Designer Christopher Oram: ‘Disney’s Frozen is bigger than all my other shows added together’
Christopher Oram landed a huge gig when Disney brought him on to design the theatre adaptation of the highest-grossing animation ever. Mark Shenton talks to him about bringing Elsa and her magical surroundings to life, getting used to backstage rules in the US and working with partner Michael Grandage
Christopher Oram has worked on some of the most high-profile stages on both sides of the Atlantic. From his long-term artistic home at the Donmar Warehouse to the Almeida, from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company to New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Broadway. But the designer is in no doubt that his biggest show to date is about to open: a stage adaptation of Disney’s Frozen, the highest-grossing animation of all time.
“Frozen is probably bigger than all my other shows added together,” he says, sitting at his design desk – one so complicated it could double for a pilot’s flight deck – at the back of the dress circle of Broadway’s St James Theatre.
“The scale is a scale of expectation ultimately – the requirement to deliver specific beats [of such a well-known film] beyond interpreting material,” he says. “When you design a Shakespeare play, you hope to serve it – but ultimately you are putting your own slant on it. There’s much more of a requirement with this to meet an audience’s expectations in terms of what they’ve come to see, and paid a considerable amount of money to come to see.”
Frozen’s numbers are extraordinary. The story based on the Snow Queen about princesses Anna and Elsa is not just the most successful cartoon ever, it is the third highest-grossing original film of all time, and the highest-grossing title of 2013.
This means the audience will arrive with a strong idea of what the production should look like. “The good news is that we are inheriting an incredibly vivid and beautiful visual vocabulary. Norway in the mid-1800s is very different from most things you get to explore,” Oram says.
“And Elsa is a magic queen, so there’s a whole vocabulary of magic you can explore as she builds ice palaces; there are not a lot of real references you can draw on so you have a reasonably free palette.”
Nobody at Disney insisted the creative team had to recreate specific moments from the film, the designer says. “But I respect and love animated movies, and I know how much incredibly detailed work goes into making them.”
Oram and his team went to Norway to research, just as the animators did before them. “They had seen the same fjords, palaces and stave churches that we did. We went on the same tour as them, visiting certain key areas,” he says.
“We saw it and then we looked at the movie again, and could see how the cathedral and coronation chapel is the same one that we went to. We visited a fjord and saw the light and scale of it, and it was very easy to see how the story is able to be told. So one inherits that incredible breadth of vision, and it is an amazing resource to pull from.”
Oram loves animated films, and Frozen “was the biggie”. When he first met Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Group and lead producer on the show, to talk about the possibility of collaborating, “we quickly discovered that we had a lot in common, starting with a love of this material. And his favourite film is also my favourite film: Lilo and Stitch.”
Creating a theatrical version of the film in three dimensions of course provided additional challenges, not least logistically. “We are in a relatively constricted space, and we have to take the audience from the girls’ bedroom to the ballroom to the chapel to a garden and the courtyard – and that’s even before we’ve left the castle,” Oram says. The characters then go up a mountain and build an ice palace before heading to a general store and sauna.
“You have to be economical at how you do it,” the designer says. “Everything is pulling double duty at some level: the borders become the ice walls and the backdrop for certain things, and LEDs and lights are built into a lot of things, so we have multiple looks and locations and we can’t be restricted by the architecture. We are also trying to keep it as fluid as possible and keep the show moving. We don’t want to have to stop to set up a scene.”
Space at a premium
During a tour of the stage and backstage areas, the designer points out how every bit of space is used. It was so constricted in fact that the theatre had to be rebuilt to add extra feet to fit in the new video wall at the back. The tour included a visit to the basement where a massive revolve has also been installed, alongside an enormous dry-ice machine that will provide the swirling mists that regularly engulf the stage.
The production is directed by Oram’s partner Michael Grandage, the former artistic director of the Donmar. They came on board in October 2016 after Disney decided to replace the previous creative team, helmed by director Alex Timbers and veteran designer Bob Crowley.
“We have to understand and remember about all of one’s work and life that this material is bigger than any of us. We are the current custodians of this piece, and appear to have been able to shepherd it to the stage,” Oram says diplomatically with a nod to those who worked on it before.
