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Image © Mark Douet

A Day in the Life of a Set Designer

Natasha Sutton-Williams

Cécile Trémolières was nominated for an Off West End Award 2014 for best set design: her realistic Hackney estate flat was torn apart by nature during the show Piranha Heights at the Old Red Lion. This month she has designed sets for The Mikvah Project at the Yard Theatre and Harajuku Girls at the Finborough Theatre. Londoncalling.com sat down with Cécile to find out how she translates an idea in her head to the final design on stage.

London Calling: In The Mikvah Project at the Yard Theatre you had an actual swimming pool onstage. How did you do that?  

Cécile Trémolières: From the beginning Jay Miller, the director, wanted a pool. He never puts anything on stage for decoration. Initially he thought he might not even need a designer, he was just going to buy a pool. Then he realised the way the pool would look and relate to the space needed to be thought through. So I came on board. Design-wise we asked ourselves: how can the pool say something different about each location when it’s always present on stage? The idea is that two men come into The Yard every evening to tell the story of their love and how it didn’t work. They go through that story ritually to cleanse themselves, which is what the mikvah is for in Judaism.

LC: What is your main function as a set designer?

CT: You work with the director to create all the visual aspects of a production, then you collaborate with lighting, sound and video designers to form the set and costume. I work both as a set and costume designer, which is standard practise in the UK.

LC: Do you have a preference to design set or costume?

CT: I thought I preferred set but I realised early on that the costume always comes from the set. I can’t think ‘simply costume’ or ‘simply set’ because where you inhabit affects how you dress.

LC: What is your process from the start of a production to the end performance?

CT: You have your initial meeting with the director where you are introduced to the play and the style the director is looking for. Then you read the play a lot; you immerse yourself in the literary world. If it’s an opera you engage in its musical world. You do lots of visual and contextual research. Your early ideas can be really precise or totally abstract. You also have technical things to do like list all the props and costume, who is where and when on stage. You realise the journey of each character, which can actively inform your decisions. You go to the performance space a lot to understand what you can realistically create there. It can be one month or six, depending on the scale of the project, when you finalise your design by constructing a 3D model box of the set.

LC: Then what happens?

CT: You arrive on the first day of rehearsals, normally four weeks before the show goes up. You present your final model box to the production team and actors, then you source the costume and props. Sometimes you personally build the set or the production will hire a builder. During the get in, you add the final touches.

LC: Once the show goes up, is your job done?

CT: You can’t really step back because during previews you still have to tweak the design before press night. From press night onwards you’re supposed to be finished but there’s always something that goes wrong, like a costume goes missing. For moral support it’s also important to go regularly.

LC: Do you find working on opera very different from theatre?  

CT: It’s totally different. It’s a shame first play readings with actors occur at the start of the rehearsal period because listening to the play is so useful and makes you realise all the subtleties. With opera you can just listen to it on CD. Opera doesn’t need much explanation because it’s in a world of it’s own. Why are the characters communicating through song? It creates an unusual dynamic on stage; the relationship with the audience is not the same as with theatre. Everything is timed, you really have to follow the music as a designer. It’s very different from the flexibility of the theatre where if needed, you can add or remove text, have moments of silence or improvise. In opera the role of the designer is to create something emotive that wont overcome the emotion of the music but will respond on the same level. When designing theatre, you always have to question the necessity of the set.

LC: How do you challenge an audience as a set designer?

CT: You don’t give them easy answers. I hate it when you see a play and know instantly where you are, that it’s not going to change for the duration of the show, that you’re going to be safe. It’s about not giving the audience obvious clues at the beginning. I want them to use their imagination and brain.

Cécile will be working on Król Rogerat the Royal Opera House in May. For more information and tickets, click here

Cécile’s set design for Impermanent Theatre will be exhibited at the V&A in July. For more information, click here

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