Sharing my theatre design process - A personal approach from John Parker

Sharing my theatre design process - A personal approach from John Parker

A Designer Is first and foremost there as a problem solver to fundamentally serve the text.

The Director/Designer partnership/collaboration/team or whatever you call it is the process by which the production gets its unique feet.

First read the play

This is a problem if you are devising a piece from a novel or making the story up as you go along. There are different design approaches for every different type of theatre work. Some directors for example like to workshop the design out of the rehearsal process, with as much input from the actors as possible. This means you are acting more as a facilitator than a designer and need to be an intrinsic part of the ensemble company from the start of rehearsals to act immediately on what evolves.

Most plays I work on however, exist as a script, published or otherwise. So beginning with the typewritten or photocopied pages in front of me, I usually make up what the play is about and what the design is like, before reading, just from the title or the cover notes. I struggled for a long time trying to read something with empty thoughts and no preconceived ideas and found that impossible. I find if I fill my head with ideas, sometimes very stupid ones, my reading of the play is such a more worthwhile experience because I am continually having a dialogue with myself over the ideas, discarding and reforming.

I don't usually take any notes the first time and I try to read it in one sitting, as if I am at an actual performance, taking comfort stops where an interval would be. It also helps to turn off the phone.

The first notes I take are gut reaction hunches, These innocent intuitive feelings are important to record before you start to get too clever for your own good by researching.

Storyboarding

I use a comic strip style method of detailing the play, that I learned from British Designer Heyden Griffin, while he was touring here conducting seminars.

The method involves starting with an empty cartoon cell and add only the information that is essential for the ambience and mood and for the scene to function. You only go onto the next cell when something new happens.

Like another character or group of characters arriving. Through this process you soon arrive at the essence of the basic requirements of the piece. You also quickly begin to have an overall idea of the form of the complete work.

Also, you can go back and update the first cells. You may find that something needed in Scene 4 could be incorporated into the set from the very beginning in a disguised form and then when it is used in the later scene, the relevance becomes apparent.

Dialogue

Once you have a thorough working knowledge of the piece, it is time to talk seriously with the Director and if possible the Lighting Designer. You all need to work out how you see the piece being presented. You need to coincide ideas so you are both working on the same production. Your discussion should encompass wild and stupid brainstorming with serious practical concerns. Be as lateral in your thinking as possible. Don't even let budget considerations limit your creativity at this stage. The wider your vision at this time the better the final product will be.

The important things to decide are: Why are you doing this particular piece? How relevant is it to audiences of today? Who are the audiences? Pre-schoolers on holiday wanting a magical puppet show or a late night pub theatre audience wanting entertainment or blood? How could you make the piece more relevant for the intended audience? Shakespeare, especially the tragedies, work brilliantly in more modern dress. However, changing the period is a major decision. You have to make sure you are aware of all the textual implications.

You also have to decide on costing. Is it one actor to one role or have you I00 characters to be played by a cast of I4?. Where is the production to be staged? What are the size constraints? Can you move the ordinary configuration of audience to stage to make the auditorium a more environmental experience fitting the ambience of the play? These important considerations affect design decisions and the overall concept for the production.

Once the Concept has been agreed upon it is time to include the rest of the team, lighting Designer if not involved before, Costume Designer If you aren't also It, and Musical director and Choreographer where applicable.

I like to think minimally. How simply can I convey an idea? The audience really like to use their imagination to fill in ideas. Audiences have short spans of concentration. If you have them really with you at the end of one scene, and then their is a major scene change that involves waiting, it often takes a few minutes into the next scene before they are back with the same intensity of concentration. I like productions to flow seamlessly, with scene changes appearing like movie cross-fades from one scene to another. When multiple settings are really taken literally from the Stage directions, the play can easily end up being a play about elaborate scene changes. Even the biggest of Broadway musicals like PHANTHOM OF THE OPERA and SUNSET BOULEVARD have a consistent cross-fade flow to them.

Never underestimate the power of the actor to convey a setting by their manner, dialogue, or a hand hold prop. For example, do you literally need the physical set of a bus stop, when the actions of the actors queuing and reading papers and looking at their watches, tells you exactly what is happening?

Research

You should immerse yourself in the period in which you have decided to do the piece. What were the lives of people like? What did they eat? What did they wear? What materials were around for costumes? What music did they listen to? How did they travel around?

You are trying to create a consistent world of the play, so that the characters believably inhabit their lives. The world of the play can be quite wacky and not realistic. The film future design of the MAD MAX movies is a good example of a world which operates under a new political set of rules. You make the parameters and audiences will believe or accept anything if you are consistent eg. The Chinese Theatre convention of anyone dressed in black being invisible, means stage hands can wander around all over the place, but by convention you don't notice them.

The totality of what you set up IS the world of the play.

The Costumes

I make an analysis grid of the actors dawn one column and the scenes across the top of columns headed with each scene number and location. I put the character names and what they are wearing in each scene in the relevant boxes and a diagonal line when they are not onstage for scene. It makes it very easy to see where very quick major costume changes are going to be a problem, and who is available backstage to help. I try to create a former life for the character, before the play begins. I try to emphasise the psychological make-up of the character, without giving away their journey. I like to group people within a limited colour range.

Never underestimate the tableau you are creating with actors on a stage.

Always take the size and shape of the actor into consideration e.g. Most women's fashion design of the thirties was for anorexic seventeen year old boys.

Trace, Xerox source material, include fabric samples.

The Model

I don't draw well so I usually proceed with a scale model straight away. Working from a scale floor plan of the space, Mach One, is usually made roughly with matchboxes, cardboard, paper, Blutak and masking tape. The first thing to have is a scale model of a person so you are always relating the design back to the human scale of the actor. I usually work on two scales. I:25 is the easiest to work with. Wedding cake shops do cheap figures at that scale too. But for larger spaces such as the Aotea Centre, the model gets so big it won't go through a standard doorway or get into the back of my car, so I also use I:50 for larger theatres. The rough working model is a work in progress and should be ripped apart, cut up, modified etc. without you feeling you have wasted any time.

Once the mechanics of the play have been worked out, you can commit yourself to Mach Two, the actual finished model, to be usually presented to the cast on the first day of rehearsals.

Rehearsals

The model and costume drawings are a very important part of the rehearsal process, as it is the first real communication the cast have with the thought processes which the Director and Designer have put behind the Concept. The design presentation gives the cast a feel of the psychology behind the characters and the spatial relationships they will have with the set and the acting space. The Designer marks out the rehearsal space floor with tape, to scale with the set model. It is important for the Designer to explain the floor mark up to the cast carefully and to go to the initial rehearsals, especially where complicated scene changes are involved. Approximate rehearsal costumes are important for an accurate period feel to an acting style and to get the actor thinking practically in terms of long skirts, restricting corseting, high heels etc.

A Designer Is really a problem solver. You may think you have solved all problems of the piece during the design process, but this is not necessarily so. Being on hand, you can design your way out of problems. There is no such thing as compromise. You just make changes, remembering to think them through to the end and all the effects these changes will have and modify accordingly. You often can't make just ONE change in isolation.

Onward to opening night.

The Designer needs to supervise wardrobe and costume fittings, provide working drawings and, oversee the building of the set, organise to have it painted and touched up after the Pack-in AND still be prepared to have to make changes during production week, when the actors hit the actual set and costumes in performance for the first time and the reality of the tape marks on the floor hit home. The more work you have done in communicating the concept and explaining the set model earlier, the less you have to do now.

Get out of your paint clothes, dress up, go backstage and do all the appropriate kissing and well-wishing and then go out and become an ordinary member of the audience. Relax and have a great First Night.