They take the script and conjure up the visual aids to enhance productions. We get up on stage with the people who bring sets to life in the theatres of our city.
“You came out of art college thinking you were incredibly shit at what you do which was very healthy”
Andrew Clancy will happily admit he’s a bit of an outlier. Working out of a studio down on the Pigeon House Road which was a former British mining station and then a TB and isolation hospital, the sculptor and set designer has no problem working to his own beat outside of the scene.
“It’s always worthwhile keeping a slight fake reputation of being slightly difficult to deal with because then those people don’t go near you. Most big theatres wouldn’t countenance me because they think I do weird shit.” As such, his loyalties rest with those directors more open to a form of “blue sky thinking” such as Pan Pan, Dead Centre and Collapsing Horse. Clancy is also a riot of robust opinions bearing little concern for pricking the sensitive egos enmeshed in aspects of the arts scene. But first, a little bit of background.
Being the second eldest of ten, Clancy remembers being surrounded by painting and drawing in the family home in the Wicklow Mountains. Going to art college was inevitable. “In those days you had to get two honours and three passes to get into art college, so the bare minimum, moron stuff really. If you were good at art you were basically useless to everybody so you either went out and got a job or went to art college. It was also the ‘80s so there was no work.”
After studying sculpture in NCAD, Clancy worked in a worked in a bronze-casting foundry for a year before ‘drifting’ into Ardmore Studios which became the “best education in how to make things accurately and quickly.”
“I was the model maker there, and because the unions were so strong, I was constantly referred to as ‘the student’ and paid in cash for five years. I’d be asked to make an eight-foot reproduction of the galley of a ship and ‘make it out of that shit over there in the corner.’ There was no buying materials or anything.” He juggled this with teaching in NCAD at night for a number of years, before getting a sculpture commissions for the National Museum in Castlebar which afforded him the chance to focus on his own work. However, he remembers the world being relatively hostile to his chosen field of practice.
“There was a certain point in the nineties when you’d tell people at parties that you were a sculptor and they’d go, ‘oh, that’s where my tax money goes.’ I stopped saying it. Then there became a certain point where everyone no longer thoughts of us as spud-eating and muck-gravelling. We were entering Western society and art became fashionable. It literally became intertwined with fashion where suddenly you had these really good-looking artists doing things in the Irish Times Magazine. People would spit on you ten years previous. And the other thing people always said was, ‘can you make a living out of that?’”
“I know we’re known as the country of the arts but we’re not. It’s just literature. Everything else is irrelevant. If there is one in a 100 interested in buying a painting, there is one in a 100 of them interested in buying a sculpture. You’d be lucky if you got 300 people to see an exhibition you worked on for two years. I think it’s part of the Irish psyche that they are kind of getting above their station. It’s a snobbish thing, middle-class and upwards, where you spend money to buy taste.”
It was during his final year in art college when Clancy encountered Gavin Quinn from Pan Pan. He needed a digital rake for a show and they hit it off, resulting in him designing Oedipus Loves You and collaborating to this day. Quinn states that as a sculptor Clancy brings an “engineering ability and precision” to work, having the ability to work with “interesting materials and find solutions, considering the efficiencies of design, whilst making it practical also.”
His most recent work with Dead Centre was Beckett’s Room in the Gate – a show with no actors reliant on a lot of technical wizardry. In contrast to most theatre shows, this was one where the set and spectacle was truly centre stage. “It seemed like a completely undoable project, but we did it.” His own team consisted of himself, Jason Lambert, Ciaran Bonner and Eugenia Genunchi.
“I’ve designed kinetic things before, but this was a whole different ball game because it was in excess of a hundred different special effects, and they were live and operational by people who were not professional puppeteers. Everything had to be very analogue. I just designed it as if I was doing it.”
What engages him to people such as directors such as Bush Moukarzel (Dead Centre) and Dan Colley (Collapsing Horse) who he worked with on their Theatre Festival production of A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, is their “analytical mind being applied to lateral thought.”
“What’s interesting is they both studied philosophy and side-stepped into theatre. They think outside the box. I’m often working laterally around things. They are very anchored and I drift around the outside trying to visualise it.”
One of Clancy’s bugbears is “design by Google which used to be called plagiarism.” There is no Mac adorning his working space. He’s a sketch-in-notebook creator and relies on an impressive memory for dates and detail. “Constant referencing actually results in bad design. People are bombarding you with Google images and YouTube videos. You end up with this constant leap-frogging where, ‘this reminds me of this and this reminds me of this.’ Where is the end to it? You become incredibly linear. The point in having me as a designer is to get an original piece.”
