Gary McCann is one of UK’s most in-demand designers, working on shows from touring musicals to international operas. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about how his working-class roots have instilled a strong work ethic, how the job still tests him 25-years on and his secret weapon in recreating the 1960s Cavern Club for Cilla the Musical
Every theatre designer’s skill set is multifarious, but often the hardest skill of all is the least showy – research and development, the scholarly slog that precedes the concept, the creative meetings, the model box and the creation of the set.
In the case of Cilla the Musical, currently touring the UK, designer Gary McCann was lucky enough to have a unique resource right on his doorstep: the producer and director of the show, Bill Kenwright.
A Scouser born and bred, Kenwright grew up in the Liverpool of the 1960s and 1970s and was a regular visitor to the Cavern Club, where Cilla Black and the Beatles, among others, started out.
“Bill was there at that time in history, he hung out in the Cavern Club. He knew how that community functioned, so he was my main source of reference for the show,” says McCann. “It gave me an extraordinary window into that place and time.”
Given that musicals often provide the biggest challenge for designers, how did McCann approach Cilla when he was first contracted to do it?
Designing a musical is like a Rubik’s Cube: you’ve got to keep turning until all the pieces fall into place
“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, you’ve just got to keep turning until all the pieces eventually fall into place. When I get a script I read it over and over in order to work out the heart of the story and how I am going to solve a thousand logistical problems.”
Like most high-end designers, McCann has worked in many different areas in his 25-year career and he says musicals are the most problematic.
“They’re always immensely complicated,” he says. “Both Cilla and Saturday Night Fever [opening later this month] have 25 to 30 scene changes each, and they all have to happen within seconds. It’s like designing a machine that has to move constantly, instantly and seamlessly yet stay in one place. Touring shows such as these are especially hard to get right because of all the different spaces you’re having to think about.”
He continues: “With Cilla, we wanted it to feel like the 1960s, with the Cavern Club as it was, and genuine working-class Liverpool interiors. It needed a sense of authenticity, as well as a sense of intimacy even though you’re often playing these big old Victorian venues.”
As well as the big musicals, McCann has also reunited with director Rachel O’Riordan – they won an Olivier award earlier this year for Killology at the Royal Court – for the West End transfer of Foxfinder at the Ambassadors in September, which started out at the Finborough.
Set in a dystopian future, the play required realistic settings from McCann. He says: “Again there were a lot of scene changes so it was a question of making them look seamless within the confines of the tiny space at our disposal.”
This year alone, McCann has designed six shows, if you include Cilla, which actually started last year. Would he describe himself as a workaholic?
“Yes, totally,” he says. “This year has been absurdly busy, back-to-back shows, sometimes overlapping. I strive for everything to be perfect, but you have to be realistic within the constraints of whatever budget you’re given. Achieving a work-life balance in this game is very hard indeed.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Life-class model in an art school.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Designing Durrenmatt’s The Visit at the Lyric, Belfast, in 1997.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That you need to knock on doors to push yourself forward.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Seeing Handel’s Theodora, directed by Peter Sellars, on my portable TV in Portadown. It was such a beautiful fusion of music and design.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. Come the opening of the show I usually feel fairly relaxed.
McCann grew up on a council estate in Portadown, Northern Ireland, in the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t over-endowed with cultural stimulus.
His parents, both factory workers, made sure he went to good schools and, after a one-year art foundation course at Belfast Tech, he decided to combine his interest in English literature and art by studying theatre design at Nottingham Trent.
He says: “I liked how practical and hands-on the course in Nottingham was. It was noted for the very specific and tangible skills you are left with. I was motivated and hard-working.”
For any theatre design graduate, the hard part is trying to find work in an overcrowded market after you’ve left college. McCann found his Northern Irish background served him well.
“People there were eager to give me a break,” he recalls. “I worked at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, as well as some of the smaller venues in the city. It helped me to put what I had learned into practice and get enough experience and confidence to keep at it.”
His first big break was the 2002 show Hurricane, about the champion snooker player Alex Higgins. It was directed by his friend and long-time collaborator O’Riordan, and written and performed by Richard Dormer. “It kind of launched all three of us,” says McCann. “Hurricane was more like a rock’n’roll event than ordinary theatre. People loved it and the audience was far more representative of society than most theatre audiences.”
The trajectory for designers can often be less than stellar and McCann became a design teacher at the University of Kent for a while in order to make ends meet.
He recalls: “The irony was that as I soon as I started teaching in 2007, I got my best theatre job to date – Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters – from Live Theatre in Newcastle, which went on to be staged at the National, in the West End, on Broadway and on tour. The whole thing lasted for about four years and it took me to a whole different level.”
McCann felt a particular affinity with that play, which concerned the unexpected artistic attainment of a group of Geordie miners, because of his own modest, working-class background.
Soon after The Pitmen Painters had run its course, McCann started to design opera, his first commission was Fidelio for director John Cox and Garsington Opera in 2009. He has since directed opera all over the world, from Russia to the US. How does designing opera compare to designing stage plays and musicals?
“Opera is all about the inter-connectedness of music and image,” he says. “The words are not as important as they are in a stage play, so your role is to be a visual storyteller. You must also find ways of assisting the singers by creating acoustic spaces. In a way it is more of a designer’s medium. There is more opportunity to create exciting and adventurous work in opera, so the designer is made to feel more important.”
McCann likes that world opera tends to judge someone on their talent and track record, not according to their class or background. He says: “Classist attitudes still exist in UK theatre, which can sometimes prevent working-class actors and creatives from getting on. I’m able to work at the highest level in international opera and yet I’d say that isn’t true of my UK theatre work.”
He believes it is harder for young people coming into theatre design now than it was when he started out. “There are probably too many young people graduating from art and drama colleges, ill-prepared to make a decent living,” he says. “When I take on assistants, as I have to sometimes, I feel I’m having to teach them things they ought to have learned on their degree courses. You’re rolling the dice when you go into our business. You have to be incredibly focused and capable, not to mention lucky, in order to succeed.”
The tiny minority who make it to the top as theatre designers are well rewarded, but as McCann knows only too well, they are constantly aware of the need to maintain standards and take on new challenges. He says: “I love what I do and how it tests me, but even after 25 years I still feel I have to accept every project that comes my way. It means I often finish up with an impossible workload.”
Born: Portadown, Northern Ireland, November 25, 1973
Training: Nottingham Trent theatre design course (1993-96)
• Hurricane, Soho Theatre, London, Arts Theatre, London, UK tour (2003-06)
• The Pitmen Painters, Live Theatre, Newcastle, National Theatre, London, Broadway (2007-11)
• Die Fledermaus, Norwegian National Opera (2012)
• Ariadne Auf Naxos, Nederlands Reisopera (2016)
• Macbeth/Der Freischutz, Vienna State Opera (2016)
• Illuminations, Aldeburgh Festival (2016)
• The Golden Cockerell, Santa De Opera (2017)
• Cilla the Musical, UK tour (2017-18)
• Killology, Royal Court Theatre, London; Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (2017)
• Saturday Night Fever, UK tour (2018)
Agent: Mark Price at Amanda Howard Associates
Cilla the Musical is touring the UK – ending on December 1 at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe