No one can deny that set design is important. Would Les Mis have been the success it is without its barricades and its cast endlessly tramping around the revolve? Would Phantom still be running without its chandelier, drapes and subterranean candles? Would We Will Rock You prosper without the theatrical coup that is the Guitar Reveal? I firmly believe that the original Martin Guerre would have been a hit if only they had had a set more interesting than those dreary radio controlled trucks that trundled aimlessly around the stage (mind you at the preview I saw the finale consisted of the ensemble miming hoeing in semi darkness so perhaps the direction missed the mark as well). On the other hand a great set can’t buy you success as audiences who dozed through Lord of the Rings will testify.
Producers hate designers almost as much as they hate production managers. The reason is simple, as a basic principle producers hate anything or anyone that costs them money and designers are responsible for spending a substantial portion of the budget. Producers often get the designer foisted on them by the director and feel they have no control and definitely no understanding of these maverick creatures, who can be difficult, spendthrift, drunk, unavailable, irritatingly camp, abroad, vegetarian, Trotskyite, foreign, sleeping with the director, unfathomably intellectual, computer illiterate, patronising, impractical, late, and over budget (delete as applicable). Producers find themselves sitting with their head in their hands listening to a designer earnestly explaining why the floor texture has to be made from individually carved tiles as opposed to a simple paint job (a floor incidentally that no one in the stalls can see) or why the finale costumes have to be made from a handmade silk dyed in Milan rather than being bought in Southall. We production managers (and I must be careful not to grind too many axes here) are often caught in the middle, the producer will gush enthusiastically at the design presentation but the moment the designer is out of earshot will turn to me and say “Tell him the floor’s got to be a paint job and tell him he can shove the handmade silk up his arse”.
Project Model – Maintenance!
It’s late in the afternoon at the Parish Hall of the Church of Our Lady of Cheerful Countenance when director Kevin McHarrowing completes his introductory remarks and turns to designer Ulla Hoos to present her model of the set design to the assembled company. Ulla is an intelligent, determined woman who has never lacked ‘front’ but today’s presentation is bigger than anything she has done before and she is aware that there are some aspects of her model that may not find favour with other members of the creative team, who due to the lateness of the design have not had a chance of a preview.
So it is with some trepidation that unveils her model and starts to speak. “When Kevin and I first started to talk about this musical we both agreed that it was vital to set it in its correct 20th century context. You will notice I say 20th century not 21st and we feel that both the Skoda and Barry’s maintenance predicaments are very much products of their time and place in late 1990s Kettering.. We have drawn on cultural references from all over Europe and I’m sure that some of you will notice the influence of the Viennese Secessionist Movement in general and of the Absurdist poet-gardener Janos Handspring in particular. The original chief of design at Skoda was…” She drones on and has cleverly lost everyone in the room in no more than 30 seconds, she can ramble on without fear of interruption. As she pulls the white sheet off the model box there are polite ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ particularly from the acting company though production manager Stewart Cowless does hear someone mutter “Why is it all grey?” and as he dose so he sees the other members of the creative team making a beeline for him.
The model that Ulla has revealed consists of a cobbled stage with a criss-cross of tramlines surrounded by solid walls, which extend out into the auditorium, painted with a grim industrial wasteland and shadowy figures that might just suggest haggard children. There is a solid ‘faux’ concrete ceiling and the front edge of the stage appears to be decorated with broken glass. Ulla demonstrates how the various trucks and lifts work and how the ‘Pet Shop’ ingeniously transforms into Morag the Mechanic’s narrow boat..
Bobby Brasso is the first to arrive at Stewart’s side and whispers urgently in his ear “What’s with the fucking cobbles? Nobody said a damn thing about cobbles. We can’t fucking dance on cobbles.” Stewart makes reassuring noises as the choreographer rants on but then the normally mild mannered lighting designer Jeff Osram arrives at his other ear.
“Solid walls! Solid ceiling! Pros booms covered! How the fuck am I supposed to light this thing with no overheads or side light. This is supposed to be a bloody musical”.
Stewart manages to extricate himself only to be confronted by Ian Geek, Maintenance! s sound designer. “She’s covered the pros wall and the advance bar position! Where am I supposed to hang the PA?”, company manager Anthony Fawning is next “won’t the broken glass be a health and safety issue?” and finally costume designer Buzz Phelps sidles up to him “Stewie darling what about my shoes? Ooh those awful cobbles. Promise me you’ll get rid of the cobbles”.
Ulla is getting close to the end of her presentation “ …and finally the cobbles which are absolutely central to our design concept in that they make the link between Bohemia and Kettering abundantly clear.”
“I don’t think they ever had cobbles in Kettering” says Jeff Osram quietly at the back
“How do you know?” says Cowless “Have you ever been to Kettering?”
“Well no but…”
“They certainly never had trams in Kettering” says Geek.
“Why is the show set in Kettering? Does anyone know?” asks Osram
“Oh for Christ’s sake you two! Maybe it’s to do with ley lines or maybe Dermot O’Dainty lost his virginity there.”
“Gordon Bennett!” Cowless stalks off to listen to Buzz Phelps’s presentation of her costume drawings.
Buzz is the ultimate pro and has never delivered a design late in her life, there are those who might unkindly suggest that this is because all her designs are essentially the same and that she can knock them out in her sleep. She smoothly displays beautiful sketches complete with fabric samples neatly pinned to them. If she can’t sell these original designs to members of the cast she will sell them at ‘Showbizz Showbizz’ in the Fulham Rd after the show opens. The ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ from the cast are unforced and heartfelt and the producers beam at this welcome antidote to Ulla’s dour and unsettling set presentation. In a rare moment of competence they have insisted that Ulla should not do both set and costumes on the grounds of workload and the only discontented faces in the room at this moment are Ulla’s and McHarrowing’s who both feel that the costumes will only trivialise the vital story that they have to tell, a story of ordinary working people facing the challenge of life in post-industrial Kettering. They are unwarrantedly colourful, they are sexy in a way that undermines the themes of sexual exploitation that they want to bring forward and both resent the complete lack of agonising that has gone into their design. On a personal level Ulla feels a twinge of envy as she studies the design for Morag the Mechanic’s overalls which are a triumph of subtle eroticism over utilitarianism. She has never had the flair for this kind of thing and her costumes often appear no more user friendly than her sets. Company Manager Anthony Fawning brings Maintenance!s first day of rehearsal to a close announcing as he does that there will be a production meeting after rehearsal the following day. As the company, the management, and the creative team drift away, the stage management hastily stack chairs and clear the hall in preparation for the evening’s Tai-Kwon-Do session. Dermot O’Dainty pauses on the steps of the Parish Hall for a moment and smiles to himself as he remembers the far off day when he lost his virginity in Kettering.