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Theatre design

by Bill Guest

By the opening night of a play, opera or ballet, theatre designers have already put in a lot of work creating the set, costumes, lighting and sound.

Set design

Theatre design – also referred to as stage design, performance design and scenography – includes set, lighting, costume and audiovisual elements. The scope of theatre design in New Zealand ranges in scale from opera and ballet in large traditional theatres such as the St James in Wellington and the Regent Theatre in Dunedin, through to drama and contemporary dance performances in smaller venues such as Bats Theatre in Wellington and the Maidment Theatre in Auckland.

Realist influences

Until the second half of the 20th century the concept of theatre design in New Zealand was strongly influenced by productions touring from Australia, Britain and continental Europe. These were performed mainly in large proscenium-arch venues (theatres with a rectangular frame around the stage), in the larger towns and cities. The sides and back of the stage were typically lined with flat screens painted in a naturalistic style to suggest the setting of the performance.

Simple sets

For Downstage Theatre’s 1974 production of The zoo story, the set, wrote reviewer Bruce Mason, was ‘a single park bench on a wooden rostrum … When the play began, audiences and actors were at once merged in a creative unity.’1 Two years later Wellington’s Circa Theatre used a building saved from demolition for the first-ever performance of Glide time. Actor Peter Harcourt said, ‘The stage was hardly more than a cleared area in the middle of the floor … the drab, dingy and dispirited workhouse of an obscure minor department in our vast bureaucracy.’2

Local professional theatre

From the 1960s there was a significant increase in local professional theatre, notably in drama. These productions favoured more intimate performance venues such as converted halls, university studio theatres and spaces not previously used for performing. Wellington’s Downstage Theatre was at the forefront of this movement, opening its first production in 1964 at Victoria University’s Little Theatre before moving to the Walkabout Coffee Bar in Courtenay Place and then the Star Boating Club in 1969. It was not until 1973 that Downstage occupied a purpose-designed and -built theatre on the site of the coffee bar.

Reconfiguring the theatre

The use of smaller, more intimate performance spaces placed greater emphasis on lighting and costume design to establish locale and create atmosphere. With audiences seated in arena (surrounding the performing area) or traverse (on both sides of the performing area) configurations, large naturalistic scenic units proved impractical as they obscured the audience’s view of the performing area. Instead, smaller scenic modules were used, often simplified or abstract in design. A style of theatre emerged in which performers and design elements occupied the same physical and atmospheric space as the audience.

At its extreme, site-specific or found spaces such as public lawns or vacant office buildings were chosen for their unique architectural or natural settings. These required very little, if any, additional staging to support design concepts. ‘Theatre design’ in these circumstances is often simply a matter of audience placement.

With the traditional barriers between the acting area and auditorium reduced, a new relationship between performer and audience was established. The audience’s imagination was employed to help create the performance environment.

Raymond Boyce

New Zealand’s first professional stage designer was Raymond Boyce, a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Arts in London, who became resident designer at Scotland’s Dundee Repertory Company. He arrived in New Zealand in 1953 and joined Richard Campion’s New Zealand Players. Later, as resident designer for Downstage, he designed over 100 productions and became the design consultant for their new home, the Hannah Playhouse, in the 1970s. His impressive set and costume designs for drama, major opera and ballet, ranging from minimalist to high baroque, set the standard for professional stage design in New Zealand.

Other stage designers

Other practitioners to advance the scope and vision of stage design in New Zealand from the 1960s, across a wide range of theatre forms, have included Grant Tilly, John Parker, Tony Rabbit, John Verryt, Dorita Hannah, Tracy Grant Lord, Tolis Papazoglou, Tracey Collins and Tony de Goldi.

    • Quoted in John Smythe, Downstage upfront: the first 40 years of New Zealand’s longest-running professional theatre. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004, p. 31. Back
    • Peter Harcourt, A dramatic appearance: New Zealand theatre 19201970. Wellington: Methuen, 1978, p. 169. Back

Costume, lighting and sound design

Costume design

A theatre designer working in New Zealand is often responsible for both set and costumes. But for some costume is a singular specialisation, particularly for large-scale productions such as opera and ballet, where a strong emphasis is placed on costume to reveal the narrative and characters on stage.

The job of costumes

In 1948, as New Zealand stage design was beginning to venture beyond the bounds of realism, Wellington artist and designer Helen Hitchings gave her views on the role of costume design: ‘Stage clothes have a variety of duties. It may be necessary for them to indicate time – the hour of the day, the season, summer or winter, as well as the period. As well, they may need to indicate a particular occasion. Their shape and colour must point a type and personality. They must sketch the mood and atmosphere of the particular moment and of the whole play.’1

New Zealand-born Kristian Fredrikson was a major early influence in costume design. Although he worked mainly in Australia, he had a long association with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and was known for his opulent set and costume designs.

