New faces in theatre, six bright up-and-comers: meet designer Beyata Hackborn

They’re young, adaptable, and creative. And as theatre returns in this late-pandemic grind, and the doors open to live audiences, we’ll be seeing the work of these theatre artists light up, and transform, the scene here, on- and backstage. Meet six of these sought-after up-and-comers in this annual 12thnight New Faces series. First up, designer Beyata Hackborn.

Metronome, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

BEYATA HACKBORN, designer

Here’s an artistic puzzle (maybe even an existential one) to challenge the wits of any theatre designer:

A new solo memoir/play that tells the story of a gay small-town prairie trailer park kid and his life-changing relationship with a piano — in which the instrument itself does not appear onstage.

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The piece, which premiered at Workshop West this past fall, is Darrin Hagen’s Metronome. And the beautiful design solution, both object and metaphor in Heather Inglis’s production, was the work of Beyata Hackborn. We see Hagen, Metronome’s creator and star, under a giant rainbow of piano fragments, keyboards, sounding plates, strings. One end of the arc is anchored to the ground with an accordion; the other floats, unhinged in space, full of possibility.

theatre designer Beyata Hackborn

“Darrin made it very clear early on he wasn’t going to want to play the piano,” says the cheery voice of the designer, on the phone from Niagara-on-the-Lake where she’s contracted by the Shaw Festival for the 2022 season as an assistant designer. “So, does the piano live onstage even though he’s not playing it? What does it represent?”

“Oh no, how am I going to do this?” Hackborn remembers asking herself. “How to have the presence of a piano that is never played but is always talked about being played?”

Her solution has been one of the memorable designs of the season.

“I like discovering design during the rehearsal,” says Hackborn, who graduated from the U of A’s BFA-in-design program in 2019. “I want design to be be really engrained into the words of the script …” and changing along with it. And so it went with Metronome. Hagen was actively developing and editing his play, in rehearsal, when a new line about his irresistible attraction to the piano keys themselves — “something about piano keys has always pulled me in” — hit a chord with Hackborn. “It informed exactly where I put (them) in the set…. I love theatre because it’s so live, so ever-changing!”

Hackborn grew up in Camrose, in a family with an artistic bent. “My mom, who went to school for cartography, encouraged all of us kids to go into the arts — yup, none of us are making money!” she laughs. Musicals were her entry-level showbiz hook, after school with the company About Time Productions.

And she was always drawing. “When you’re eight, if you can draw a coherent smiley face or a coherent firetruck, everyone’s like ‘o my gosh, an artiste!’” When you’re always drawing and you’re in high school, you might, as Hackborn did, get asked to start designing for shows.

“Early on I knew I wasn’t going to be my happiest onstage,” she says. She remembers painting a set one year when a pal said “it was the only time they’d seen me happy…. Wow, dark, dude. That’s when I knew I should probably be pursuing design.”

Bug, Studio Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson.

Even before she graduated from the U of A, Hackborn had landed assistant designer gigs with the Banff Centre and Shakespeare in the Park. She remembers a university production of Tracy Letts’ Bug in her last year at the U of A as the one “when everything came together…. A really visual play, a lot of fun and campy psychosis that can bleed its way into the design.”

E Day, Serial Collective, Photo by BB Collective.

But “I have a very large nostalgia for big musicals. At the other end of the spectrum from Metronome, and its evocation of memory and sound, was Hackborn’s ultra-realistic design for E Day, her first professional production out of university. Jason Chinn’s political comedy, which premiered in the fall of 2019 in Theatre Network’s Performance Series, took us behind the scenes of the 2015 provincial election that swept the NDP into office. And Hackborn created a grassroots pop-up constituency office in an anonymous strip mall, the clutter detailed in every way — from cheap coffee maker, jars of pencils, post-it notes, fold-up tables, down to the hand-lettered sign ‘Make Sure Coffee Pot Is Turned Off At The End Of The Day’. 

Hackborn had fun with the details. “Really ugly things!” she says happily. “I kept adding little gems! The team was so good, so friendly and flexible. ‘Here, try on this dress I got two seconds ago!’”

Julius Caesar, Malachite Theatre’s Winter Shakespeare Festival. Photo supplied

Hackborn spent much of 2020 supporting herself by making models (she bought herself a 3-D printer as a graduation present). And just before the crushing entry of the pandemic, she designed Malachite Theatre’s Winter Shakespeare Festival productions of Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Holy Trinity Church in Strathcona, a challenging space for both sight lines and acoustics.

“I have a very large nostalgia for big musicals; that’s what I grew up on,” says Hackborn. “The whole show is written in the music; you can hear when certain design elements are supposed to happen, a real rhythm.” As an example she points to that indelible keyboard arpeggio in the overture to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. “That’s when the painting reveals itself….”

But site-specific theatre, immersive productions, theatre that the audience moves through (Catch The Keys’ Dead Centre of Town series in the river valley, for example) … they’re Hackborn’s particular jam. “So much possibility, making the world so close up to people….” Productions in freezing warehouses with dirt floor and no fixed seating? “O my gawd, that’s what I want!” she laughs.

The configuration of all theatre careers is always pencilled in. But for artists now, the future is unpredictable as never before. Hackborn, now in her mid-twenties, is thinking of being based in Edmonton. “There’s so much potential here. And it’s a close-knit community. In a bigger city it would be harder to get that support.” Besides, she says, “I have a household of roommates and dogs I love!”

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