The timing meant they had to work fast and efficiently. “In the classic way in which doing a show at the Donmar with limited resources, facilities and space made you economical with your materials and freed you up to do good work, the same thing has happened here,” he says.
“With the relatively limited amount of time we had, we didn’t have time to doofus around and play at the wrong end of the pool. We were focused and controlled.”
After joining, Oram had two months to design the show to a point where it could be properly costed. Then the process sped on, through building the set, to opening the show on stage in Denver last summer, and now to its opening on Broadway. He says: “It’s been a phenomenally quick turnaround – given that set was built in England, Canada and the States – and we’ve also done three workshops, plus our out-of-town run.”
It’s been almost his full-time job since joining the project, though he also managed to honour an earlier commitment to Northern Ballet to design its production of Casanova: “I had a brilliant time doing that, and managed to work around this.”
There’s another connection to the ballet company. The kit to perform the “ice strike” set-piece – where Elsa first shows her power in front of the coronation guests – was built by a company called New Substance in Leeds. “That’s where Northern Ballet are too, and I’d walk past their offices every day on my way to work when I was doing Casanova there.”
Oram usually designs in his studio at home in Shepherd’s Bush, but it was not big enough to fully realise his ideas for Frozen. Instead, Disney set up a scenic design studio for him in New York at its New Amsterdam Theatre. He says: “It was on the secret 10th floor that no one knows about. It was just a room full of boxes, right in the apex of the building, but they cleared them out and it became the ‘Frozen design suite’, as it is known rather glamorously now.”
It is very much a collaborative process, and he has a big team around him. Oram has two senior design associates: Tim Mackabee, who has been his associate on most of the shows he has brought over from the UK to Broadway, and Frank McCullough, who had worked on the show with the previous team. There are two costume associates, Amanda Seymour and David Kaley, and two props specialists. “Each department has two heads – it was the only way of making it happen.”
Often on big musicals, costumes become another designer’s responsibility, but Oram has taken on this huge additional job himself. “I love doing costume. It’s all part of the same picture and same process. I’m used to juggling that. And I’m not going to let someone else do that dress,” he says, referring to Elsa’s famous look. “I don’t consider that I’m doing separate jobs: you just design the show. I don’t have any aspirations to direct, but you sometimes direct by default, by where you put a door. If you put it in the centre, you create a central entrance.”
Working with the right people has also been essential. “Having people I’ve worked with before who know my taste and way of working meant it wasn’t like being in a room full of strangers,” he says, and of course, he has to delegate: “I don’t make my own costumes or paint my own scenery.”
Even if he wanted to, strict union rules prevent him from taking direct action: “There’s that famous thing here of not being able to touch props or move anything because that’s someone else’s job. It’s all about understanding how to -delegate – you’re not encouraged to go up a ladder to paint a bit of scenery, that’s someone else’s job; it’s your job just to note it. You take notes, you work through them; it needs more patience.”
He says: “You have to schedule very carefully. Things take longer here – in London you can get things done in half the time, because you are working around the clock; here they don’t do that, they don’t work nights, you work a very specific day.”
Disney never announces its budgets, not even to its designers. “They had a figure in mind, but they didn’t let on what it was. Nothing comes for free; everything is questioned and debated. They don’t just write blank cheques, they’re always up for conversations. Tom Schumacher is a great, great collaborator.”
The show has continued to develop, supported by Disney. After the run in Denver, the creative team members went on a four-day retreat where they revised the script. Oram says: “Between Denver and New York, we’ve been able to bring in things that were part of our original ideas, but we didn’t achieve there.
“We now have a new opening and a new ending, new physical scenery and structural changes within it, new costumes, rejigged character tracks plus new video. It’s about 30% new. It’s a pretty major overhaul.”
Oram met Grandage in 1995, when he was working as an associate with designer Mark Thompson and Grandage was about to direct his first-ever play at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre. Grandage recalled to me: “We met at the Box, a bar then at Seven Dials. I spoke about the play, and he did a model based on our discussion of what I saw as its central themes.
