As a designer, what were your first thoughts when you read The Real Thing?
As a human, I was struck by how modern the play’s conversation around love is. There are ideas in this play about love, intimacy and fidelity that are incredibly progressive and relevant, nearly forty years after the text was written.
As a designer, I was alarmed by how rapidly (and often!) we shift setting in both time and space and excited by how we might achieve this on stage with the design while maintaining the rhythm and pace of the play.
What is your initial design process?
As I read the text for the first time, I quickly sketch first thoughts and ideas in the margin of the script based on how a scene instinctively appears in my head. I then start gathering reference images from all over the place (photographs, artworks, architecture, fashion etc.) that speak to the play’s tone, setting and characters. These images are compiled and exchanged with the director to begin a conversation over how the play might look and feel. As an aesthetic emerges, I then move quickly into working on the scale model box, designing it sculpturally in 3D. Initial, quick cardboard models express an early response to the particular space and how the play might sit in it. These are shared with the director and lighting designer and the process develops from there.
How do your ideas for the design change once you get into the rehearsal room?
Stoppard leaves so much room in the personalities of the characters in The Real Thing to the discretion of the actors inhabiting them. It was important to me that details in clothing, furniture and personal possessions would shift to support the evolution of the characters in rehearsals. Actors were involved in the design process as much as possible; in sampling fabric for costume items being made, textures and colours for props being built or painted and in the selection of other items being sourced. These were then tested in rehearsals and costume fittings and then adjusted accordingly.
Stoppard’s stage directions aren’t very prescriptive – does this make designing the show easier or harder?
Both. The Real Thing is structured as a series of natural, intimate and relatively still conversations. Stoppard doesn’t tell you how to stage a scene, but he does give you clues in the dialogue. In designing the space, you define the parameters of how the scene can unfold.
In lieu of any firm stage directions, Simon and I used the scale model in the design process to test what furniture was needed in which configurations to most effectively play the scenes. While this process is a constant, evolving conversation, it frees you to interpret the text in a way that is unique and particular.
Without giving anything away, this is definitely a play that looks at illusion vs. reality, and the concept of a ‘play within a play’. How do you represent that on stage?
The key characters in The Real Thing work in the theatre as actors and writers, whose job it is to make artifice for a living. Stoppard establishes a wonderful, slippery tension between reality and artifice right in the very first scene. While the physical surfaces and textures of the space do speak to the overlapping domestic and theatrical worlds, it was important to me and Simon very early on that we wouldn’t visually illustrate any shifts between reality and illusion, but allow the audience to dissect the play for themselves.
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The Real Thing plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 9 Sep - 26 Oct 2019.
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