Scalpels, mountboard and glue

Over two evenings in February, designer Jacob Hughes led a workshop on model-making for 16-21 year olds at the National Theatre. The participants had come from as far as Somerset and Liverpool. Most were already studying theatre design or were hoping to do so.

IMG_1832 Jake workshop 2

Jake trained at Welsh College of Music and Drama, a school which has a high reputation for model-making skills, and as the first holder of the Max Rayne Design Bursary Award, he has just spent a year ‘in residence’ at the National Theatre. He says he rarely thinks through drawing, preferring to work directly in three dimensions. While many smaller venues no longer expect designers to bring a fully finished model, larger theatres like the National rely on models as a means of communicating design ideas between different departments. The scenic artists, for instance, will scale up every detail of the model, whether that is an artfully placed splash of paint, deliberate brushstrokes or an immaculate surface.

Designer Bunny Christie’s intricate models for The Red Barn (National Theatre, 2016) were on display around the room. We began by watching a wonderful short film showing what happens behind the scenes during scene changes: a choreography of interlocking trucks synchronised with the iris-like opening and closing of the panels of the Lyttleton Theatre’s front screen.

scale ruler
Scale ruler – an essential tool for model-making


Jake introduced the tools of the trade – scale ruler, scalpel and pencil – and the basic materials which can be cut or carved into shape. He then set us the task of building a rectangular box in black foamboard to the dimensions of a shipping container. Over two evenings, each participant would create a miniature room for a different occupant – a scientist, a disco queen, a potter or a writer.

IMG_1831 jake workshop 3

As the participants worked independently, tips and tricks were demonstrated and shared informally – from different types of glue for different purposes to ways of cutting out circles or hinging doors.

We each cut out a chair from mountboard, using templates generously provided by maker and teacher David Neat. (His blog is an amazing resource of techniques, materials and ideas.) We discussed the uses of 3D printing for scale items, looking at some model chairs printed by the National Theatre workshops. They are useful when multiples are needed quickly, but can lack the sensual qualities of wood and paint.

In the final ten minutes of the second evening, the individual shipping containers were stacked to create a block of flats or studios. We used torches to illuminate the rooms through windows, beginning the play with lighting that would lead into staging. The variety in the worlds that had been created was astonishing, with some people building architectural features like bay windows, and others making playful use of scale, as when giant numbers filled a room designed for a clockmaker, or a gardener’s room was invaded by trees.

IMG_1850 stack of models

IMG_1861 stack of models brightly lit

Information about workshops and courses at the National Theatre can be found here.

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