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Meet Es Devlin, the Groundbreaking Stage Designer of "Don Giovanni"

Posted on: August 22, 2023

Es Devlin is one of today’s leaders in innovative set design. She has garnered major critical acclaim for her numerous works, with The New Yorker’s Andrew O’Hagan saying, “Each of her designs is an attack on the notion that a set is merely scenery.” We’re honored to have Es Devlin at the helm for our upcoming production of Don Giovanni and wanted to take a moment to introduce the mastermind herself.  

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Devlin was born in Kingston upon Thames in southwest London. She majored in English Literature at Bristol University before heading to Central Saint Martins, where she majored in Foundation Course in Fine Arts and eventually specialized in theater design. Her first theater job came during her college years, prepping props for Le Cirque Invisible, led by husband-and-wife team Jean-Baptists Thierrée and Victoria Chaplin. Post-college, Devlin built a prosperous career, going on to design for London’s Bush Theatre and the National Theatre. She would also design for artists such as Adele, U2, and The Weeknd as well for events like the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony, the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony, and the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show.  

The artistry of her designs makes her sets stand out while not losing any of the practicality needed for the performers. Let’s look at how she does this using her set design for Adele’s famous 2021 concert at Griffith Park Observatory. Most Los Angeles residents are familiar with the Observatory, whether they’ve made the trip up Mount Hollywood or not. With some slickly designed benches and performing area, combined with imaginative projections, Devlin was able to transform the iconic structure into a world class stage. The genius here was how little was used to create this transformation; nothing distracted from Adele’s performance, and the stage designs still delivered all the regalness you’d expect from an Adele concert.  

Compare the Adele stage to what Devlin did last year for The Weeknd in his After Hours Til Dawn stadium tour. This was Devlin at her most expansive as she designed a small-scale city to put on stage with a replica of the moon at the center of the stadium. It was a massive undertaking, but Devlin made it look simple by, again, keeping the spotlight on The Weeknd amid the spectacle. It's incredibly simple when you examine it closely, with plenty of room for The Weeknd to perform and enough open room to ensure that he was visible from every angle. Simplicity can often be overlooked in tackling something so big, and other designers might have created an incredible looking cityscape that overpowered the performer. Instead, Devlin brought maximum grandeur to the show without sacrificing the fundamentals of stage design.  

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The technical complexity of Devlin’s sets is incredible, and they are pieces of art in their own right. Whether it’s two hands playing with cards for Carmen, a box that opens and closes for Chimerica, or a rotating labyrinth of doors and stairs for Don Giovanni, Devlin makes sure her groundbreaking designs keep the performers front and center. It’s an incredible tightrope act to balance design and practicality, yet it’s one that Devlin walks with grace. It’s precisely this ability that has garnered her multiple awards—the Olivier, Emmy, and Tony among them. Beyond awards, she became the first woman to be commissioned to design the UK Pavilion at the World Expo. 

If you haven’t had a chance to see one of Es Devlin’s designs in person, then Don Giovanni is the perfect introduction. It is a tour de force showcase of her trademark style, with a spinning set and masterful projections combining to make some of the most iconic imagery we’ve ever had on our stage. With Mozart’s music and Devlin’s design, it's sure to be a production for the ages.  

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