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Guest Blog: Designer Debbie Duru On TWO BILLION BEATS

The play is running at the Orange Tree Theatre

Guest Blog: Designer Debbie Duru On TWO BILLION BEATS

Two Billion Beats is a coming-of-age story about two sisters, Asha and Bettina, who come together every day after school and discuss, celebrate, argue and lament about their lives. They're at different stages of life despite the two-year age gap, which does provide a leap in values and ideas about the world.

Asha is an A-grade student and what's great about [playwright] Sonali Bhattacharyya's writing in this play is that she uses the idea of school and the visible and invisible rules that uphold the education system as the backdrop for Asha to grapple with. The heroes that she's passionate about are academic like her but they're activists - rallying against the norm and helping to give voice and make way for those often unheard. Bettina is the younger sister and much happier to go with the crowd, which sets up the tension between them.

When I'm designing a show, I pull out all the themes that I think exist in the writing and then discuss them with the director so we can define what we think this particular story is about. The director Nimmo Ismail and I had lots of conversations about what it was like to be a teenager, sisterhood, authorship at a young age, the education system, gender, and race.

The two sisters are South Asian, and although I'm not, as a Black woman designing the show it does mean I can identify with some of the ideas around pressure to do well at school, that inherited immigrant hustle, and the cultural gap between first and second generations - themes that play an intricate part in the decisions these women make through the play.

There's a lot in the writing, but what became evident quite quickly was that being a teenager in the West is often a time when you're finding ways to establish your own voice separate from those of your family, and the nuances that emerge as first or second generation; you're developing a sense of independence, and you're testing boundaries. There's a sense of being in your own unique world, and I've tried to reinforce a sense of containment within the design.

A lot of the play asks questions about who we will be, and how we want to lead and author our lives, and the consequences of those decisions. Although these questions probably always surface at this stage of life, I think it might have more resonance with young people today who seem to be more politically engaged because of the heavy climate that we're living in.

Most of our play is set outside. It's a world of concrete greys and blues. There is a rhythm and monotony to the day that the design supports only really broken by our costume choices that speak to their individual personalities.

You see lots of teenagers hanging in groups together outside in real life. It became very noticeable to me during the pandemic where young people were finding ways to be together. I remember walking along an underpass in South London one evening and finding groups of teenagers just having the best time sitting on walls and steps, listening to music, and chatting to each other. It was a sort of playground for them, and so Nimmo and I have tried to treat the space like one.

During the creative process, Nimmo said something which stuck with me: teenagers rarely have economic power at this stage in their lives, but they do have their voice and so we knew the design had to consider this. It led to us creating levels in the space to allow the actors to physically complement their ability to amplify when needed.

The set is really minimal in response to the rich text and hopefully means that it can hold a lot of the ideas being raised throughout the play. Designing in the round is always a challenge, but I hope the staging allows an audience to observe all the shades that these young women display at this particular point in their lives and serves to reinforce theirs and our unique position.

Two Billion Beats is at the Orange Tree Theatre 5 February-5 March

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

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