Writing during a furnace-like heatwave has been making me think, unsurprisingly, about being really hot.
This year I’ve worked on quite a few shows set on hot days – sometimes by chance, other times I’ve suggested it. Maybe it comes from my desperation to do a Tennessee Williams play, but there’s something about heat that drives drama and tension, or feels like absolute joy.
It’s also a great way to engage a director to think about the visual and visceral. Whenever I’m unsure about a design I ask myself and the director a serious of multiple-choice questions about the world we’re creating. Hot or cold? Public or private? Soft or hard? Does it smell good or bad?
The difficulty is, of course, that actual heat cannot exist in the auditorium of a theatre. It’s widely acknowledged that the air-con should be on slightly cooler before a show if you’re doing a comedy because apparently “people don’t laugh if they’re hot”.
Also, warm equals sleepy. So, in a space pumped with cold air to the point where you can’t imagine ever being hot again, how can you transport a person to a more tropical climate?
Apart from continuing to ignore our industry’s contribution to climate change until literally everywhere is hot, you’ll need the help of all departments. Once you’ve clocked heat as one attribute of your concept, you get the lighting designer in on it. They will be able to sell the temperature better than anyone by cooking the actors with some strong intensity.
Then costume: obviously dress them for the weather, but is there a calm, collected character that seemingly doesn’t feel the debilitating climate? A sociopath in a cool, crisp suit while everyone suffers? Is there a character with a nervous disposition? Why not put them in the same suit and spray them with a water mist every time they’re about to step on stage, maybe a little Vaseline on the collar and cuffs, and join this with the other key element: a great squirming, uncomfortable, sweating acting performance.
Where, in your world, is this heat coming from? Has the sun bleached the walls? The books? Does a broken fan add a malicious layer of irony to this sauna we’re sitting in?
Down to the beads of sweat on the back of a neck, design is much more about how it makes the audience feel than it is about creating a pretty picture, and heat is just one example. Inherently, we work in visceral and visual artifice, contriving each layer of ‘fake’ detail in an attempt to make you emote. I’m not just aiming the storytelling at your eyes, but through them – I’m using your empathy to hit your whole sensory system.
I’m happy to report that I have seen audience members subconsciously fanning themselves in mechanically chilled auditoriums. Through meticulous and rigorous cross-discipline effort, the artificial world of the set is now something that feels undeniably real.
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart