Set for success: the art of making ‘playgrounds for the actors’

The worlds represented in the four nominations for best set in the ‘Irish Times’ Irish Theatre Awards are very different, but they all fit somewhere between pragmatism and poetry

A sweltering two-bedroom apartment in 1940s New Orleans. A grim cottage and a surreal graveyard in Connemara. A four-metre-high skull, sitting on a shingle beach, surrounded by a matrix of hanging speakers. An art gallery, constantly dismantled and reconfigured, in a city in the distant future.

The designers nominated for the creation of these spaces in this year's Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards have covered an expanse of geography and time. But they also stretch through a universe of different styles, from the poetic realism needed to accommodate Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire to the surreal twists that better realised Martin McDonagh's A Skull in Connemara , or the sculptural design that brought audiences into the headspace of Samuel Beckett's Embers to the clean and economic futurism of Collapsing Horse's Distance from the Event .

On the surface, it’s difficult to find commonalities between these four designs, but their creativity within strict constraints, their harmony with actors, lights and costume, and their encapsulation of themes and tone, underscore a similar characteristic. Every designer is somewhere between pragmatist and poet.



'The chance of winning one of your own awards would be pretty unusual'

The sculptor Andrew Clancy ought to know the value of an Irish Times Irish Theatre Award: he designed them and has made them each year since 1997. His work for Pan Pan's Embers marks his first nomination. "It's kind of strange," he says. "The chance of possibly winning one of your own awards would be pretty unusual."

His sculpture for Embers was a commission. "In reality, I would not have made a giant skull if I hadn't been commissioned. It has no particular conceptual resonance for me."

Clancy’s work for theatre has been a fascinating combination of expression and problem-solving. “Once someone gives me a problem like that I’m just completely absorbed in it and embrace it totally. At that point, all I’m concerned with is making it mine. It’s a slightly obsessive compulsion to create stuff.”

The skull for Embers was constructed in 200 ascending layers of plywood, each piece cut with a jigsaw and judged by Clancy's eye. The skull was more interpretive than an anatomical facsimile ("You make choices with the shape of the eyes, the nose, to see what shadows are cast"), but it also had to accommodate two performers, who spoke Beckett's radio play text from within it, and to be dismantled, transported, and reassembled by different technical crews on tour. Clancy still considered it a sculpture more than a set.


‘They’re self-contained structures’

By the time Decadent Theatre Company's production of A Skull in Connemara , (which takes its title from Beckett), had finished two national tours, it had smashed about 400 skulls to smithereens. The production's designer, Owen MacCarthaigh, had at least given them an extraordinary (and not so final) resting place, where the tombstone solemnity of gravedigger Mick Dowd's cottage opened – with the smack of four walls hitting the ground – on to the surreal landscape of a hilltop graveyard.

“To go from a cottage to a graveyard was a challenge,” says MacCarthaigh, whose “comical cartoon-type world” seemed to suit McDonagh’s twisted west perfectly. Judging from the title and the theme, MacCarthaigh decided, “the graveyard had to be the money shot. We had to put our resources there.”

MacCarthaigh’s background is in fine arts, sculpture and engineering, and, like Clancy, he builds his own sets. “Some of the small theatres we play in don’t have flying facilities. I’m used now to doing sets in a sculptural context. They’re self-contained structures. They don’t rely on the infrastructure of the building.” He recalls the sage instruction of the late Mike Diskin, of Galway’s Town Hall Theatre: “It has to fit in the back of a Transit van.”

That still leaves room for a considerable amount of ambition and artistry, however, and MacCarthaigh’s wickedly amusing cross-section of a graveyard was full of witty embellishments and sly allusions: the headstone of a murdered character in the shape of a heart, for instance, or cracks in the cottage walls that resembled the fissures in a cranium.

MacCarthaigh calls his set "a playground for the actors", but it also had the effect of showing you the play from a brilliant new perspective. Reflecting on the grand reveal of his graveyard, MacCarthaigh knew there would be consequences. "Unfortunately, after the walls drop – it's so dramatic – the play is slow for a few minutes after." He shrugs. "But that's in the writing."


'Design is like a hallway house between the sculptor and the mechanic'

Faced with constructing an image of the future using very modest means, Colm McNally wisely kept things simple. “Design is like a hallway house between the sculptor and the mechanic,” he tells me. His solution for Collapsing Horse’s production of Eoghan Quinn’s future-noir play

Distance from the Event , was to create "a mental space for people to imagine a world built up from simple stimuli".

Taking his cue from the play’s opening scene, set in an art gallery, McNally created four large panels on casters, with steel frames, corriboard material and illuminating LED tape. Introduced early in the rehearsals, these panels could be manipulated by the actors to depict spaces, internal and external, and at times to create illusions and labyrinths.

"You make useful tools that you can give to the actors and the director," says McNally, who – untypical for a designer – is closer to an ensemble member of the company. "With all of them in the room, they'll come up with better ideas than you ever could. It's the most open and collaborative company I work with."


'I tend to want to honour the playwright, treating the play as a kind of sacred document'

One of the challenges facing any designer of Streetcar is that it has been thoroughly explored. "It's been done a lot," says Lee Savage. "There's a movie. The challenge with that play was to come up with our own way of interpreting it."

Another was to avoid romanticising the working-class French Quarter of New Orleans. “Our main goal was to really focus on the lives of these people, and certainly provide enough of the world of New Orleans to contain that, but to not go overboard in trying to illustrate so much of the world that you lost sight of the people.”

A Streetcar Named Desire , from its title to its protagonist, has one foot in reality and another in a dream, but Savage remained reverent to the text. "Williams is very, very specific about a lot of things. Specific pieces of furniture and props have to be there. And at the same time you have to design a space that can support and express the poetry."

Savage’s set, largely realistic, incorporated an idea of director Ethan McSweeny’s to create “a cage of light” inspired by Blanche DuBois’s fears and frailties. “In the beginning it was more of a psychological response to her character and how she perceived the world of New Orleans, and so really the environment around the realistic material of the apartment became this metaphor for her state of mind. We left exposed brick and things of the theatre that could live in both worlds. But then we used colour and light [designed by Paul Keogan] to heighten it. I tend to want to honour the playwright, treating the play as a kind of sacred document. You can start from a real place and push it to an impressionistic place and still honour the text.”

Trophy maker and gatekeeper
Back in Andrew Clancy's studio, the artist has just finished constructing his awards for this year's ceremony. A less scrupulous man might have already made one for himself, but Clancy hasn't created any surplus gongs. Each year, however, he is approached by people asking him to make a few extra. "They want to award themselves for things they didn't get," says Clancy. "That happens. A lot more regularly than you'd think."

The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards take place on Sunday at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and will be featured on The Works on RTÉ1 at 8.30pm on Friday, February 28