A few weeks after Jacob Hughes’ workshop on model-making, National Theatre Learning offered another workshop on set design, this time for children aged 6-12. It was led by designer Lucy Sierra and I was lucky enough to accompany eight-year-old N. to take part.
Lucy began by talking about her role as a designer, showing examples of modelboxes and a film of parts of The Light Princess, designed by Rae Smith (National Theatre, 2013). The set had the quality of a black and white drawing, with a series of backdrops as well as projections by Matthew Robins. (There are some photographs and lots of information about the process of making the production in the resource pack available here.
Everyone was given a blank model box representing a simple proscenium arch stage. Lucy introduced the stock of exciting materials ranged along a bench at the side of the room, from different kinds of coloured card, fabric and foil to polystyrene balls and coloured pipe cleaners, as well as paint and glue. An open-sided box was designated the ‘glitter station’ in the hope of restricting the scattering of sparkly fragments across the room.
The brief for the afternoon was very open: to think of a story, either familiar or newly invented, and create a setting for it. N. had been writing and illustrating a story at home and wanted to work on that.
Lucy emphasised that the accompanying adults should be regarded as assistants, following instructions given by the young designers. She encouraged everyone to think about how they would orchestrate set changes – by sliding elements on and off from the wings, or flying them in from above, suspended on wooden rods. During the workshop, she moved around the room, talking about ideas, encouraging bold decisions and suggesting techniques and tricks.
N’s design had lots of flat elements that could be flown in, including a cut-out rocket ship and speech bubble, perhaps influenced by the story’s origins as a comic book.
In the final showing, the designers talked about their ideas while Lucy acted as assistant, demonstrating how each model worked. The dozen models were incredibly varied: there was a design for the musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and a gothic mystery with a pool of blood on the floor; gardens for fairy tales and a sci-fi adventure with the stage completely filled with tentacular blobs.
The children responded with enormous energy and creativity to the open brief – a real contrast to some classroom art projects based on more constraining templates.
I loved the sense of creative collaboration right around the room, with small huddles of adults and children working together to solve technical problems and getting carried away by the possibilities. There was also a lot of curiosity about what other people were doing, with trips to the glitter station or to borrow scissors providing an opportunity to look and chat. And because everyone was doing something different, this meant lots of informal explanations from the makers (‘these are the monsters coming out of the ship’) and delighted comments from the spectators (‘I love it! What a good idea to do that/use that material’).
We carefully carried the model box home on the train, ready for further adventures…