From Parisian hotel interiors to Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows, designer Laura Léonard can put her hand to anything. She tells Nick Smurthwaite about her love for flea markets and aspirations to work in British theatre
One of the oddest shows to be found at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Fishbowl has made its way across the English Channel after playing 120 towns in France and picking up the prestigious Molière Award for Comedy.
Its main distinguishing feature is that it is dialogue-free, putting a lot of emphasis on performance, visual gags and the set designs, which are the work of the young French stage and interiors designer Laura Léonard.
Léonard divides her time between theatre, music and interior design, having trained in architectural design at the Ecole Camondo in Paris.
She says: “If you know how to design a house, you know how to design a stage set. I always knew I wanted to do scenography, even when I enrolled on the course. I was the only one in my year who did a set design project for my final-year diploma. It allowed me to be different.”
Léonard grew up on the outskirts of Paris and says she was never without her paint box and pad as a youngster. She was taken by her parents every weekend to Parisian flea markets, which held little interest for a child. “Almost without knowing it I developed a passion for them and I now go to flea markets every weekend in search of beautiful objects, props, inspiration and ideas for my work. My favourite is Clignancourt.”
She enjoys mixing up artefacts of different styles and eras. In her design for the Hotel du Temps, for instance, she put a 1970s lamp next to a Gothic moulding, and a leather upholstered bench next to a golden radiator mesh. She says the idea is to “allow the imagination to wander”.
Her approach to theatre design is equally spontaneous and eclectic. “In order to create a universe that derives from a set text you must do a lot of reading and research into the background of the play, which is something I enjoy. I am an eternal student. At some point you must know when to stop the research, close your eyes and allow your imagination to take over. It is important to achieve that balance between intelligence and imagination.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Repairing rackets in a tennis club.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Set and costume design for Quelqu’un va Venir by Jon Fosse at La Scène Watteau.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Not knowing everything is actually a good thing.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Art in general.
What’s your best advice for designers?
Keep in shape.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
President of France.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I wear green pants.
Her first theatre project was a play called Someone Is Going to Come by the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse at La Scene Watteau, Nogent-sur-Marne in 2009, for which she designed both the set and the costumes. “It was quite stressful, being my first official show. We were a dynamic group of young friends who believed in what we were doing. We were able to achieve what we set out to do, and then reproduce it on other stages.”
She has worked several times with the performance artist James Thiérrée, grandson of Charlie Chaplin, whose dance-drama Tabac Rouge came to Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 2014. Thiérrée puts great emphasis on the design of his shows, seeing the set as “a living character that moves with the performers”.
Reviewing Tabac Rouge for the Guardian, Luke Jennings described its effects as follows: “Vast edifices of scaffolding and mirrored sheeting are wheeled at speed around the stage. Desks are piled high with books, papers and mid-20th-century office salvage – at times the stage is so jammed with period junk it resembles a repository.”
She is already working on a new show with Thiérrée that will take place later this year.
Léonard’s work on Fishbowl – or Bigre, to give the show its original French title – is a lot more structured. Described as “a physical comedy extravaganza”, it brings together an accident-prone hoarder, a karaoke-loving gadget geek and an attractive career woman all living in tiny apartments under the same roof.
The director Pierre Guillois, who also appears in it, spent many months developing the show and timing the visual gags to perfection.
Léonard says: “I worked very closely with Pierre because he knew what he wanted and the design was very much a close collaboration between us. At the beginning, to sell the project to the theatre, we built a rough replica of the set to show them how it would be. I’d never done that before.
“When it was offered to me, I agreed to do the show even though there was no money in it for me and the actors were all crazy. They were willing to try anything on stage so there was a long period of improvisation. My job was to facilitate their performance. We continued to work on it for months after it opened, refining the set and making changes to the special effects and sight gags.”
One of the reviews talked about “Laura Léonard’s extraordinarily ingenious set”, combining “three apartments all with their fourth walls missing and with only bare studs, no walls between them”.
Léonard says running around juggling several jobs at the same time keeps her “in good shape” . In addition to Fishbowl, she is currently designing a new comedy club in Paris, Madame Sarfati, opening in September, and working with the French singer Christophe Mae.
It seems it is as difficult to make a living from scenography in France as it is in the UK.
“I make some money from working with French singers and performers, such as Alice Taglioni and Cecile Cassel, and from doing interior design for bars and hotels, such as Le Rosie and Hotel du Temps,” she says.
She worked as art director on the stylish 2017 Franco-Belgian thriller Carnivores, directed by brothers and actors Jeremiah and Yannick Renier, making their directorial debut.
“It was the most intense experience of my life,” explains Léonard. “I hardly had any sleep for two months but I was very proud of my work and thrilled to be art director of a movie.
“I would love to work on other movies, but I’d need to really be in love with the project because it takes at least three months of your life and it is very hard work. You can’t do other things at the same time.”
One of Léonard’s regrets about working as a scenographer and interior designer in France is the difficulty obtaining an agent. She says: “The only creatives in France with agents are photographers and actors. They don’t seem to want to represent designers, which means I have to do all my own negotiations. I’d love to have an agent because I really don’t enjoy that side of my business. It would be great to be able to hand it over to someone who has my interests at heart.”
She says she would love to work with a British company at some point in the future. “We French are greatly admiring of British theatre, and I’m aware that English actors are amazing. It is definitely something I’d like to do if the opportunity arose.”
Born: Paris, 1982
Training: Ecole Camondo, 2001-05
• Winter, Theatre de l’Atelier, (2009)
• L’Affaire de la Rue, Theatre de la Pepiniere (2009)
• Fume Cette Cigarette, Theatre des Mathurins (2011)
• Tabac Rouge, Compagne du Hanneton (2013-15)
• Carnivores, film (2017)
• Bigre/Fishbowl touring France, and Edinburgh Fringe (2015-19)
Fishbowl is at Pleasance Courtyard (Grand) from July 31-August 26. For more information click here