Set designer interview

This is a transcript of an interview with set designer Giles Cadle about his work on the RSC's 2006 production of The Tempest.
Interview by Suzanne Worthington for RSC Education on 3 August 2006.

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How did you prepare for your initial meeting with the director and the designer?

I just read the play a few times to try and understand what it's about.

So you had quite an open mind?

Yes, definitely.

You collaborated with Nicky Gillibrand [the costume designer] and Rupert: what is useful from a director in terms of input and what would you rather they didn't do?

With something like Shakespeare, it's better the director comes with a view of what they want you to do with the play because it's been done so many times. You need to have a vague idea of which way to go with it - otherwise you have nothing.

For this production, Rupert said he would like to set it in a cold environment. Some directors are very visual and some just aren't visual at all. I think it's useful to have some direction in terms of what their view of the play is and where and what period to set it in.

It depends what the play is. For new writing, it doesn't always need that input.

How did you research your work on The Tempest?
Were there any images or artists which crystallised the play for you?

No. I did a lot of research around the subject to try and find images that interested me or seemed appropriate.

What themes or emotional qualities in The Tempest did you want to draw out through the design?

It was about making the island into a place where these things could happen, giving it a real sense but also a surreal sense that enabled the activities of the magical world to happen.

Can you explain more about how that came out in the design? The way in which the stage works is interesting, with the curtain coming across…

Yes. There are lots of scenes in the play that had to be addressed. They seem to take place in parts of the island but at the same time within the same location. So there was that to be solved. Rupert was keen on some kind of endless landscape, which is very hard to do on stage. Any sort of natural object on stage doesn't look right!

Like clouds painted on a sheet?!

Yes – it always looks rubbish! Also there's the constraint that this show has to play in repertoire. The floor has to break into very small pieces [so it can be moved into and out of the theatre quickly]. So you can't do a snowy floor. I was trying to take an environment that at first glance looks quite naturalistic but in reality is abstract. Something that doesn't look wrong but doesn't look right...

Some people like to work on their own or use the internet or brainstorm with other people. How do you work?

I do lots of sketches or little storyboards. It's very important to break the play down into bite-sized pieces, the different scenes and people who need to be on-stage, how they might get onto the stage, the architecture of how the play might be directed, let alone what it looks like. What it looks like is sometimes the last thing I come to.

We're designing three months before rehearsals start. I sketch predominantly just to get things moving very quickly, and then we build maquettes and scale models, and I do draft on a computer.

How do you communicate your final designs, for example to the acting company?

With a model, or a photograph of a model if it's an endless number of scenes.

Going back to collaboration, how did you work with Nicky Gillibrand [the costume designer]? In many RSC productions there is only one designer doing both the set and the costumes. Why was the decision made to have both of you, and how did you work together?

I've worked with Nicky many times before and I think she's the best costume designer in the business. I'd ask her to do everything that I do – because she can do it so much better than me! Some directors are keen to split the scenes and the costumes because doing both, it's very hard to service the director in terms of being in two places at the same time. Once you're on-stage, there's a lot of running around. I do costumes half the time when I design, and half the time I don't.

Have you worked with Rupert before, or designed The Tempest before?

No. I did A Midsummer Night's Dream at the RSC about four years ago.

Did that affect the way you designed this, at all?

It did a bit in terms of my view of the space and how powerful you can make things look on that stage [the Royal Shakespeare Theatre]. It's a very difficult stage.

In terms of staging a play, you can update the context for a contemporary audience. But the setting for this production is both familiar and strange at the same time. How did you and Rupert arrive at that? Or was it all Rupert's idea?

Yes and no. My view on period costumes or period settings is that sometimes I find them a distraction, they don't let you into the play. I don't mean that you have to update the play just for the sake of it but you need to have some understanding of why people are doing things or what their actions are and not see it as some kind of museum piece.

You mean they look like they're in fancy-dress?

Yes. Sometimes it's valid and it works very well but I find it quite hard to watch people in tights - I can't take them seriously!

It's always about finding a language in which you can communicate things. Sometimes ultra-modern is equally problematic because then you have to make comment about the environment in which it's set.

You talked before about abstraction versus naturalism - Rupert wanted the set to look natural – but how?

Not natural... he wanted a 'tremendous expanse'.

Some scenes aren't particularly abstract, for example the scenes in the cabin…

The space itself is abstract. Where do you stop building? Do you build the whole boat or do you just build a suggestion of the boat? It's always, 'At what point do we stop the abstraction?' It's relative.

At the beginning of the play, the set give you the sense of being in a cinema. How did you come up with that idea?

We [Rupert and I] both liked the idea of a nightmare – it's a nightmarish play, strange things happen and it does feel a bit like one of those scary Hitchcock movies. So we started off with that context. The play almost starts twice: with the storm, then it starts again with everybody arriving at the island. The storm is almost like a trailer to the play, so we thought we could divide the two.

Why did you decide to use video projection in the production?

You have to change the scenes quickly. We use a wipe device, just a curtain passed in front of the stage. It's very filmic, and in order to make it look a bit more interesting, not just a black object, we used video.

Lorna Heavey [the video designer] animated the curtain in a beautiful way. It took a long time to fine-tune. It's not an easy thing that you can alter quickly. It developed over a period of time. It's something that you note, take away, come back to... and hope things haven't changed in the time between!

To finish, a few biographical questions. So how did you train to do this job?

I did a degree in architecture and then…

Seven years?!

No I did the degree in three years. And then I did a post-grad in theatre design.

Did you always want to do that or at some point in the degree did you think, 'Hmm, maybe I don't want to do buildings'?

Having completed the degree and starting to work as a very junior architect, it wasn't quite what I wanted to do. In the last couple of years of doing architecture, I started going to the theatre a lot and I got interested in it.

So you transferred it with a post-grad?

Yes I went to look at some post-grad courses, not with an intention of doing one, but while looking I was offered a place to start the following week. I think somebody just dropped out or something! I filled the place.

How did you get from a post-grad to the RSC?

There's no direct route, it's not like being an apprentice and then becoming a master. I worked as an assistant to a designer for a few years and from that, I met directors and other people and slowly got more of my own work. Within that there are, of course, breaks that you get. But I think you make your own luck.

Finally – what was the most challenging aspect of designing The Tempest?

All of it!


Interview by Suzanne Worthington for RSC Education © RSC

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