Set Design – Making Space For Magic

Actor Jacob Rajan and Gerry the vulture puppet stand in front of Mumbai skyline from the rooftop above Mehra’s kulfi shop.When I was in Year 12, I performed in my high school’s rendition of the classic ‘Wizard of Oz’ and although I was only playing the flying monkey, I thought I was a very cool chap. That was mainly due to the fact that I got to climb, swing, and jump off the set the entire time I was on stage.
And this wasn’t some tiny student-made kiddy set. This thing was huge!
It spanned the entire length of the stage and was over two metres tall. It was an engineering marvel in and of itself.

So watching Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream got me thinking… How does a theatre company go about making the sets for their shows? And how the heck do they transport them all across the world? I tracked down Indian Ink’s very own set designer John Verryt for some answers.

At what point do you start thinking about set design? Is it as soon as the idea for the play has been formed and communicated to you, after the script is written, during the workshops, or when rehearsals start?

It varies, quite a lot actually. If there’s a finished script to start with, which is probably half my work, that’s easy. I start reading the script and start having ideas out of there. If it’s a devised work, then the design often comes out of a process of workshopping, discussions and generally working with a cast.

With Indian Ink, it’s kind of in the middle, because often there is a script at the start, and there are various meetings and discussions before that script happens. Justin met with quite a few people about a year ago, for Paradise, just having talks about the general themes.  Basically the design process just starts whenever the discussion starts, whatever form they are, whether it’s just a talk, or a discussion with the cast or whether it’s the finished script.

What do you think is the most important thing to consider when designing sets?

The first thing is trying to work out what it’s about. What I really want to do is reflect the themes of the writing in the set design. That’s kind of what I do in a nutshell, that’s my job. After that it’s mainly the practicalities of getting on and off the stage, like having smooth transitions and so on. Actually, transitions is a huge one and being able to do that effectively is extremely important. Moving from scene to scene requires a lot of logistical work, and is something we spend lots and lots of time on.

How much does changing venues affect your set design? For example, how different is it working at TAPAC compared to somewhere like Q Theatre, where we’re likely to be next year? What about even bigger/smaller venues?

It doesn’t really change the designActor Jacob Rajan stands on the Paradise set with his hands over his eyes much, I try to keep it quite consistent. I actually designed Paradise for Q Theatre and had to squeeze it into TAPAC, because it’s a smaller venue. Often it’s quite hard to do the design for a small space, so usually I would pick a ‘middle-sized’ venue and design the set for that. Then I would either squeeze it in or expand it out depending on where we go. We’re looking ahead to theatres that hold 1000’s of people so we really have to make it work for all kinds of venues.

How often do you have to say ‘no’ to Justin/Jake/others? Do they often ask you for things that are impossible?

Well, no is not an option. I never really say no, I usually say “well we’ll try, and then we can see how it works and we’ll go from there”. Even if I don’t like the suggestions we still try them and give it a go because we want to incorporate all the ideas.

What has been the most challenging Indian Ink show to design a set for? Why?

It was The Candlestick Maker, I think, which was also one of my favourites. I liked it alot because there were lots of things coming in and out from the roof, which was also very challenging. We had to sort out all of the pulleys and ropes and things and move it across a whole bunch of different sized venues, which logistically, was very hard to figure out.

But all the shows are challenging in their own way, because you have to evoke so much into something that has to be able to fit into the back of a van.

Layered lighting gel to create the effects of different spaces in Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream.What’s it like having to move the sets all around the country and overseas?

Well, because Indian Ink is a touring company, they like everything to fit into luggage. So for Paradise, that was one of the main aspects of the brief, we wanted to be able to tour it as luggage, in suitcases and boxes and that sort of thing. With that, you can sort of go up to about surfboard size, but then you’re oversized and it starts to cost, so you’ve got to take all of that into consideration.
For this show, I had a maximum measurement of about 1.3m, which is not very large but I’ve already broken that with the floor, because it’s huge, it’s two rolls of about 2 meters. But that’s a small compromise and we’ll still be able to travel overseas without having to send it as freight, so basically, the set will travel with the company.

I’m so inspired!

I can see the headlines now “Abhishek Rughani (aka The Flying Monkey) tours New Zealand from the back of his car.”   

2m tall set, car boot of only 1.5m x 1m. Hmmm… where did I put John’s number – I think I need help!