Ultra-high expectations, ultra-low budgets

by Commensal & Hexagon technical director Alex Grew

Jerusalem set

So much of an audience’s perception of a play comes from what they see, and often this begins and ends with the set. A good set can leave the audience feeling happy with a production and give a sense of professionalism, when even fantastic acting cannot fully ameliorate the negative effects of a bad set on the mood of a crowd spilling into the theatre. Set-building is also not without its challenges, of which I’ve seen my fair share, from laying fifty metres of turf in the theatre to constructing a dozen flats in its foyer.

Whilst actors have weeks to rehearse and perfect their parts, the technical team have only a few days to completely transform a venue, and therefore time can be the biggest challenge in set construction. Keeping things simple-to-construct is key, however this does not necessarily mean a simple set. In our production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the challenge was in making a set that looked busy and complex but remained relatively simple to construct – with the exception of laying turf into the early hours of the morning – as the majority of the set pieces were created from existing pieces of garden furniture. The major challenge, though, came in putting together a full-sized aluminium caravan in just a few hours, and steel erection has become one of the team’s specialities in putting up large set pieces in a very short period of time.

Sticking within a tight budget encourages simple design, but sometimes you just have to get creative to save money, and this is where the fun begins. To create an old street lamp for Plenty, we attached a cheap house light to a spray-painted scaffold pole, and for ’Tis Pity we raided several members of the production team’s rooms for bookcases and cabinets, as well as borrowing sofas from a college bar.

However great a set concept is, the difficulty is always making it a reality, and in my experience constructing set pieces – particularly large flats and steel platforms – is where things get tricky. The main reason for this is simply finding construction space, especially in student venues. In very few theatres do you have access to a workshop, and living in shared accommodation makes finding somewhere to construct quite difficult, especially in the otherwise tranquil buildings of Oxford. During the construction of the set for Plenty, Andrew and I ended up constructing flats and painting panels around the outside of the theatre in an attempt to find enough space to build such a large number of wooden pieces in very few days, and with no storage besides the stage itself. At one point we had flats in both levels of the theatre foyer as well as in every empty space we could find within the theatre – it was at this point that cast members of another show arrived, and we realised that a matinée performance was beginning in under an hour. The frantic carrying of semi-dry wooden flats up multiple flights of stairs led us to a seminar room, which was subsequently filled with flats and construction materials.

As silly as it sounds, set building is most fun not when it goes right, but when it goes wrong, with the solutions to many problems providing many amusing stories.

With experience building iconic sets in tiny studios – the eerie white ribs and suspended portholes of Endgame in the BT Studio, for example – and wildly ambitious sets for the 180-seat O’Reilly – such as the forest clearing and caravan of Jerusalem and the flying tree of Plenty – Alex was a key member of the technical teams on Endgame, ’Tis Pity, Othello, Jerusalem, Plenty and Citric Acid.