Q&A: Christopher Oram
What was your first job (theatrical and non-theatrical)? When I was at art college in Worthing, I lived at home and worked at a pub. My first paid theatre job was working as assistant with Paul Farnsworth at Chichester in The Cherry Orchard, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Judi Dench. My first big show as a designer in my own right was Old Wicked Songs, starring Bob Hoskins, which transferred from Bristol Old Vic to the West End in 1996.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth shut. Never question, just pay attention. Nowadays people feel so entitled, and they expect to have achieved everything by the time they’re 30.
Who/what is your biggest influence? Richard Porter, my tutor from college, allowed me to tap into my instincts early on. Mark Thompson, Anthony Ward and Ian MacNeil, all of whom I assisted, and Michael Grandage, of course, who has been a constant guiding light.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have done? To say anything in a parallel realm, like architecture, is too easy. I love animation, so I would love to go to Burbank and work in the Disney studios there. Having an opportunity to work with them here on Frozen has been a dream come true.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions/rituals? Absolutely not.
“A week later I went to his small flat in Shepherd’s Bush, and I looked at a model so beautiful that I swear I fell in love with him and the model at the same time. It was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen, a distillation of our discussion. And I thought, if this is what directing is, it’s the most amazing thing.” He added: “We started creatively finishing each other’s sentences and we still do.”
Oram confirms this account today: “We communicate by osmosis these days, and living together the work physically happens at the same time and in the same place that we both are.”
Does it absorb their entire life? “There is no separate life to theatre. It’s both the best thing in the world and the worst sometimes, but I love my job. It’s so brilliant, in terms of the travel, then people you work with and the things you do.
“You’re part architect, part couturier, part travel agent – you get to do everything. Frozen is writ over the most gigantic scale, but the joy of doing the job is just the same as when we met and then worked together for so long at the Donmar, where you’d get up in the morning and it would be great going to work.”
He and Grandage both love theatre so much that instead of taking a well-earned break, they return to London immediately after Frozen opens to revive John Logan’s Red in the West End. It is a show they first did at the Donmar and then took to Broadway, before staging a new production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore with a cast that includes Poldark heart-throb Aidan Turner. “I don’t want to be sitting on a beach suddenly missing this. So we’re going to do a decompression – instead of getting the bends – by doing another show.”
His professional relationship with Grandage complements his personal one. “We share an aesthetic taste. I know how he’ll behave in a space I give him.”
Christopher Oram’s top tips for an aspiring designer
• See lots – always know what is going on, be observant and don’t shut yourself off.
• Don’t think you’re better than the material; ultimately you are serving the writer and the piece. Don’t think you can do more than that, because that’s the job.
• Be excellent in all things. I like to think I’ve hit a happy medium. I’ve done my time at the coalface and created good enough work to warrant having a career.
His favourite part of the job is that “you keep learning, you keep challenging yourself and keep finding new mediums to work in and then find different ways of solving the same problem – it’s always the same problem, which is how to tell a story, whether it’s with celluloid, ballet, opera or musical theatre.”
With the prospect of Frozen being a massive hit, his and Grandage’s lives could change forever. “I’m sure the people who did The Little Mermaid thought they’d be in fish suppers for life, but you can never tell. This whole year has been an amazing journey. To go from 0 to 60 so quickly – and turning 50 years old in the middle and my dad dying too when we were in Denver – it’s been a bigger year than I’ve ever had before.”
CV: Christopher Oram
Born: Hampton, Surrey, 1966
Training: West Sussex College of Art and Design, Worthing
Landmark productions: Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, RSC at Stratford, then West End’s Aldwych Theatre and Broadway’s Winter Garden (2014), Billy Budd, Glyndebourne Opera (2013), then New York’s BAM (2014), Red, Donmar Warehouse, then Broadway’s John Golden Theatre (2009-10), Frost/Nixon, Donmar Warehouse, Gielgud Theatre, Broadway’s Bernard B Jacobs Theatre (2006-7)
Awards include: Oliviers: Power (2004); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (2015), Tonys: Red (2010); Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (2015), Critics’ Circle awards: Suddenly Last Summer, (2004); Red (2010), Evening Standard Theatre Award for Caligula (2003)
Agents: Michael McCoy at Independent; US: Joe Machota at CAA
Frozen opens at St James Theatre, New York on March 2