Feature: Designing Chimerica

Date posted: 2 Mar 2017Author: STC Production: Chimerica

Chimerica is a deeply moving thriller that travels from Beijing to New York and back again, across dozens of different settings and, in STC’s production, with an ensemble of 32 performers on stage.

The play is fast-paced, with a script that feels cinematic in its many fast scene changes and flashbacks to Tiananmen Square in 1989. So, how do the designers make sense of this in the theatre? We sat down with set designer David Fleischer and costume designer Renée Mulder to find out…


In the rehearsal room, designers David Fleischer and Renée Mulder pinned up a selection of documentary photos that inspired the set and costumes for Chimerica


David, can you talk about the challenges of designing a set for a play as epic and globe-trotting as this one?

David Fleischer

From very early on in our conversations, director Kip Williams was interested in telling the story through people. This is a play about people power, set in two of the the most populous countries on earth, so we were keen to have a mass of people on stage, rather than anything overtly technological. 

Kip and I honed a lot of these skills putting the many different scenes and characters of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information on stage back in 2015. But this is on a whole new level – when you have 32 people on stage and you want them to be able to sit down, you need 32 chairs to come on and then go off very quickly because the pace and rhythm of this play is so quick and important.

We talked a lot about the musicality of the piece. Not just in terms of the sound design, but in terms of how the rhythm and dynamics of the production visually can work – moving from a small scene with few actors to a big scene with a crowd, to several short, sharp scenes. It’s like a visual score full of different dynamics and tones. A lot of that comes down to the choreography of the ensemble as they move in and out of scenes. The effect is this very fast-paced, elastic image-scape that can transform before your eyes.


Renée, with 32 performers on stage playing multiple characters, the costuming must be an epic undertaking. Can you tell us about what they’ll be wearing and the work involved?

Renée Mulder

There are a lot of costumes – we’re clocking up over 250 at this point. We’re trying to make it feel as real as possible, so everyone has multiple costumes for each of the different characters and scenes. Some people have 6 different pairs of shoes, so once you multiply that by 32 people, there really is a lot going on.

We also need to differentiate the costuming between Beijing 1989, Beijing 2012 and New York 2012. So, while it’s all relatively contemporary clothing, there are nuanced differences there.


Some of Renée Mulder's costume design sketches for Chimerica – there are over 250 costumes in total


With all those costumes, how do you organise them all backstage so that the actors find the right ones? Is there a lot of velcro to help people change quickly?

We have so many costumes for Chimerica that the costume department is finding that it’s quickly running out of everything from space to store things, to safety pins and coat hangers.

To manage all the costumes, we make sure that every single item is clearly labelled with the actor’s name and the character that the costume belongs to. Sometimes we’ll also include which exact scene the costume belongs to, but sometimes the costumes are used in several scenes.

Together with stage management, we plot the costume ‘journey’ of each actor. There’s a 20-page document that tracks who’s changing into what, when and where. Which side of the stage will they be on? How quickly does the change need to happen? All that is taken into account and documented.

To speed up quick costume changes, we might fake the front of a button-up shirt so that it actually uses velcro or studs to fasten up. We might elasticise laces so that shoes can be pulled on and off. Anything that helps the actors get in and out of their clothing as efficiently as possible.


Documentary photos from the Chimerica rehearsal room from Beijing 1989 (top and bottom right) and Shanghai today (bottom left)




The word Chimerica is a combination of the words ‘China’ and ‘America’ coined by academic historian Niall Ferguson and economist Moritz Schularick to signal the intertwined economies of those two countries.


Chimerica, 28 Feb – 1 Apr 2017, Roslyn Packer Theatre

Seeing the show? Let us know your thoughts. Tag @sydneytheatreco and #STCChimerica