Most analysis of the collaboration between the director and the designer of a theatrical presentation inevitably ends with a list of platitudes about the ease of co-operation between artists in the collective creative process, and the discussion often turns around vague concepts of “being on the same wave-length” or “sharing a sense of style and/or taste.” Occasionally this is the case, especially when the collaborators have worked repeatedly as a team. A kind of shorthand form of communication develops that enables the director/designer tandem to work quickly and go further with a concept than they might have on a first collaboration.
Sometimes the collective work on a design concept is more fraught and difficult. In these cases, the combined search for an appropriate visual metaphor, and the resulting give and take of the process may propel the artistic collaboration beyond the individual expectations of either the director or the designer - and carry the idea into a zone that is far more focused and interesting. Working together to develop a design concept requires a certain generosity of spirit. There is something about having to adjust and adapt in order to accommodate another artist’s ideas that can sometimes produce extraordinary results. The only essential component of the collaboration is to approach it in a spirit of mutual respect and with an open mind and heart.
Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s legendary designs for Sir Tyrone Guthrie resulted in the Stratford Festival Theatre itself, and she designed many of its first productions in the early 1950's. They had worked together extensively in post WWII Britain, and it was perfectly natural that they continue their partnership in creating what was to become a Canadian theatrical institution. The American designer, Jo Meilzner, clearly had a special creative relationship with the director Elia Kazan when they created the first productions of many of the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in New York in the 1940's and 50's. Their work defined American naturalism in the theatre, and Meilzener infused these intense family dramas with a great visual poetry.
Jean Gascon and Robert Prévost are a famous Canadian director/designer team that worked together on numerous theatrical projects throughout the 1950's, 60's and 70's. They had been key members of a group of theatre artists that founded the Theatre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal, and they went on to create productions at Stratford and the NAC.
Both men had been born into bourgeois families and had received the same kind of classical education that gave them a deep knowledge of the Greek and Roman plays of classical antiquity, Molière, the French and Italian repertoires, as well as the Shakespearean canon. In some ways, their partnership was as important and influential as the Guthrie/Moisiowitsch team, because together they developed a model of what the French classical theatre should look and feel like. There was a fresh quality to their productions and a decidedly North American take on this repertoire - quite different from the more rhetorical and mannered style of the Comédie Française at the time.
Gascon’s mise en scene was typified by great intelligence and a robust energy, and Prévost’s designs were elegant, spare, contemporary and informed by his italianate sensibility. It was an international style that transferred easily from the theatre to opera, and theirs is one of the great artistic collaborations in Canadian theatre history.
I had the good fortune to have taken part in a series of collective creations with the director, Jean Herbiet (director of the French theatre at the NAC from 1971 to 1982) and the puppeteer Felix Mirbt. Together we invented a formula that allowed us to stage these plays with the narrative played out by puppets (about waist high) that were controlled by manipulateurs in full view of the audience, with the dialogues delivered by a group of speakers/actors somewhat removed from the action on the stage. The first of these was George Buchner’s Woyzeck (1976), and the setting for the action was a bare military barracks in which the scenes were performed by the puppets, with the manipulators costumed as army privates in a fictional central European country. They were presenting a play for an audience consisting of a group of nobles and aristocrats, seated in a kind of imperial loge high above the barracks floor, and who themselves spoke the dialogues.
In 1977 we used a similar approach for a staging of August Strindberg’s Le Songe. This time the scenography was a brushed aluminum floor, lit sometimes to look watery, with the manipulators in formal black-tie, like a group of waiters. The speakers were presented as larger-than-life masked figures who represented the oriental deity Indra , in various configurations. They moved along an upper deck, like a quai, supported by posts that were studded with glass chimes that sounded at the least wind as if to signal the approach of a vessel.
Also in the series was De la manipulation de Dieu (1975) an original play by Jean Herbiet. It was a play about how religiosity and the established world order conspire together to control societal behavior. The scenes were played against a painted trompe l’oeil background of a great ecclesiatical architecture, with the manipulators as religious acolytes (altar boys). The Speakers were seated on either side, seated in a pair of theatrical box seats and represented orthodoxy, both secular and spiritual - a king, a queen, a cardinal prince of the church and a mother superior. In all three of these shows, we endeavored to keep the manipulators as neutral as possible. There was no officer in charge of the privates in Woyzeck; there was no maitre d’hotel among the waiters in Le Songe, and no church deacon had authority over the acolytes in De la manipulation de Dieu. The speakers were, on the other hand, all about hierarchy and power. It was a recipe that practically suggested itself to us, given the device of the visible manipulators and the need to find a solution that would instantly explain itself to the audience.
The speakers in each case were exaggerated symbols of either temporal or spiritual authority, and their iconic importance was unmistakable. Jean Herbiet was a great believer in the theatrical significance of the icon as am I, raised as I was on the great gory imagery of the saints and martyrs. Somewhat later, Herbiet asked me to design Changement à vu (1980) by the French playwright, Loleh Bellon.
It’s a play about a group of actors who are performing in a production of Hamlet. Each of them is playing one of the key roles (except for Hamlet himself) in the play, and we see them in their dressing room backstage, putting on their costumes and make-up, preparing to go onstage. In the process, we learn much about the relationships between the individual actors as they transform themselves into Polonius, Gertrude, Fortinbras et al, and each becomes a heightened version of himself as they gradually become the characters in the play. The appeal of the play has as much to do with the examination of the métier of the actor as it has with their various psychologies. The costuming and make-ups were large and exaggerated, and the style of the production came about due to our shared faith in the power of the icon.
- View Michael Eagan’s maquette for Changement à vue
- View his costumes for this production in The Secret Life of Costumes.
No discussion of director/designer collaborations in the Canadian theatre is complete without an examination of the body of work produced by the team of director John Wood and designer John Ferguson.
The two first met when Ferguson was fresh from his studies at the National Theatre School in Montreal, where he had been mightily impressed with one of his teachers, Abdul Kadr Farah. He was a scenographer of Algerian background with an international reputation and was on a teaching sabbatical at the school from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), a theatre that was famous at the time for producing the most avant guard work in the world. Wood too had come to learn and absorb the rigor and style of the RSC during a period of apprenticeship he did there in the late 1960's. Both he and Ferguson (through Farah) were imbued with a similar notion of how the contemporary theatre should be presented, and their later work together was a natural outcome and a testament to their shared vision.
Ferguson’s first professional job was at the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) in Winnipeg in the time just after John Hirsch had founded the theatre. John Wood was also working at the MTC at the time, and the two began their partnership there. They did a number of shows, but the most remarkable was their production of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid with the late great actor, Neil Munro, which they remounted at the Stratford Festival. Soon afterwards, Wood was hired as artistic director at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, where they worked together on several projects, notably a production of Hamlet, again with Munro.
From 1977 through to 1984, the Wood/Ferguson collaboration continued at the NAC English theatre, where they added to their already significant œuvre. There was a provocative 1978 production of Troilus and Cressida, followed in rapid succession by an amazingly varied selection of plays from the contemporary and classic repertoire, including Tennessee William’s Camino Real, Shaffer’s Equus, Brecht’s Mother Courage, Orton’s Loot, Shakespeare’s Henry Five (once more with Neil Munro), and a memorable treatment of Aeschylus’ The Orestia in the 1983/1984 season.
According to Ferguson, it was at about this time that he’d become fatigued and had come to feel victimized in the relationship. He left the NAC and Wood to work at the Stratford Festival where he designed a production of The Tempest with the director Robin Phillips. He refused an offer to design the same play with Wood at the NAC, but Ferguson’s association with him resumed at Stratford over the next few seasons, and they collaborated on yet another version of Henry Five and the Sharon Pollack play, One Tiger to a Hill. As recently as 2004, Ferguson designed Macbeth for Wood at Stratford.
Throughout periods of great creativity in Winnipeg, Halifax, the NAC and Stratford, the Wood/Ferguson relationship was forged. They discovered early on that they shared an esthetic, and Ferguson recalls that he believed that Wood was doing the best theatre in Canada. However, these two artists have very different personalities, and what began as a complementary “opposites attract” advantage gradually soured. It is clear that Ferguson came to view Wood as a bully, and he claims that their relationship was toxic near the end.
