Water Cooler Conversations: John Verryt

John Verryt sits at his design desk with pencil and paper. Behind him are models of his past setsWe sit down with Set Designer of Dirty Work, John Verryt, to get some behind the scenes thoughts on the show.

What did you want people to understand with your set choice for the production?

I want them to go into the theatre and go ‘This is an office space’ but also say that ‘it’s a happy looking office’. You don’t often get office spaces on stage in the theatre, most people don’t write plays set in offices, so I wanted to give happy vibes as an office space. It’s really an accountant’s office, I can’t think of anything more miserable than that.

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.

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

What sort of materials, details and techniques do you use in the set?

Something that I am trying in my work is for it to be sustainable, especially in the use of material; not using plastics, polyesters, etc. The challenge comes with the fact that these things are always cheap and functional. The screens around the desks are two layers of canvas with vertical stems running through them, with something sandwiched in the middle to keep them rigid. I tried thin plywood first; we made one up which worked beautifully however it was too heavy.

The other thing I considered was creating partitions from corflute, but I just wasn’t interested in that as I didn’t want it to end up being an artificial space. In the end, I used corflute inside the canvas sandwiches which does come back to plastic, but the canvas is satiable cotton. The corflute is not as rigid as the plywood, but it works.

The use of the canvas partitions allowed for the tables to be covered and the audience to not see what the is happening on them. It was coming up with something that covered up the desks but also folded up to nothing for transport. So, I had the idea of the battens being contained within the canvas sandwiches. These came from two things:

  1. When you have a sailing yacht, to keep the sail somewhat shaped they have battens that hold it straight.
  2. You can get office partitions that are made of some kind of material that zig-zags and are free standing.

So, I explored the use of space with the partitions on the desks. You don’t really notice the trestle tables during the show as everything else draws your eyes.

I don’t use masking on the side as it does not work in most of the venues we tour to. With some venues that have cross arched theatre, we will use masking. But in this case, what I ended up with was a bunch of tables floating in space. The backdrop had to be a strong one with edges that would define the space and contain it. Rather than the energy just dispersing upwards, it’s a solid thing at the back that pushes it back down.John Verryt sits in front of his drawing board.

I also wanted to make it light and airy, so for that I used gauze with windows painted on it. It is quite abstract with a nice pale blue colour which is cheering and matches the other colours on the set. I wanted to go with the pastel colour, which looked happy to me. Once I decided on doing them in the pastel range it really opened it up.

I had to paint on unstable surfaces, so I decided to go with smooth edges rather than straight lines, which helped to make it happy. It all started out with trying to sort a logo for ‘Sisyphus Solutions’ (the company) and I ended up with that swish and a little something like a bubble, which is kind of the rock being pushed up the hill, which links back to where the story comes from.

People do try to cheer up their office environment but not very successfully. Boring office space turned out to be quite a lot of fun to work on.