Clancy is also straight-up about his role when it comes to the interface of set design with theatre. “There is a story, facilitate that story, collaborate with people, I facilitate their work. It isn’t my work. I’m a cog. They are mini art-projects, which is interesting for a fine artist because you are in a perpetual art process. Whereas, these kind of remind me of being in college. It actually ends.”
Unsurprisingly, Clancy is not a fan of social media and the self-branding exercises it facilitates. “It reminds me of a Kurt Vonnegut novel where the protagonist was stuck in this perpetual world looking at porn. He became snow-blind from it.
“Coming out of art college in the 80’s and ‘90s you had a certain level of art college paranoia where the thought of self-promotion was incredibly distasteful and made you instantly feel sick. You came out of art college thinking you were incredibly shit at what you do which was very healthy. Now kids are coming out of primary school thinking they are amazing and being told they are. I understand it, but I don’t like it.”
And as for cultural criticism, he’s not afraid to give it a lash too. “I think criticism here in the arts is a total joke, it’s just shite. Before, it was fusty academics who literally wore tweed jackets and were kind of unapproachable and slightly ridiculous. Now they’re just all mates, guys you meet in your local bar… I always find it much more interesting when a show gets a bad review. People are outraged. I’m like ‘the play was shit, get over it.’ People now think being offended is a grievous thing. Criticism is healthy, it’s just that ‘the critics’ are often unqualified to be critics. People often drift into it without any technical training. It’s just descriptions of things in a tokenistic way.”
Clancy appreciates that “working as a designer in the arts is you are really vulnerable to thinking you are shit, you are on the edge of that all the time, no matter who you are. You have a day where you think you’re shite and the next one where you think you’re not. In the hierarchy of theatre, you can be overruled. That is fine to a certain point. I wonder if being of control of everything is a good thing in itself. It seems to permeate through all society, like where have all the drunk authors gone? No one writes books pissed anymore.”
Refreshingly forthright, Clancy sits outside the conventional scene and in many respects is fortunate to do so. He’s somewhat of an elder in the game and thus breathes the confidence which comes with this. “I’m not particularly pushy but I know my mind. Some people think I’m a massive horror. I’ve heard people say you’re really tricky and they’ve never met me. I think it’s great. It’s so handy. It’s a great filter.”
However, it doesn’t prevent him being spurred on by the perpetual fear of the self-reliant when he states, “After tomorrow, there is nothing until the end of time and then you get a phone call.”
And regarding that phonecall… “I’d like to design a really good adventure playground, one with more than a zip-line.” Pick up the phone people!
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings runs in the Peacock from Tuesday December 10 until Saturday December 28
“It should never take over. If people think the set was amazing, well, then the production has failed, they were looking at the wallpaper.”
It’s the lot of the freelancer – bouncing along the precarious safety net from project to project. Sarah Bacon pauses to reflect on a year which has given her a fleeting sense of security whilst ramping up her stature in the set design game in Dublin. From her work in The Gate’s ‘Love and Courage’ season with The Children and Beginning through City Song in The Abbey, Hecuba in the Project, Haircut! in The Ark and now Drama at Inish in the Abbey, Bacon feels, “It’s the first time in my adult life where I feel I am earning a salary but working flat out.”
The set and costume designer was originally on a path to being an architecture graduate until “the idea of planning permissions, extensions and straight lines” sent her scurrying towards the world of sculpture in Brighton.
“When I came back to Dublin (after Brighton), I got a studio here. I didn’t know the scene, found it isolating and couldn’t make any money. I did a FAS course in the SFX with Michael Scott and started making props. That was brilliant. It was really hands-on.” Bacon’s desire to familiarise herself with the whole process led her into Assistant Stage Managing where she was “shadowing the production manager, making props, doing scene changes under the stage, looking at the whole process, working with the designers.”
And this led to that ‘lucky break’ moment where she was drafted in to do design work in the 2007 Wexford Opera Festival, specifically Andrew Steggall’s production of Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen. “It was jumping in, wellies first, and it was terrific. I’m really proud of it. It was a simple set, curved wall with doors and cobblestone stage and we made every single one. A lot of love and hard work went into it.” Robert Hugill of Classical Music Daily lauded Bacon’s “economic but stylish sets,” a minimalist aesthetic which is evident in most of her work since then.
After this, Bacon did the non-accredited, yet highly acclaimed, Motley Theatre Design one-year bootcamp where past alumni include Es Devlin. “You don’t get a piece of paper but just say I’ve been to Motley,” she laughs.