Though not represented in the NAC archival collection, Director Robin Phillips’ work with the designer Daphne Dare at the Stratford Festival is an interesting and important example of a common approach and a shared esthetic. When Phillips was hired as artistic director at Stratford, he brought Dare along as his designer, and throughout the 1970's and 1980's, they evolved a style of production and design that has been influential in the work of a generation of Canadian designers. John Pennoyer, Christina Poddubiuk, Patrick Clark, Sue LePage and Susan Benson are accomplished theatre artists who all owe something of their individual styles to the Phillips/Dare collaboration.
Theirs was a pared-down minimalism - sometimes icy but often poetic, and invariably expressed with a great sense of history distilled and a kind of Merchant-Ivory elegance - and always infused with a distinct contemporary sensibility. Their production of The Seagull with Maggie Smith and Roberta Maxwell was an achingly beautiful and highly lyrical account of a specific time and place in provincial Russia.
Phillips and Dare gave a new vigor to plays staged on the famous thrust stage of the Stratford Festival Theatre, and together they rethought the space of the more conventional Avon Theatre, for which they conceived a unit setting suitable for presenting a season of plays in repertoire. This new unit set imposed itself on the various productions mounted at the Avon, resulting in a great degree of visual unity, and the shows presented there achieved a style that was as distinctive as those produced at the more well-known Festival Theatre.
Robin Phillips had a highly developed sense of visual style, and Daphne Dare was his ideal collaborator, with her innate refinement and modern sensibility. They brought about a rarefied style of theatre that was at once elegant and minimalist, and the period of their work together is significant and has had considerable influence on scenography in the Canadian theatre. Sadly, towards the end of the 1980's, they fell out. Dare returned to design in Britain, while Phillips remained in Canada and worked with other designers.
A more current manifestation of a director/designer relationship at the NAC English Theatre is the collaboration of the director Peter Hinton with the designer Eo Sharp. They first met some years ago when Hinton had seen a show that she had designed for a small theatre as part of the Montreal Fringe Festival. He called her to congratulate her on her work and asked her to read his just-completed script for a cycle of three epic historical plays, The Swan. Sharp was knocked out by the vision and the scope of the massive project in three parts. Some time later, when The Swan was to be presented over three seasons at the newly completed Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival - a thrust stage with the audience on three sides - Hinton asked her if she would undertake to work with him on the design of the project.
Since her first reading, Sharp explains that she had thought of it in terms of a proscenium-arch theatre, but to stage it on the deep thrust of the Studio required them to rethink their strategy of how to present it visually. It seems that over the three-year period they developed a template - an approach to staging the scenes - that they have used ever since, whenever the project is in a thrust stage configuration, as in their 2009 production of A Christmas Carol at the NAC Theatre.
Hinton and Sharp have also worked on a number of productions in proscenium-arch theatres - Buried Child at the NAC and the Segal Centre in Montreal (2009), and for projects in this configuration, they have developed a second template that is always the starting point for them in the design/scenographic process. The idea of the repeated use of a template may seem formulaic, but it is also the process of building on past experience and is the true mark of the professional artist. It allows the collaborating director and designer to be increasingly deliberate in their allocation of the stage space and precise in their selection of the visual metaphor. Working together, Peter Hinton and Eo Sharp are a fascinating and on-going example of director/designer collaboration.
Thus it is that collective creation and director/designer collaboration come about. It is relatively easy and convenient when there is a shared sensibility, but it can be equally stimulating when the individual esthetics are antithetical, and both the director and designer are forced to revise their ideas to accommodate a common concept. There doesn’t seem to be a fail-proof method for successful artistic collaboration, and inspiration can come from anywhere - the mood evoked by a passage of music, the light in a painting or a newspaper photograph. It may be completely different each time, or it may simply be the comfortable exercise of a familiar pattern of communication. Whatever the key to director/designer relationships, it is as diverse as the individual artists described here, but it always implies an element of mutual trust and respect.
Michael Eagan for ArtsAlive.ca
Montreal, July 3, 2010