Designing for Peter Gill
Interviews with: Alison Chitty, Designer and Jessica Curtis, Associate Designer, March 2002
Together, Alison Chitty and Jessica Curtis will have designed each of the five plays in the Peter Gill Festival. The plays will be performed in both the Crucible and the Crucible Studio.
Alison and Jessica have transformed the Studio so that it has a look especially created for the Festival. Onto this clean, 'blank canvas' space it is now Jessica's job to place props and costumes creating individual worlds for each of the four plays in the studio repertoire; Small Change, Kick for Touch, Mean Tears and Friendly Fire. Meanwhile, Alison is designing set and costumes for Original Sin on the main Crucible stage, with Jessica as her assistant.
How long have you been working with Peter?
Peter and I have been working together for about 23 years. He's got about five designers whom he has worked with consistently during his working life; John Gunter, Deirdre Clancy, Bill Dudley, Hayden Griffin and myself. One thing that Peter's always done is champion people that he believes in.
What is it about your designer/director relationship that works?
Well, I suppose number one is that I think he's totally brilliant, and that's a bit of a basic. He's a fantastic writer. I feel he has a real understanding of what I would call 'the human condition', and cares about that in a proper way. He's wonderful at casting, and he's a terrific director. He's an artist in his own right; we share a knowledge of the world of fine art, and that world is usually our launch pad. We particularly seem to share the same aesthetic, and respond to the same things visually.
Can you describe what you've come up with so far for the design of Original Sin?
Both the models we've created are blank canvases two very different blank canvases. The Studio has a very specific brief; to make a space that's adaptable, where four very different plays can be performed. For Original Sin in the Crucible main house, we needed to create a space for one play with six different locations, all with a connecting spirit. It's a much more specific blank canvas than the Studio space it has to be. Original Sin has specific physical requirements particular places, some in London, some in Paris, and all the action takes place in the 1890s.
I hope the design will be rich, period, sensual and free. Really making a place where we can tell the story. One thing that Peter and I enjoy creating is what we call 'poetic still lives', and I suppose I could describe the design as a blank canvas which holds a series of poetic still lives that take us from location to location.
How have you worked together on the design process of Original Sin?
Peter invited me to an early read-through about a year ago at the Royal National Theatre Studio and I thought the play was fantastic. The read-through was brilliantly cast, as usual. (I always say his companies are like the best box of chocolates you've got the nutty ones, soft centres, delicious ones...) After I went to the read-through, I went away and re-read the play and started to do some research.
Peter and I had a meeting where I asked him whether he had any visual images of the play in his head. At this meeting he drew incomprehensible marks in my sketchbook about what he thought it should be like, and how we should use the space, where furniture should be and what the geographical layout should be. I pride myself in being able to understand what those incomprehensible marks mean, as I believe I understand the gestures he makes. He's got the most amazing gestural hands often it's as if he conducts in rehearsals, it's a musical experience. And I went away with those marks, and began drawing and making models and thinking about what the surfaces are and which selected objects could create the different locations.
Peter knows exactly what he wants when he sees it there's a funny distillation process that goes on about searching and finding and showing him things, but when we've got it we know it's right. We had to choose between how architecturally naturalistic to be, or how expressive to be, and we had to keep our eyes on the budget. I think it was a totally brilliant idea to transpose Wedekind's Lulu plays into the all-male world of Original Sin.
Who is Peter Gill and why is his work exciting?
Peter Gill is an incredible writer and director. I also think Peter's a renegade and a rebel and a pirate, and yet the most modest, gentle, unassuming person you could ever hope to meet. I think his work contains the same mixtures of roughness and elegance, and is exciting because he is truthful about the people that he creates. He seems un-swayed by the vagaries of theatrical fashion; maybe because he has developed an honest poetic voice and vision.
I think Peter cares passionately about the theatre industry, but is far enough removed from it to be truly original. He inspires incredible loyalty and passion in the people who work with him, and come to see his plays. It's quite rare to leave the theatre feeling like you've thought or felt something new and strongly Peter's plays do that to you.
Can you describe the space you and Alison have designed for the Studio?
Our first job was to decide which configuration of audience and playing space would work best for all the plays. Each has quite specific needs in terms of entrances and exits, and the studio has its own character to consider as well. After looking at options like playing in the round and in traverse, we saw that a 'proscenium' style gave us the best options. We then made a set of grey walls, and a grey floor to make a shell inside the studio, hiding distracting details in the architecture, and giving us a neutral clean base on which to build. Next came our proscenium which arches over the space, dividing it into two areas; one very directly in touch with the audience in front, and one more recessive, dream-like space behind. It also provided us with extra entrances and a surface to project onto. We chose grey because it is very kind to skin tones, and shows off other colours (in props and clothes for example) beautifully.
Tell us about designing set and costume for the four plays that will be performed in the Studio space.
As I read and think about the plays, there's a thematic through-line that would be really tempting to follow an ongoing conversation that you can see being picked up from different points of view within the plays. However, I will also be celebrating the plays' differences, as well the opportunity to work with four great directors at the same time!!
My process begins by reading the play, and then beginning a show-and-tell process with the directors; looking at imagery, playing with ideas in the model box, talking through character, responding each time to that person's different approach and vision, and to the differences we have made in the space.
The nature of the plays and the context of the Studio asks for a spare and minimal approach, I think, so my main work will be in ensuring that the objects that we do choose are working to evoke our world.
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