An interview with set designer Abby Clarke11th May 2016
How did you become involved in the Oxford drama scene?
I knew before I’d arrived that I wanted to get involved in set design at Oxford so during my first week I signed up to join TAFF (the society for theatre technicians and designers) and then started applying to any set design roles that came up!
Did you find it difficult to get involved?
It was a bit of a slow start- I had enough previous experience to work on two small shows in my first year but it took a bit of convincing for some of the larger shows to trust a fresher with some larger designs. I remember a role for a Playhouse bid being advertised on the TAFF mailing list and me repeatedly emailing them asking for the role – I eventually wore them down with enough emails that they offered me an interview saying that they ‘appreciated my enthusiasm for the project’… Generally though everyone is very friendly and welcoming and once you’ve worked on a few projects and get to know a few people it’s easy to get involved in more and more.
What’s been your best memory of your time working on productions?
I think my favourite moments from productions are always when the actors begin to use the set in the production. I always feel relieved when they start to inhabit the space and use it in the ways that I designed it to be used- before the actors take over and bring the stage to life the set is just a very large sculptural installation on a stage! That being said, it’s so rewarding when really ambitious and technically complex designs work for the first time – seeing the set revolve for the first time on Phantom of the Opera or testing the pulley system for ‘the abyss’ in His Dark Materials Part II was incredibly rewarding after all the hours of hard work and designing from the team involved.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made on a production?
I think the worst mistake I’ve made was not planning the construction process enough on the ambitious set for The Architect-this resulted in me and the project manager working several 19hr days in the theatre in order to complete it (I can now confirm that jigsawing at 4am is not a good idea!) This was also the production in which I learnt my lesson about eBay orders- we had to make a flowerbed that ran across the whole stage and we’d ordered some fake roses to do this. However, when I opened the parcel it turned out that the flowers covered the area of an A4 piece of paper – luckily at this point in the build we were so deliriously tired that we found the whole situation hysterically funny but I’ve now leaned to be wary of internet ‘bargains’….
How much control do you think you have over the course of a production?
I think it depends a lot on the production. For Phantom of the Opera we wanted the production to be heavily grounded in the creative ideas of the team and as the set design was one of the first things we established then the design heavily influenced the rest of the designer’s aesthetics as well as defining the stage space that the director and actors had to work with. Throughout that production our exec producers and directors ensured that every member of the core team had an impact on big decisions made about the production. Similarly in Living Together, the house set allowed the directors to create scenes in upstairs rooms that expanded on the dialogue within the script. However on other projects like The Architect the director already had a clear vision for the stage and it was my job to try and work with and recreate that. It really depends on the team and whether they chose to work collaboratively or individually.
Is there anything you’d change about the drama scene in Oxford?
I love the huge range of productions and opportunities that can be found in Oxford student drama but I also think that the range is sometimes the biggest downside – there are so many productions per term that the limited number of designers and technicians (as well as actors and even directors) end up stretching themselves between multiple projects (I’ve definitely been guilty of doing this!). I think that sometimes if teams were committed to just one or two projects -as well of course as having to complete a demanding degree – then good productions could become truly spectacular.
Also, having a proper workshop space for designers and carpenters would be an absolute dream – at the moment I think a lot of housemates and friends are begrudgingly having to transform their gardens/kitchens/entire houses into impromptu carpentry and painting workshops!
Do you think reviews are the best way to measure a production?
I think that they’re sometimes really useful to give an indication of whether a production will be enjoyable for an audience member. That being said they’re obviously subjective and I’ve been to shows where I couldn’t believe I was watching the same production as the reviewer! Because of my role as a designer I tend to value the set, lighting and sound designs of a production as much as the performances whereas I think reviews generally focus more on the performances of the actors. Sometimes reviews can exactly nail why a production is so brilliant but its also possible for reviewers to entirely misunderstand what the production was aiming to do! Mostly though they’re a good general indicator of what the production will be like.
Why get involved in stage productions in Oxford?
The camaraderie backstage on productions is fantastic, the people are brilliant and it’s a great place to learn new skills – people are always happy to teach you something you’re unsure about. Also from a personal point of view, sawing a block of timber to pieces is a great stress reliever after a week of tutorials!
Do you think you’re adding anything to society by being part of the creative scene?
I think that it’s hard to measure the impact of the creative scene but I know that seeing productions when I was younger massively shaped and influenced me and theatre is a great way of providing a platform for important stories that might not otherwise reach a larger audience. From a design perspective, installations like Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red designed by stage designer Tom Piper had a profound impact and allowed people to really visualise the devastation of war; 5 million people travelled to see it, showing that the creative scene has a wider impact on society beyond your dedicated theatre-goer.
If you weren’t a set designer, what other part of the creative process would you want to do?
Occasionally I have dreams of being on stage as an actor but these quickly disappear when I remember the terror of trying to remember thirty pages of lines… I have a massive respect for lighting designers and would love to have the skills and knowledge to light a show so if I wasn’t being a stage designer I’d probably want to light the set instead!
For more on Abby Clarke’s set designs, see: