AN INTERVIEW WITH SET DESIGNERS, PAUL AND SAM
We’re joined by the exceptionally talented Paul Ward and Sam Blyth who have designed and built the set for LODS’ next production, Spring Awakening. With the show only being a few weeks away now, we’re eager to have a sneak preview of what’s been going on behind the curtains!
How long have you been working behind the scenes with LODS?
Paul: I joined LODS in 2001 to perform on stage and became elected as the Treasurer within 5 months. This gave me the opportunities to support behind the scenes, which led to my role as the production manager for SUMMER HOLIDAY (2006) and THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (2008). With the support of my brother, Kevin Ward (who has never wanted to be on stage), we were approached to consider creating a set from scratch for MADE IN DAGENHAM (2016), I loved the idea of visualising the show and seeing what we could create around the expectations of the director. This entails sketches, modelling and learning skills from others as we have no previous experience.
Sam: I began my LODS journey when I helped backstage for MADE IN DAGENHAM (2016). There was a search for help as there was a lot of scene changes to do for this show so I decided to volunteer. I’ve always enjoyed watching productions but I’ve never had the chance to be part of one. This was when I decided I wanted to be on stage! I auditioned and joined LODS and had my first role as ‘Not Dead Fred’ in SPAMALOT (2016) that Autumn. I then went on to play Farmer Sutcliffe in BETTY BLUE EYES (2017) where I also became LODS scenic painter and was given the task to paint the entire set! For this particular production we wanted it to be inkeeping with the period of the show so I used plaster to create the bricks and painted each one to fit the theme of 1940’s Yorkshire cottages. My next time with backstage was during COPACABANA (2018), my main task for this show was painting the palm trees which really made the tropicana come alive on stage.
Have your past show experience influenced how you approached this set?
Paul: Of course I have learned from things I have seen professionally and close up in sets we have hired. I think it is amazing that in my time in LODS we have seen such a change in the capabilities! We are now able to have moving sets, LED technology, projections, cast leading live action scene changes and now our first black box production. I believe now audiences expect to see fast paced shows that are slick and transform in front of your eyes, which is apparent in local theatre and on the West End stage. It’s important to me that all my designs, especially Spring Awakening, that they don’t allow the audience to pause for a breath and keep the energy and emotional levels running high. Spring Awakening is our fourth set build and this is a different challenge in that we are building a simple but powerful image in a black box environment. We decided that we wanted to bring a traditional and comfortable aesthetic, but have the ability to bring some modern twists that can be encompassed into the design without attracting attention until they come part of the live action. This is truly a team effort as Sam is a key component in the quality of the set that you will see, without his artistic flair it would be like pieces of wood screwed together in shapes.
Sam: With all productions comes challenges and one of the main focuses is to keep the costs to a minimum. This is something that LODS are able to do without compromising it’s professional look, sound or feel. We are lucky enough to have both an excellent cast and also a strong creative team behind every show which enable us to create stunning pieces of set. One of ways this show has managed costs is by creating the set in house rather than hiring one out. Paul and Kevin built the set and it’s then handed to me to transform the wood to various designs that will transport the audience and take them on a journey. Through studying art I have acquired many different techniques throughout the years which really come in use when finding the most effective approach. For this show I’ve taken influence from the Broadway and the West End run to get the right style and colours of the scenery artwork.
When you listened to and read Spring Awakening, did you have an instinctive response to it, specifically in terms of how you imagined it would look?
Paul: My initial feelings was the show centred around teenagers who were being shaped by adults, but we get to hear their inner thoughts which they are expected to manage and move on from. The set needed to echo this and look traditional, yet allow the principles to be heard and this is done through a use of tricks and embedded lighting, but you’ll have to come and see the show to fully understand our interpretation.
How did you get from the first idea to the final design? Were you given much direction?
Paul: Throughout this process it is key to work alongside the vision and image the director has to ensure you are not in conflict and instead aligned in what you want to present to our audiences. Communication and sharing of thoughts is vital to make sure that we get the most out of the self-build and aid the direction; rather than being a distraction or obstacle to the actors. The Director of Spring Awakening, Andrew Seal, had visual images in his head (and had put them on paper as well) of hanging props from the wall that symbolised parts of the show, use of chalk in the set to voice messages and a separate playing area as the cast would stay in the audiences eye line throughout the performance. This gave me a clear vision of the directors mind (scary!) and how we would compliment each other in delivering the production. But overall he had made the decision that the design was going to remain in keeping with the original Broadway production of a sparse stage, where the characters and the story are the main focus. This then meant taking the text and determining what the audience needed to know or be shown. The final design is never confirmed until we build the item as we see opportunities to maximise the effect in front of us or Sam adds his bit of magic.
Sam: Before any work was completed we had to make sure that all our sketches, designs and ideas corresponded to Andrews as well as being physically possible in the theatre! The main task for me that needed approval was the biggest part of the set, the flooring. This was something that actually needed to be altered half way through as we decided that the wood effect I was using was too dark and wouldn’t contrast with the stage at the Palace Theatre. So with a few more swatches and test I finally came up with the correct medium to use, floor varnish.
What’s the first thing you do when you begin to design the set for a show like Spring Awakening?
Paul: I Read the script a couple of times to understand the core messages and the settings. The aim isn’t to create the location in full, in today’s staging we are looking to hint at the setting and let our educated audiences fill in the gaps. A black box production is designed to be minimalistic, but you should know where you are by a couple of objects being present and we have done this by hanging so items on the bare back wall or the use of some props used by the actors. We also wanted to see if we could keep all the action on the stage and have the props or set needed right in sight of the audience throughout the show. This has been the biggest challenge so far to incorporate. As you can see from the final drawings I have created, the design comes from basic sketches and then we look at to construct and create the artistic finish which is a collaboration between all of us.
Although spring is set in the 19th century, is there anything you’ve done with the set and artwork to give it that modern edge to reflect how relevant the show is in today’s society?
Paul: So a black box production is a very modern approach and relies on the audience to go with us on the journey of the characters that isn’t explicitly shown. We have nods to the past with a full parquet flooring (a first for LODS!), a freestanding blackboard and an upright piano. However alongside this we have the modern touches to reflect the contemporary musical score such as graffiti around the stage, floor lighting and set hanging from the ceiling. Hopefully there is an artistic blend of tradition and modern techniques.
Sam: Keeping both the traditional and modern feel present was vital for our Spring Awakening set design. The graffiti on the back walls of the stage will be written in chalk so encompasses the traditional chalkboard teaching of the times but has that edgy approach that emphasises each characters emotions and inner thoughts. I’m looking forward to seeing everything on stage together at Southend Theatres Palace Theatre! We had to get permission from Palace for this particular set as it was something they’d never done there before so it’s very exciting and we can’t wait to see it all come together.
If you could be involved in any production, which show and why?
Paul: I would love to be involved in Les Miserable which is a true ensemble show that needs everyone to be as strong as the next. It has an amazing plot, memorable songs, iconic setting and such a variety of characters to become emotionally involved with. I have seen the show 8 times now, including the 30th anniversary at the O2 which was such one off experience!
Sam: I think for me I’d like to take on the challenge of a new musical that’s never been performed before. It’s great designing and painting sets for shows where we have taken influences from the Broadway or the West End run but for me, the ultimate production to be involved with would be one that I had the pleasure of designing myself.
Why should people come and see Spring Awakening?
Paul: This is a new type of show that has challenged the society in a number of ways; in the style of music, a young talented cast and a completely different way of staging. This is a show that is still relevant today and is told with a fresh approach of storytelling. It sounds just perfect for LODS.
Sam: People should come see the show because this isn’t your average Joe musical. It’s not all singing and dancing, but it’s also not all about hanky-panky either, there is a powerful and intriguingly complex story that faces everyday issues teenagers have in life. It’s definitely one you want to see this Autumn
To see the finished product book your tickets below. We are at the Palace Theatre from 17th – 20th October 2018. Can’t wait to see you there!