Creative director Amy Bowerman opens up about creating Rina Sawayama's 2023 Glastonbury show

Festivals Amy Bowerman on Rina Sawayama’s 2023 Glastonbury set: “It felt like everything really clicked into place”

Rina Sawayama’s live shows are a spectacle to behold, bridging the gap between gig and performance art. We chatted to Amy Bowerman - her creative director and the mastermind behind her current festival set - about concepts, characters, and last minute change of plans.

It’s no secret that putting on a tour can take a village: from designers to sound techs, managers to roadies. But not all live shows are created equal, and Rina Sawayama’s is up there with the best of them. Part pop performance, part narrative arc, they blur the boundaries between music and theatre to create a tangible connection with the crowd. This, as creative director Amy Bowerman explains, is the modus operandi of her job: giving the audience an experience that they’ll not only remember, but take something away from too.

“It felt like we were building something that was definitely a music performance, but had layers which infiltrated every creative aspect,” Amy says of Rina’s recent headline-grabbing Glastonbury show (which the star will be touring at festivals all summer). “[Rina] has a back catalogue of very rich creative elements, and to try and just recreate that would be doing it a disservice.” So, rather than just mimicking the restaurant setting of the ‘STFU!’ video or the teleshopping concept of ‘XS’, Amy and Rina worked together to develop a show which made reference to the singer’s past work, but was firmly focused on breaking new ground. “She’s definitely an artist who’s progressing forward”, Amy affirms. “She’s a tastemaker, and I think she naturally asks ‘what’s next? What can I do that isn’t expected of me?’”. Made up of four different ‘acts’, the show takes the audience on a journey of self-discovery that reflects Rina’s own, packed into 60 tireless minutes.

Act 1 - aka ‘The Hurricane’ - opens with ‘Hold The Girl’ and sees Rina in mid-Western American dress, flanked by two dancers. The stage set and costuming pay homage to the prairie setting of the track’s music video, but also recall The Wizard Of Oz - something Amy notes “isn’t really something we ever set out to do", but that nevertheless epitomises “that moment where you go from a really rural, idyllic childhood position into something much more hectic”. When sketching out ideas for the show, films and popular culture became key touchstones for Amy - some consciously, some less so. “Take Charlie’s Angels," she explains. “We put a Lucy Liu vocal sample [at the beginning of] ‘XS’. We wanted it to feel theatrical, but also cinematic. Rina has a really rich cultural interest, so I think everything got really organically interwoven."

Discussing the process of getting from an artist’s brief to a fully realised creative vision, Amy notes that this project was somewhat unusual. “Generally, I would sit down with the music and the artist’s visuals, but for Rina it was a case of really getting to know her as a person: her motivations, and what influences her.” As such, their workshops and show rehearsals took on a more holistic approach, becoming grounded in character building and acting techniques. “We went through this little exercise together, asking ‘what does Rina from the prairie do in her spare time? What does she eat?’," Amy laughs. “That’s something Rina really wanted to inject into this show specifically, every step of the way."

Creative director Amy Bowerman opens up about creating Rina Sawayama's 2023 Glastonbury show Creative director Amy Bowerman opens up about creating Rina Sawayama's 2023 Glastonbury show Creative director Amy Bowerman opens up about creating Rina Sawayama's 2023 Glastonbury show

“[Rina] is a tastemaker, and I think she naturally asks ‘what’s next? What can I do that isn’t expected of me?’.”

In the Glastonbury performance, this characterisation came to the fore most obviously in Act 2 (‘The Abstract’) - a turbulent section in which Rina memorably prefaced ‘STFU!’ with a fierce take down of The 1975’s Matty Healy. “As a person, she’s so lovely, and so calm in her demeanour," says Amy. “And then you put her onstage and all of a sudden there’s this bubbling rage seeping through in her character. But that’s one of the things we always set out to do, so the audience are hooked and they buy into what we’re trying to convey.”

And what are they trying to convey? A narrative of changing circumstance and personal growth, in all its complexity - the light and the shade, the control and the chaos. The show’s final two acts, ‘The Quarry’ and ‘The Audacity’, explore the aftermath of the storm; Rina is moving forward, but still conflicted about leaving her old life on the prairie behind. For Amy, ‘Bad Friend’ seemed an apt track through which to channel these themes, and in the show Rina performs it with set pieces simulating a boxing ring. “One of the things we said is that she doesn’t win, she doesn’t lose - she just kind of makes it through," says Amy, explaining the design concept. “It’s a very complex part of her emotional journey, and it’s not just ‘Rina comes out and she comes out swinging’. It’s a message of perseverance, really."

By the end of the show, Rina’s reached a place of self-acceptance and freedom of expression, perfectly captured by the barn-storming, hat-tipping perfection of ‘This Hell’. But this concluding moment of celebration is only as potent as it is because of all that came before. “We don’t want to detach the audience from the spectacle, but there was definitely a storyline which we wanted them to relate to, and which we’ve never really spoken openly about," Amy says. “The idea that you can be in your everyday life - your prairie life - and then all of a sudden there’s something that completely sweeps the carpet from under your feet. You can feel lost, but it’s a way to find yourself; when you come out the other side, maybe you love yourself a bit more."

“We don’t want to detach the audience from the spectacle, but there was definitely a storyline which we wanted them to relate to.”

Talking to Amy, it’s apparent that the audience experience is at the core of everything she does. “That’s always my first question when approaching a brief," she agrees. “What do you want the audience to take from it?" Given how much variation there is between festivals, stages, and indeed their crowds, designing a show that’s impactful yet adaptable is no mean feat. “The challenges of music… it is fun, it’s very exhilarating," Amy laughs. “That’s part of the job - you can be as creative as you want, but if it doesn’t practically work, you have to tweak it. We had no idea how Glastonbury was going to go, but it felt like everything really clicked into place."

Watching the set back, it’s hard to disagree: Rina Sawayama is at the forefront of a new generation of popstars combining music with theatre, cinema, art, and even comedy. Shows like this stem from collaboration, imagination, and a genuine dedication to visual storytelling, and having Amy pull back the curtain on the world of creative direction just makes them all the more impressive.

Tags: Rina Sawayama, Glastonbury, Features, Interviews

As featured in the Festival Guide 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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