Ahead of this Sunday’s Olivier Awards with MasterCard, we decided to celebrate the spectacular work apparent across this year’s Best Set Design category by asking four nominees to provide us with their original designs and stunning artwork created when working on their nominated production.
From huge musicals to innovative drama, beautiful model boxes to futuristic graphics, each nominee’s brief posed very different challenges and required a wide variety of processes, which they tell us about below.
Hildegard Bechtler, nominated for Top Hat, on how things had to be kept simple.
The challenge was always going to be how to stage a film as iconic as Top Hat, loved both for the brilliant central performances from Astaire and Rogers and for its effortless evocation of 1930s glamour. These images of the final design models represent the conclusion of a lengthy process during which the director Matthew White and I explored many approaches before finding the perfect scenic language.
Early on we decided not to rely on a revolve to carry us between scenes and to resist simply trucking scenery in from the sides, a technique often employed in musicals. We also felt that projection wasn’t appropriate. Our approach had to be simple, not least because of limited stage depth and wing space.
I was always keen to move between stage pictures as wittily, as elegantly and as smoothly as possible, while satisfying the need for many changes of location. With this design, solving the memorable moment when Jerry Travers dances in his hotel suite, waking up Dale Tremont in her bedroom below, was a crucial breakthrough. Once we cracked that, we were off.
Miriam Buether, co-nominated for Wild Swans, on the design’s inspiration.
The idea for the set design was to put 30 years of China in a box and to keep the story focused, but we also felt we had to keep everything moving. So with the help of the actors we transformed the stage in full view of the audience from tableau to tableau. Walls changed from bamboo to hospital white, to propaganda posters, then to video, and meanwhile the floor of the stage changed from dust, to earth, to wood, to water, then to concrete. For the poster wall we used a screen print effect that was only visible when the set was brushed with water by the actors as part of the action. The print images would magically appear and then fade to white by the end of the scene. It was a prototype, and very difficult to trial on that scale.
Wang Gongxin, co-nominated for Wild Swans, explains his passion for video design.
As a video artist, I am always striving to involve the video design in the production harmoniously, breaking the boundaries between video and stage language, and balancing them carefully. During the process of video production, I am also trying to balance the artistic creation and my emotional expression, which is indispensable and necessary for the play and myself.
The play is about stories of different times and includes much information about China’s past, present and future. I am trying to work with the limited stage space and find a point where I can realise the interaction between the video reality and the stage performance. The direct visual expression communicates to the audience more effectively and powerfully than traditional stage dialogs. For example, in the sun-setting scene, a few seconds of video clip and sound indicate Mao’s death and the end of time of turmoil and confusion, and also a new era of hope and possible change.
Tim Hatley, nominated for The Bodyguard, on why his design looks deceptively simple.
It’s always a challenge moving a well-known story from another medium onto the stage. I’m a firm believer in trying to find a visual language for a stage show that is inherently theatrical and not try to copy or simply transpose what has gone before. With The Bodyguard, the challenge was to keep the story moving swiftly and elegantly between locations, using a structure and script that often gave no time for characters to leave the stage.
The set is made up of a series of iris openings, with walls that travel across the entire stage and through the floor. The device viewed by the audience is a simple one, but back stage is deceptively complicated given the amount of work it has to do to move from location to location.
The process involved storyboarding the designs both before and during rehearsal, working closely with the other creative collaborators. Keeping the design fluid on a new musical is a given, as you never quite know what is around the corner.
1-4. Top Hat model boxes
5. A section of the design for the Cultural Revolution/ Apartment scene in Wild Swans
6. A section of the design for the Return to changing city scene in Act 5 of Wild Swans
7-9. Sections of designs for Wild Swans
10-12. The Bodyguard designs