Set design is no longer in the background of theatre production (well, figuratively anyway). In a recent talk at St Catherine’s College, the critic Michael Billington listed the growth of technically impressive staging and set design amongst the theatre’s most important developments over the last 50 years. In drawing the audience’s attention away from the actor to what lies behind, innovation is key: a 2000 production of The Tempest flooded the Almeida stage with a giant lake, whilst the Royal Court Theatre was transformed into a fighting ring for Roy Williams’s 2010 boxing drama Sucker Punch. But what of student productions, whose limited funds do not permit such extravagance? Here we talk to Nathan Stazicker, a first year History of Art student at Christ Church, about designing the set for the garden play She Stoops to Conquer.
How did you get involved in set design?
I’ve always enjoyed looking at set designs when I go to the theatre and imagining what I could design, but I had no idea how to get involved. When I came to Oxford I thought it was a great opportunity to get involved in things I’ve always fancied a go at but never been able to do before – with so many opportunities for student drama there is no shortage of companies looking for a designer. Quite unconventionally I missed out on Cuppers and the first thing I got involved in was The History Boys, currently on at the Oxford Playhouse. As I had no idea about anything it has been a steep learning curve but really enjoyable: I’ve learnt about model-making, technical drawing, carpentry, and stage management, and that’s just mentioning a few things! It can be difficult to ‘break in’ to Oxford drama but I just responded to as many calls for designers I could find that interested me!
What are the challenges of creating sets for garden plays?
One of the major challenges is how to transform a garden into a fully-functioning theatre. Not only do you have to create a set but you have to integrate backstage areas, wings, dressing rooms, and locations for lights and sound. I suppose if there are large trees and bushes then they are easy to hide behind, but the challenge is to make it all look professional. I think the best way is to attempt to integrate these elements into your design. Multifunctional elements can combat this – a curtain which doubles as a back-drop as well as a backstage area for example.
What do you have in mind for She Stoops to Conquer?
The Christ Church Cathedral Garden is a lovely space with lots of grand architecture to go along with the lawn, trees and plants. As She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy and set in a run-down house and a lowly inn, we have decided to locate it on a useful natural stage-like area at the end of the garden – the audience will be surrounded by the architecture but it won’t distract from the play. I’d like to create a set which is simple and allows the great space to speak for itself. At the moment, we’re thinking of stringing two large loose curtains between the two trees either side of the stage area. This will allow the actors to move the curtains on and off to reveal the greenery behind and change scenes, while creating a backstage area to store props and costumes. I think it’s effective to use quite ephemeral and light scenery for a garden play – unlike in a theatre there is nowhere to hide and I think large wooden flats and elaborately built sets can sometimes detract from the beauty of the play being outside. The set should complement its surroundings, not totally change or hide them. It would be great to use the secret doors set into the garden walls as well to make the space really interactive but we’ll have to check where they lead to first! And, of course, I’d like to incorporate some pretty fairy lights, probably for at the end of the play when the sun has set and the garden can be illuminated – no garden play is complete without them!
Why do you think set design has often been overlooked?
It is often said that a good set doesn’t get noticed, but I think that is true only to some extent. Of course, you don’t want to distract from the actors and the play with a set design that is totally over the top and obviously trying too hard. But by the same token I think that well-designed sets are essential to a play and can really bring it to life. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a very visual person, but I always look out for the set and it’s one of the things which helps to form my first impression of a play. Obviously it is the actors who have to go all-out for a week’s worth of performances but just as much work goes on behind the scenes in the run up to the show. We worked from 9am until 6pm at the Playhouse for more than a week to get the set for The History Boys ready. It would be nice if more people focussed on the set as much as the characters but that’s not really how it’s supposed to be. As long as the set complements the play, is fun to design, and is exciting enough to engage at least some of the audience, then I’m happy.
“She Stoops to Conquer” is on from Wednesday to Saturday of 4th week.