Bacon tends to relish the technical challenges, “problems to be solved in collaboration with other people”, it’s the “emotional” ones which prove more obstinate. “It’s three to four months out when the real head-banging and hair-pulling happens. If you have communications with your director, you arrive to the first day of rehearsals with a clear idea. Then they are committed to the room and the designer is committed to making it all happen with the production manager. “Some directors are better at that,” she says, with a diplomatic smile.
On City Song Bacon was addressing a new play which was open to a myriad of interpretations. “Many stories were woven through three generations in 24-hours, in one city, in a small space. There was a lot of work and a moment of inspiration which came quite late in the day.” This moment was manifested on stage through a striking cracked mirror which doubled as a map of Dublin, “a reflection of the people and the city”.
In Marina Carr’s version of Hecuba, Bacon’s starting point was sitting down with director Lynne Parker. “We talked about who were these women – Hecuba and her daughters. I started trawling for visual inspiration. There are six different scenes so it was important we could make the changes without taking the audience out of the drama.” Bacon brought a minimalism to bear ensuring the writing took centre-stage.
Indeed, this is a hallmark of the role of a successful set according to Bacon. “It should never take over. If people think the set was amazing, well, then the production has failed, they were looking at the wallpaper. If it has supported the production, held the play or the opera, that is what it was meant to do.” How many times have we found ourselves reaching for plaudits on set design to compensate for lack of praise of a script or direction?
In terms of the tug and pull for asserting one’s role, Bacon is well-versed in how to negotiate these rapids. “It’s a collaborative process more than one of compromise, you learn which battles to pick. If that is the teacup you really love, I don’t mind, but those speakers have to go!” Rest assured, she’ll be right and that teacup probably didn’t look the part either.
“What I love about lighting is the moment to moment engagement that doesn’t necessarily come with the space. You are following every second of every moment and sculpting that”
The Yew Tree Theatre in Ballina was the early game-changer for Sinead McKenna. Set up by French director Pierre Campus and his wife Yvette, this is where McKenna had her first immersion. “They made this theatre space, they ran it themselves, they brought in weird, bonkers plays. I was a bit lost during secondary school, and this was a completely different experience when I needed something like that.”
“Yvette handed me copy of The Little Prince and Antigone which I wolfed down. I applied to do Drama and Theatre Studies in my Leaving Cert because I had this dawning realisation that whatever I would do with my life, I couldn’t do a nine-to-five.” It was whilst being back home in the summer, on term leave from studying in the Sam Beckett in Trinity, that Pierre thrust McKenna into the spotlight of figuring things out, something which has remained undimmed ever since.
While she is best known for her work in lighting, McKenna has, of late, started flexing her skills within the confines of set design also. “The first time I took anything on was for Mark O’Rowe’s The Approach. It came from a simplicity thing. He really doesn’t want anything getting in the way and that’s not an ego thing. The text, and his style, is so sparse so anything you load into that space is so troublesome because it is saying something. It’s really difficult. He kind of approached it saying could it just be lighting and, having read the piece, I felt it needed a sculptural piece, it needed a three-dimensional space. There was something very small about it, but also huge. It was like planetary seismic shifts but happening over a very small conversation. That’s when I kind of said I’d take on the set element.”
McKenna’s most recent foray into set design was with The Bluffer’s Guide to Suburbia which was in the Project Arts Centre as part of the Theatre Festival. It is Ray Scannell’s timely look at the returning son who has to address faded hopes and economic realities.
“The character Finn comes back from London, he was big in the ‘90s and noughties on the indie circuit. It’s quite a stark piece and a real commentary on what is happening in Dublin right now and, genuinely, we have friends going through this. He moves back to his parents in suburbia.”
“My partner was in bands, our spare room would have cable everywhere and my background was cable-bashing and going on to the stage at Witness at 2am pulling reams of cable out of the mud and coils so there was all this feeling that the space would be engulfed.”
“I didn’t want to get in the way there either. It was a dark space where things can happen within. It’s not a commentary but more like another player: the spewing of cable, a gigantic mess, like a liminal background space. There is a flight case and everything is spewing out of it. There is something genuinely of my past in there, but also the fact that it is just a pile of junk and shite. To look at it, it’s a complete mess but each of those cables connected something at some point in time. Running in the background is this disgusting consumerism which he is also part of. We are all complicit in it. Every time I sat down to make a piece, I was thinking ‘what’s the fucking point in making something where we are just contributing to this clutter?’ Everything we do contributes to this maelstrom and we’re all complicit in it. I was up the ladder wrecking everything.” McKenna ensured that every cable used was recycled.
