Designer Rae Smith: ‘My job is to bring the show to life on stage in its most creative form’
The award-winning designer talks to Catherine Love about the challenges and thrills of turning the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry stage into a theatre in-the-round for festive spectacular The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Next year, the West Yorkshire Playhouse is being transformed by a series of building renovations. Before then, it’s undergoing a different kind of transformation. For this year’s Christmas show – director Sally Cookson’s adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – designer Rae Smith is turning the end-on Quarry auditorium into a theatre-in-the-round.
“It’s thrilling,” the Tony and Olivier award-winning designer says, “because it throws up all kinds of new things.” Smith and Cookson came up with the idea back in January and have since been putting all the practical elements of the transformation in place, from building regulations to stage construction.
It’s a first for the Quarry, which has always been a proscenium arch or thrust space. The added arc of seats – which is being assembled when I visit the theatre – will boost seating capacity from 750 to 1,050 and completely change the dynamics of the space. It has also informed Smith’s approach to the design.
“Our starting point was the fact it was in the round – that it would be much more performer-based,” she explains. “Large props instead of big pieces of scenery, and more to do with a sense of storytelling on an epic scale.”
Smith and Cookson both believe that “the round gives a tremendous sense of community”, allowing audience members to look across and see one another throughout the performance. In this sort of space, storytelling “relies on the collective imagination rather than a lot of scenery”.
The designer has drawn on her previous experience of working at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, which she describes as “a beautiful theatre-in-the-round”. That experience taught her how to do a lot with minimal scenery – something that’s vital in a show that demands a lot of visual storytelling with very little in the way of set.
“We have a number of different worlds,” says Smith. “We have evacuee children leaving Leeds on a train to go up to Scotland, and then we have the house where the professor lives. Then we have Narnia and all the different places there.” The action between these spaces will move quickly, she says, “as fast as the imagination does”.
Three key elements establish the world of Narnia. “We have a ship that comes out of a wall and ice cracking across the stage and a sense of magic floating above us with massive snowballs,” says Smith. “The giant snowballs, the ship and the icy floor can create many different atmospheres because we use them in different ways.
“And a lot of that is down to lighting as well,” she adds. “Not just lighting on top of things, but lighting through things. Those three very strong elements are already in the space, plus the sense of audience. And then on top of that we add stuff.”
Again, imagination is crucial. “All our storytelling is low-tech,” says Smith. “It’s all quite old-fashioned storytelling. I don’t mean to say there are not extraordinary things happening, but it’s done in a very hands-on way. It’s the trick of the eye rather than the trick of hydraulics.”
There will also be an aspect of audience interaction: “We make things they can touch and feel and become a part of.”
Smith stresses that the design has emerged in response to the rehearsal process. “The process of rehearsal is creative and my job as designer is to facilitate that creativity,” she explains. “I work with Tom Paris, my design associate, and together we come up with things that go into the rehearsal room and come out the other side as a design – or not, as the case may be. So although we have a plan of how to attack it before we start, we mainly do it in rehearsals.”
She suggests that Cookson’s way of working with an ensemble “creates a deeper, more meaningful sense of storytelling” and compares the process with her recent work on Barber Shop Chronicles and Girl from the North Country. “In those cases the design was very much a part of the rehearsal process. The design isn’t a picture that’s imposed on the acting, it’s a part of the imaginative world which the actors and the creative team have inhabited and thought about.”
Practically, this throws up challenges. “What’s extraordinary about [Cookson’s] work is her energy and imagination every day – tenacious and unstoppable, keeping things going, keeping them alive and keeping them magical. It can be tiring for people who build things, because things change all the time and when you build something you commit to something.”
Smith’s job is partly to act as go-between, connecting the imagination of the rehearsal room with the skill of the builders and makers. She describes her role as “helping the sense of magic in the rehearsal room appear on stage in its most creative form”. She also praises the team at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, adding that “it might be tiring or slightly unorthodox, but people here are skilled enough to cope with it”.
I’ve told myself not to worry about the fact that it’s such a well-known epic, because you’ve got to stay true to the situation you’re in and be as creative as possible.
A further challenge is posed by the familiarity of CS Lewis’ beloved book. “Of course it’s quite intimidating, because it’s such a classic and it’s in everybody’s mind,” says Smith. “I’ve told myself not to worry about the fact that it’s such a well-known epic, because you’ve got to stay true to the situation you’re in and be as creative as possible in that situation and create something that’s beautiful and enchanting. That’s the job, so stop worrying and get on with it.”
When designing the look of iconic characters such as the White Witch and Aslan, Smith has considered them in terms of their personalities. “We’re talking about qualities rather than images,” she tells me, contrasting Aslan’s warm qualities with the White Witch’s frosty ones. “Literally the queen lives in the spectrum of cold, blue, steely colours and Aslan lives in the spectrum of warm, orange light.”
While most fans of the book will think of the magic of Narnia, Smith points out that it’s also a story about the trauma of war and displacement. “It’s the story of children taken out of their homes away from their parents and put somewhere because of a war where they have to survive and the terror of that, which essentially brings on the feeling of Narnia.
“The world they’re in is terrifying, because they’re helpless in it,” she adds. “They basically have to put up and shut up. Children are helpless in war; it happens to them. That shouldn’t be the case, but it happens. And this is a story about that too.”
Smith hopes that her design and Cookson’s storytelling can convey this darker aspect of the narrative. She wants young audience members to get “a sense of who the children are and what they go through”.
Primarily, though, Smith wants the experience to be a magical one, starting from the moment audiences enter the transformed auditorium. “For those of us who are used to the Quarry as it is, being in this new space is a thrill. It’s a familiar space you know, but there’s something new and mad about it, and that’s a thrilling start.”
CV: Rae Smith
Born: 1972, London
Training: Central St Martins School of Art
Landmark productions: The Street of Crocodiles (1992, 1999), The Weir (1997), Dublin Carol (2000), St Joan (2007), War Horse (2007), This House (2012), The Light Princess (2013), Wonder.land (2015)
Awards: Tony award for War Horse (2011), Drama Desk special award for War Horse (2011), Olivier award for War Horse (2008), Obie award for Oliver Twist (2007), Evening Standard award for War Horse (2007), Critics’ Circle award for War Horse (2007), South Bank award for St Joan (2007)
Agent: Mel Kenyon