Making a scene in Wonderland


Building a panto set doesn’t involve a trip down the rabbit hole, but it does take a lot of time – and a little magic

Outside the workshop a few men are waiting for the day to start, their puffs of warm air escaping out of their cupped hands into the early-morning chill. They have the kind of fingernails that have got in the way of a hammer more than once. As soon as the workshop opens, each person goes to his own corner. Some put on welding masks and send sparks flying; others grab carpentry tools and examine drawings.

So far, so typical. Except, when I peer over one man’s shoulder, he is ever so carefully, daintily, painting an intricate twirl on the side of a large box. It’s the kind of activity Marian and Frank from Bosco would have been proud of.

The box has to be painted so that it not only reflects the zaniness of Wonderland but also, when it is moved, throws up different patterns and optical illusions. Every so often he stands back to admire the work. Not a hint of paint goes outside the lines. When he finishes this, there’s a flamingo to be pinked.

Welcome to the slightly surreal yet totally serious world of panto-set building.

This workshop, in a warehouse in Marina Industrial Park, is where the set for this year’s Cork Opera House pantomime is born and built. With many of the larger, established pantos, existing sets can be rented. Some come from the UK or are made by recycling sets held in storage. A sprinkle of painted canvas here, a spoonful of expensive strobe lighting there and, hey presto, panto magic.

The problem for Cork Opera House this year is that the panto isn’t a panto. It is adapting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, to which the director, Bryan Flynn, will give a panto twist. As they couldn’t buy a set, they had to stage it from scratch, from designing and building the sets to figuring out how to make people appear, disappear and perhaps even fly.

The first meeting was in June, when the show’s designers, Michelle Kiely and Yvonne Cronin, presented the design concept. Next the set co-ordinator, Joe Stockdale, who has 35 years’ experience of putting sets on stage, took the concept model home and began to figure out how to re-create it and what materials he would need for each part. Stockdale assembled a team of carpenters, stage managers, lighting specialists and artists who have been working with an eight-person crew six days a week.

“The old joke is that nothing less than a death cert is acceptable to take a day off here,” says Stockdale. “So these staff don’t take days off and they’re never late. They are utterly committed to what they do and I respect them hugely for that.”

On the two mornings I call to watch them work, Stockdale and a colleague are figuring out how to get an enormous throne to fold up neatly at the side of the stage and yet open out effortlessly once it is rolled on. From his pocket, he takes a collection of twisted metal that contains the key to the solution: collapsing poles.

Over the years, set design has changed enormously. For decades it was all about painted backdrops and 2D creations.

“We started off with sketches on the back of fag boxes,” says Stockdale. “Then we got into futuristic design and then the computer age and drawings in 3D and all of that. What that tended to do, in my opinion, was invert the artistic element, and people would think only within the screen. We’re starting to move away from that now, to thinking outside the box again.”

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

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