How did you get started in set design?
It came from a combination of being interested in text, literature, narrative and history. My dad was an architect, so I was quite used to seeing how buildings were marked by human use and transformed into new uses. I think that was how I began understanding how to tell human stories through environment. I was also interested in the making side of things, I guess. I did a postgraduate degree in theatre design, but I did a lot of student drama while doing my English degree. That was probably where it all started; out of the written word , then gradually incorporating the visual.
You experimented with other backstage roles during your student drama years – what was it that made you opt for set design in the end?
Probably the feeling of having fundamental involvement in the collaboration with the director from the very beginning. I’ve always really enjoyed the conversation around designing a piece of work; the opportunity to investigate what is needed for this particular production of this particular thing. I think talking’s such an important part of what we do.
Does that conversation happen on every project, or are some directors more prescriptive about what they want? .
I don’t think that there are really any directors who come in with a fully formed notion, neither are there directors who come in with no idea what they’re looking for.
There is a kind of conversation-by-stealth that happens in those situations. You have to be a really attentive, active listener; a lot of what people are trying to say is indirect and intuited. If you try to write an account of a conversation that you might have with a director, or indeed with many other people that you collaborate with on a show, it’ll be discursive and roundabout.
Tell us about the process of designing The Silver Tassie, the Sean O’Casey play currently in rep at the National Theatre.
The Silver Tassiecarries around the title of a problem play, so you have to talk your way through that perceived history, then what you’re going to do about it. The process was very research heavy, to try and understand the context in which O’Casey wrote the play.
The locations are very disparate: you’ve got the Dublin tenement in act one, the Western front in act two, a hospital interior and then a social club interior. So we had to do quite a lot of picture research: going to the Imperial War Museum; exhibitions.
The breakthrough happened in a conversation with Howard [Davies, the director]. The world that the lead figure loses through the war needed to feel properly violent; that world has to be completely destroyed and there’s no way of ever getting it back.
So, working in the white card [an early stage of theatre design using white card models], I started to think, well what if that actually happened? What if the audience see that world being literally blown apart? I started to work out, really roughly, a sequence of events whereby we could blow the tenement apart. Then we went on and did the full colour finished model - that’s the point at which the further layers of emotional connection started to build.
How much of the world of the play do you conjure up and how much is left to the audience’s imagination?
Theatre design is not a decorative form of design; it’s very functional.
If a piece of theatre design is too decorative or descriptive then it’s already telling the audience what the piece is going to do as they take their seat, or walk into the space. It’s really important that the design allows the live event to complete the story.
Theatre design is a time-related aesthetic. That’s why if you see theatre design in exhibition form, it’s sometimes quite difficult for it to be anything other than an exhibition of good model-making skills or good photography. It’s not really descriptive of theatre design as a thing. Theatre design is as mobile as the experience of the audience.
For more details about The Silver Tassie, visit the National Theatre website.
All photos by Catherine Ashmore.
Follow Jo Caird at @JoCaird
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