move between cameras throughout the three acts of the play, which were called by stage management. Actors had to hit marks, and we spent time on technical rehearsals to obtain the appropriate focal length so that they would be in perfect clarity and composition in relationship to all the other design elements.
It was truly a dance of expertise. Working with Bonnie Beecher to produce the perfect amount of light so audiences could read actors on stage but also the balance of value and contrast. If there was too much light, the images would peak or “blanch” the faces, rendering them obscure. Gillian and Peter had arrived at an almost fully black set and costumes. Building images from black is great, as you have a greater depth and value of contrast to work from.
Tell us about working with the actors to make sure they’re giving the camera the necessary performance along with their performance for the audience.
The actors in the Shaw Festival company are some of the best in the country. Many of them have worked in both film and theatre, making it natural for them to play with a camera. Having been an actor myself, helping navigate these nuances was a fun and exciting challenge. A brilliant discovery we found was when actors would look directly into the camera, even if in profile to the audience. This allowed their expressions to connect directly with the audience in the projected image, providing insight into the characters’ inner psychology.
What were the biggest challenges of working on The Shadow of a Doubt?
One of the major hurdles was navigating the ever-changing landscape of video technology. Some of the equipment used on the show was manufactured in 2016, which, while relatively new, requires maintenance and upgrades. If companies want design that pushes the envelope and the continued success of such work, companies need to invest in the latest technology.
Did you have any big ideas that were edited out for practical reasons?
There was an ambitious plan to incorporate more cameras into the space at one point. However, as with any creative process, we edited to achieve the most effective and streamlined version.
You’re nominated as part of an overall design team. Beyond the video work, what was your favourite design element in The Shadow of a Doubt?
Although he won’t mention it himself out of humility, the standout design element that was spoken highly of was the sound design by none other than Peter Hinton-Davis. The score featured various artists, including Rob Clutton, Randi Helmers, Karin Randoja, and Kaija Saariaho. Some of my original compositions were even featured, which was a nice Easter egg.
Were you pleased with how the design worked in practice?
I was pleased with the work we accomplished. I must acknowledge the contributions of Bonnie Beecher and Gillian Gallow. Working with these two industry giants, their friendship, collegiality, and mentorship made for one of the most rewarding working relationships I’ve experienced to date.
Clarity and strong directives are a designer’s gift, providing a springboard into collaboration. With someone like Peter at the helm, who invites inquiry into the metaphor of the piece, it becomes a designer’s dream.
“Interpretation is something we arrive at.” This is something Peter has always said to me, and it has never steered me wrong. I think people have a tendency to think that design is embellishment or ornamentation. To me, it is the opposite. Design is found through the interrogation of meaning. This is the centre of what we do as creatives. Design can reveal the central metaphor of the works we share.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Every aspect of the production was rewarding, but one standout moment dawned on me during the technical rehearsals. Because of the black set, the actors would rarely produce shadows against the dark wall. This meant that the video poetically presented the shadows of doubt within the play. It was left to the audience to discern whether the figures on stage or their ghostly mirages were true or not. This was a beautiful and poignant discovery we had arrived at in the process.
What are you doing now/what’s your next project?
I’m currently preparing for the international premiere of my recent film Private Flowers commissioned by the City of Toronto (Toronto History Museums). I cannot say which festival, as it is not formally announced, but you can check out the website www.privateflowers.ca for more information. Additionally, I’m gearing up for my operatic debut of my new libretto Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White produced by the Canadian Opera Company in June 2024. More information at www.coc.ca/portiawhite
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for the acknowledgement. It’s wonderful to be highlighted among such creative forces. Check me out at haui.ca and @woweehaui.