Making a scene in Wonderland
For this production an ornate red frame will be placed around Cork Opera House’s proscenium arch, giving the audience the impression of watching the action through a looking glass. It is so big that it has to be broken into pieces and stored at the side. The ornate plasterwork was created from moulds and then carefully and expertly shaped.
Perspective is one of the set designers’ main allies. The room is filled with upside-down, oversized ice-cream cones, huge mushrooms and enormous flowers.
So what are the trade secrets, and where are the hidden doors? “To be honest,” says the director, Bryan Flynn, “because audio-visual stuff has become cheaper and easier to do, a lot of the magic is created using sound and lighting these days. The lighting rigs we used in the past were dependent on lots of colour on the set, and then all we’d do was illuminate it. We can fill a lot of the colour with intelligent lighting and audio-visual design these days. One time, the set was 90 per cent responsible for the magic. Now it is about 50 per cent of it.”
“The bottom line is that the stage has infrastructure such as lifts or trapdoors, so we use them,” says Nisei Kobayashi, a set adaptor and carpenter who has spent most of the morning making flower borders. (His set-design skills were spotted on his CV when he applied for a job in the theatre’s cafe; five years later, his anticipated 12-month stay in the city has become permanent.) “Then sometimes we use an optical illusion. I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say it’s a good thing the stage is a certain distance from the audience. That makes it easier to cheat with lighting and that kind of thing.”
The biggest headache, when building sets, is how to keep costs down. As this is a new production, all the costumes have to be made, and this adds to the outlay. Even Wonderland is not immune to the impact of the recession.
Stockdale points to a group of large “magic mushrooms” in the middle of the floor. “In the past, we’d make those kinds of things with rubber from the Vita Cortex plant,” he says. “With that outlet gone, the other option was to get it from the UK, and the cost was prohibitive. Plus, we like to spend the money locally. When I come across materials during the year I’m always thinking, Could I use them in the panto? The solution in this case was to use the insulation people put under wooden floors. It is perfect for this kind of work.”
And what about the magic? Is there a trick he can show off?
“Every year, I bring my nieces and nephews to the panto. When we’re sitting there, I end up forgetting the hours of work that went into it and end up enjoying it the same as everyone else. Seeing the reaction and joy on people’s faces, that’s the real magic.”
Alice in Wonderland opens on Monday