“Our references were No Disco, Donal Dineen era. He had shot Super 8, black and white, footage of water and birds reflected on to a cracked wall. I love Jack Phelan’s use of projections as a light source.”
McKenna, like all the other designers interviewed for this article, is adamant about the sense of ‘collaboration’ needed to realise these projects. “It always comes from the script, you’re always responding to somebody moving in space or to colour. You feel the world for what it is and get an overriding sense of what the author is getting across. It’s always a sum of all of its parts and the parts are all the people and where they are at in that particular time in their lives and heads.”
And though she has a number of set designs under her belt now, lighting is her first love. “What I love about lighting is the moment to moment engagement that doesn’t necessarily come with the space. You are following every second of every moment and sculpting that. You are responding all the way through. It follows everything and that can change. It’s like designing in time and space.
“I can do a big commercial musical, maybe it’s a budget thing and means of scratching an itch, and then I can take on Bluffer’s which is about the writing and a special bunch of people who I love working with. You have to have a reason for doing things. The older I get I have to connect. There is less reason to take something on for just say the technical challenge.”
“Design is always a response to text, and I think embracing this fact leads to more interesting results”
“As a child I always loved creating and building small worlds, in old shoe boxes with scavenged bits and pieces and then later when playing an incredible amount of Sims, were I would primarily built houses, rather than playing the actual game,” reflects Molly O’Cathain on her early immersion into the world of design.
“I then had the luck to come into contact with a great drama teacher at school who was delighted she’d found someone who wanted to sort out all the costumes, boss people around backstage and make papier mache christmas puddings – I’ve never wanted to be on stage.”
Working as a set and costume designer, O’Cathain enjoys the freedom afforded with her career. “It suits me perfectly to have a job which reinvents itself so frequently, posing new challenges, themes, eras, styles and colleagues on a bi- or tri-monthly basis.”
When it comes to interpreting commissions, O’Cathain likens it to a “puzzle to be solved in which you have to extract as many clues as possible. With a formally traditional play you need to read and reread, forensically, and normally make a few spreadsheets. Whereas with something more abstract you may focus on the mood or images you want to achieve and then shape the arc of the piece around that.”
Her most recent production her was Oonagh Murphy’s adaptation of Playboy of the Western World in the Gaiety during the Theatre Festival. “Oonagh and I work very closely together – we hold a similar political viewpoint and aesthetic taste and know from previous collaborations that we have a shared language and dynamic. And we’re both detail obsessed! We knew we wanted to create a production which reimagined elements of the text without alienating the play’s traditional audience.
“What comes through when you return to the play is the real poverty and hardship that shapes these characters lives, so we started to think about where the play would sit in a more recent Ireland, perhaps in a place on a border. Somewhere coastal, perhaps previously prosperous, and now bypassed and forgotten, leaving Pegeen stuck and its inhabitants pushed to violence through boredom and disillusionment. The aesthetic we landed on references, broadly, from the 1950s to the 1990s – rural Ireland in the era post electrification but pre-modernisation/digitalisation. This is true of anywhere, very few places contain only objects and aesthetics from the current decade.”
In order to achieve this O’Cathain referenced the work of documentary photographers such as Lise Sarfarti, Martin Parr and Richard Billingham. “Safarti’s striking series documenting 1990’s Russia became our strongest palette and tonal reference. For more practical details I also gathered hundreds of references of bars and pubs; mainly from present day Irish property listings and photographs of the flat roof pubs of post-war Britain.” But she remains steadfast in her view that “above all, people inspire theatre… Those people you spot on the street and instantly wish you knew their story. They’re the ones people write or make plays about, and I love that I get to use inanimate objects to tell and propel stories, it means that, project depending, my inspiration can come from almost anywhere.”
O’Cathain is currently doing a year-long Design Bursary at The National Theatre in London where she’ll be assisting Bunny Christie on The Welkin, the new Lucy Kirkwood play that premiers in January. She’s also working with Malaprop, the new writing and devising company co-founded with pals of hers from college with a new, commissioned show HotHouse set for the stage in March.
When it comes to cardinal rules for designers, O’Cathain firmly believes “it’s a balancing act between what the play practically needs and what the director and I want to say. Design is always a response to text, and I think embracing this fact leads to more interesting results. It can frictionlessly bolster, but why not be a source of dissonance, sour notes, sly critique that ultimately makes the whole stronger.”
Words: Michael McDermott
Photos: Ste Murray