PG Lecture: Michael Vale: set and costume designer

This was the first lecture I’ve been to by someone from the theatre design world. My concentration was interrupted as I had to field phone calls about my mother being discharged from hospital that afternoon, so I couldn’t follow the thread of it all. But I learned one or two interesting things.

Firstly, it hadn’t occurred to me that originally set design was just a branch of painting: the aim was to paint a realistic scene of a mansion or a garden or whatever. Michael argued that it was only in the 20th century that theatre design became more sculptural, paying attention to materials, the way they worked together and the atmosphere they could create.

Below are two shots of the set he created for a production of the John Steinbeck classic Mice and Men, showing how quite a bare stage could work for both a river-bank scene and a bunkhouse scene, where the main addition is a grid of rebar, alluding to a prison cell. He suggested that theatre designers could be freer to use their imagination that film designers, where the expectation would be that a river-bank scene would be filmed at an actual river bank or in a studio set created to look like a river bank. In the theatre, there were no such limitations. Or perhaps the physical limitations of a theatre – where you probably can’t recreate a whole actual river bank – push you to use your imagination more.

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Second, although I have certainly experienced this as a theatre-goer, I had not previously thought about the way a set can help to tell the story. Left is (a very bad) photograph of the set he designed for a production of Blonde Bombshells of1942 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The play is set partly in the present – with a now-elderly member of the Bombshells looking back at her life – and partly in the past, during the war.

So the set has an elevated section at the back right, where the character sits and looks back/down at her past, being played out on the stage below. The audience has an immediate visual explanation of the structure of the play.

What links this to my current concerns is the space for the viewer’s imagination and construction of what is happening, rather than spelling everything out.