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Behind the mask: Our set designer

Behind the mask: Our set designer

A part of our Creative Team series, leading set designer John Verryt talks about a dentist’s chair, a dairy and other Ink productions.

John’s one of our long-term collaborators, he’s been working with us since Indian Ink very first production, Krishnan’s Dairy (premiered 1997). His designs include some of our most-loved shows including Mrs Krishnan’s Party, Welcome to the Murderhouse, Guru of Chai and The Candlestickmaker.


The studio is exactly what you would hope it was. Its cupboards are lined with models — a cardboard UFO unfolds to reveal a little paper person, a pirate ship floats on a sea of blue vivid, and palm-sized palm trees hold their ground amidst it all— and scrolls. On the desk, the back of Madam Butterfly’s sheet music is sprawled with sketches of a chandelier; it’s the latest project to be created in the studio.

From past designs.

How did you get into set designing?
When I left school I went into graphics, and it was at the time computers were coming in and I didn’t really want to do graphics on the computer, so I left. Quit. Travelled for a while and sort of stumbled into some theatre liked it, and came back and started working. Those were the days when you could do that. 

What is it about set design that you fell in love with?
Making an environment that reflects ideas that writers’ have written and that accommodates performers. It’s not like the statement, but the support for the statement. And the combination of sculpture and architecture… And control, I guess, is part of it too.

“You just completely have control over all of the senses. Lighting, sound, touch, everything. It’s all controlled in the theatre.”

I also enjoy the community and the rhythm of the work. It’s a process that starts with creative meetings, and then you go into rehearsals and then you go into production and then you go into opening night, and it’s finished. It all takes place in a concentrated period of time. Which also I like, the escalation of energy that goes on up till opening night.

 First reading: John presenting his initial set design for the deliciously dark, vaudeville-inspired Welcome to the Murder House (premiered 2018). Photos: Ankita Singh

What does your process of designing a set look like?
Usually, the producer comes to me, with a script or an idea.
I get the script on the table and do what I like with it. It’s a combination of making models and the drawing board. I’m pretty old school, most people do it all on the computer now. But I find that less satisfying, for the same reason that I didn’t want to do graphics on a computer, I don’t want to do set design on a computer either.

I prefer the more physical workstyle of making things and standing at the drawing board. I can put a whole set design on the drawing board and look at it all at once. 

Back to the drawing board: John works on a set for the 2019 World of Wearable Arts

How did you get involved with Indian Ink?
Jake had Krishnan’s Dairy as his graduation piece, and Justin and Jake got together then as a partnership. They were putting it on commercially as a full-length piece and that’s when they asked me to come along and help. And I’ve been doing Indian Ink ever since. 

Which Ink show has been your favourite to design?
I’ve always been fond of The Candlestick Maker, which had a lot of things going up and down on pulleys. 

The Candlestickmaker (premiered 2000): Black holes and the formula for happiness collide when a New Zealand Indian student visits his ancestral home for the first time. Can you spot all the pulleys in the picture?

And, I’m quite fond of Welcome to the Murder House. We had to do the electric chair, which was quite challenging. We had to have smoke, sparks and lighting effects and such. It was quite disturbing, actually.

I liked the vaudeville style of it, the singing and dancing. I’m always a sucker for singing and dancing. I really enjoyed exploring the old-school style of the portable sets with the canvases hanging down and painted cloths. I really enjoy all of the methods they used for moving big, heavy awkward-looking things and transfiguring the space to be something else. 

In Welcome to the Murder House, a piano serves as the judge’s bench and a table as the defendant’s box.

And I’m a bit of a painter as well, so I quite like painting cloths. I like making them but I also like the effect they have in the theatre, I guess there’s something about seeing a piece of work and you can see that somebody has painted it, it’s not just a printed image which you can do so easily. 

In a forest for a hunt, the canvas backdrops in Welcome to the Murder House were hand-painted by John.

“You can see the artist, see the painting, see the work that’s gone into it. But that’s just me, I’m old-school.”

Your latest design for Indian Ink was for Mrs Krishnan’s Party, a show that is interactive, set in the backroom of a dairy and has live cooking. How did you tackle that design?
Well, there were a lot of practicalities that come first — you have to make dinner for the audience which requires a surface to work on. It all comes out the naturalistic requirements in the action.

[The cooking] means you have to provide some type of kitchen — surfaces, benches, a cooker so there’s heat involved. You have to get that right, to pass health and safety. Then there are knives. You never know who’s in the theatre and you have knives lying around. You just have to think about those things. And there was an upstairs and there’s a kitchen table. So there’s a lot of big lumps that you start with. In that way, it was quite prescribed and simple in a way.  

In Mrs Krishnan’s Party (premiered 2017), John’s prop list is also a grocery one, with tinned tomatoes, garlic and basmati rice all being a part of the action.

Were there any challenges in the design?
How you use the space was challenging with Mrs Krishnan, because the audience comes into the room with the actors, into the same space as the actors. It’s not like the audience is over there and the stage is over here. Everybody is in the same space and sharing the space. There’s a lot of interaction.

Mrs Krishnan and her boarder, James, peek out at the audience-turned-partygoers from their room above the dairy’s backroom.

You get such a sense of intimacy and homeliness in the dairy backroom, how did you achieve that?
Using the wallpaper was a big one. And nothing is straight on or arranged. It’s all kind of random in placement. Things are one an angle, and the centerline of the space is on an angle, not parallel to any walls. Just turning everything off the right angle was a big element of that.

[The wallpaper] was trying to get a sense of the building that had many layers, over the years. You can peel it back and see the history. It was trying to capture some of that and get a business of a backroom of a dairy, from the little I’ve seen from in the dairy. It’s always full of stuff. I wanted to get a sense of clutter and business.

Layered wallpaper, incense, a portrait and flowers all add to the sense of homeliness in the dairy’s backroom.

This article is the first of our brand-new ‘Behind the Mask’ series, showcasing the creative team behind Indian Ink’s productions. Keep an eye out for next week’s instalment, all about our lighting designer Jane Hakaraia. 

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