How a Shakespeare play comes together

A play that was written in the 1500s is unfolding right in front your eyes like it was a modern day play, except for the fact that it’s in Shakespearean language. Have you ever wondered how that is possible?

There’s a lot that goes into putting together a Royal Shakespeare Company production.

The theme has to be chosen and the sets have to be created. The director decides on a theme for the play. Shakespeare productions have been put on numerous times, so the director has to come up with a way to make the play fresh.

Recently the RSC put on a performance of Julius Caesar set in Africa, a decision that was made by artistic director, Greg Doran.

He felt that Julius Caesar has characteristics of Africa and African politics, according to Simon Marsden, the technical director of the RSC. Doran even believes that Shakespeare might have written Julius Caesar with Africa in mind, even though the play wasn’t set in Africa at that time.

“From that starting point and from the premise of wanting to have an all-black cast the play evolved,” said Marsden.

The next step is for the director and designer to calibrate on the setting for the show.

Marsden said they would take into consideration the different elements of the play in terms of setting and create a set that can fulfil those needs.

According to the associate designer of the RSC, Tom Piper, the director will approach the designer and will either have a strong idea on how he wants the play to be done or they will just be interested in doing a certain play.

There is a lot of initial discussion that goes on between the director and designer about possible sets and scenes.

“It really depends on the relationship between the director and the designer and how that develops,” said Piper.

He said you begin by collecting lots of references like paintings, photographs, any artists you admire as a designer, particular buildings or sometimes period references of clothes or paintings, anything that inspires you in relation to the play.

Piper said that his process is to gather those items and then create sketches. Some designers create storyboards that go through each moment of the play.

He said you have to think about the amount of people in the space, if they’re going through doors or need to sit down and eventually create a three dimensional model.

“It’s not a finished version of the ideas. It’s exploring shapes and textures and often meetings with the director can change these radically, and ideas can change and develop,” said Piper.

Once you “feel you’ve got the right sort of world for the play,” you have to figure out if the creation is financially viable, he added.

Piper was approached to design the set for Much Ado About Nothing for the World Shakespeare Festival this year with the idea that the play would be set in India. He worked with director Iqbal Khan and they went to Delhi for research.

While they were in Delhi they went to an Indian wedding, toured old Delhi and met lots of interesting people that were good role models for the characters.

Piper took lots of photographs as well.

“We ended up with kind of a naturalistic looking set of an old Indian house and then it was dominated by a huge big tree that was completely tangled up with cables and old wire, like I’d seen in bits of old Delhi,” said Piper.

But, sometimes an idea for a set doesn’t work once the design is put on stage.

Piper worked on a cycle of history plays a while ago. All of the plays had been set in a medieval or renaissance setting. It was a very modern and abstract set with metal and gold with period costumes.

They had the idea of setting Richard III in the future with contemporary costumes. They wanted to cover the stage with a white dance cloth to cover the metal and give the stage an art gallery feel.

When they started technical rehearsals they realised that the concept did not work for the play. The actors felt like they were on an infinity screen where people get disconnected from everything around them. They ended up cutting it completely.

“A lot of my process, especially with directors like Michael Boyd, are about actually refining a show so that you gradually prove in a way that things are unnecessary, not helping to tell the story or are confusing,” said Piper.

The first technical rehearsals are still a creative part of the production. This takes four or five days because the actors and crew are going through the play very slowly. This is the first time the lighting designer has seen the actors and costumes. They will also run through the music and sound cues.

“Everyone’s discovering the space and how to tell the story,” said Piper.

The production crew are all working towards a deadline of opening night and Piper said it’s hard to be clear headed when you’re behind on building or something is not working. You have to make “brutal decisions” and might have to decide not to do something even though you want to.

After the play has been performed 50 or 60 times the production may go on tour. One of the places RSC travel to is their third home of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.

“The big change is that our stages are completely different sizes and shapes,” said chief executive of the Theatre Royal, Philip Bernays.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is a thrust stage and the Theatre Royal stage is a proscenium arch.

The RSC stage is deeper and sticks out into the audience. The Theatre Royal is a much shallower stage. This means the set has to be rebuilt.

Piper said to get the actors on the steps in the Julius Caesar set everything had to been shortened off and maybe made a little wider to fit the proscenium.

When the RSC first arrive at the Theatre Royal they have a week in the theatre before opening night. They have three or four days to put the set up and then another couple of days for technical rehearsals.

According to Bernays’, they consulted with the RSC when they completed their restoration last year and when they did work in 2006/07. They wanted to make sure they were making the right adjustments that would suit them.

The theatre is hoping to reduce the time it takes for the RSC to set up by two or three days. This is partly because the work that has been done has made it easier and quicker for them.

For the 2013 season, RSC will tour Hamlet, As You Like It and All’s Well that End’s Well.

Bernays has said they want Hamlet most of all because it sells well.

Bernays added: “We actually have very little control or influence over what show’s the RSC bring to us. They’re programming their shows for Stratford, for London, other international work and possibly touring. We’re just a part of that much bigger picture.”

Assignment for master’s program in Portfolio I. 

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