Other major costume designers working in New Zealand have included Elizabeth Whiting, Leslie Burkes-Harding, Kate Hawley and Gillie Coxhill. Their transferable design and technical skills also allow them to work in film and television production. Ngila Dickson won an Oscar for her costume designs for the third film in the Lord of the rings trilogy.

Lighting design

The shift to open staging, particularly for drama productions, increased the importance of stage lighting as a way to establish locale, define acting areas and create atmosphere. From the 1980s the dramatic potential of stage lighting as a prime design element signalled the emergence of specialist lighting designers. Jeremy Collins was among the first to expand this craft, working mainly at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland, and on numerous large operas and musicals. This experience was used to great advantage when Collins bought Selecon, a small New Zealand lighting company, which he developed into a recognised global leader in stage lighting fixtures.

Light years behind

In 1988 veteran theatre designer Tony Rabbit recalled sitting at the lighting controls of Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre during a production of Glide time, while reading a book by a European lighting designer. ‘I’d look out on the stage and then I’d read this book some more and I almost cried. What really upset me was that this book was really old, like 1970 or something … and it was light years [in advance of] the stage out there. We were doing plays and the book was about theatre. The difference is enormous.’2

Joe Hayes, a contemporary of Jeremy Collins, also advanced stage lighting design in New Zealand on productions at the Court Theatre, Canterbury Opera, Christchurch Operatic and Southern Ballet. Other notable lighting designers in New Zealand include Tony Rabbit, Phil and Stephen Blackburn, Marc Simpson, Ian Nicholls, Paul O’Brien and Helen Todd – best known for her work in modern dance, especially with MAU dance and theatre company.

Image projection

Image projection, allowing instant changes between locations, became popular for live performances towards the end of the 20th century, mainly as an alternative to building and managing physical sets. But in practice it provided little more than a modern equivalent of the painted backdrop. The light output from many earlier projectors was also poor when compared to the greater intensity of stage lighting. As a result, lighting designers often found themselves having to serve the projections rather than meeting the overall lighting needs of a production.

Advances in projection and digital technology, with large amounts of content able to be stored on media servers, made projection a more useful theatre design tool. A better understanding of the creative application of projection also advanced this art form, particularly in modern dance and physical theatre. The fusing of live action and video technology allowed performers to interact with projected imagery.

Sound design

Until the late 20th century the only available tools for amplifying and adding to the sound during theatre productions were clunky tape recorders, turntables and primitive analogue mixing consoles. These limited the use of sound in live performance. The introduction of compact discs, MiniDiscs and other technology in the 1990s, and then the arrival of low-cost quality digital audio equipment, gave sound designers greater flexibility and control of their art form. In the early 2000s it was common practice to have soundscapes included as part of the overall design concept, to reinforce and enhance dramatic impact. Notable sound designers to advance this art form have included Nigel Scott, Chris Ward and Stephen Gallagher.

    • Helen Hitchings, ‘Design in the theatre.’ Design Review 1, no. 4 (December 1948), p. 5. Back
    • Quoted in ‘Lighting up design.’ OnFilm (April–May 1988), pp. 50–51. Back

New directions in theatre design

Theatre design training

Formal programmes to train theatre designers did not exist in New Zealand until 2003, when Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School (usually known as Toi Whakaari) and Massey University School of Creative Arts joined forces to deliver a degree in performance design. The qualification was disestablished in 2010 because of concerns over the financial sustainability of the joint programme. In 2013 Toi Whakaari began to offer its own design degree, the Bachelor of Design (Stage and Screen). This qualification encouraged greater participation between directors, designers and other practitioners in the performing arts environment.

Dorita Hannah

Some New Zealand stage designers have become internationally recognised for their work. Dorita Hannah trained as an architect before specialising in design for performance. She was production designer for three bicultural New Zealand plays produced for Taki Rua Theatre’s Te Roopu Whakaari season in Wellington and Auckland in 1994–95. She later worked in Prague, Athens and Perth, as well as at several International Arts Festivals in New Zealand.

Design collaboration

In the 21st century it is not unusual to have several designers from separate disciplines assuming leadership roles on a single production. Integrating set, lighting, costume and audiovisual elements allows the design team to play a greater role in the production process. Theatre designers in all fields have become initiators and prime collaborators in the directorial process. This in turn has advanced the visual appeal of theatre in the 21st century, opening up a multitude of sensory possibilities to engage future audiences.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Bill Guest, 'Theatre design', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Bill Guest, published 22 October 2014