A Prologue exchange with Romeo & Juliet set designer Michael Ganio and costume designer Christina Poddubiuk
MICHAEL GANIO (MG) is a longtime set and costume designer with Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), having designed everything from Shakespearean productions to contemporary plays on OSF’s varied performing spaces. This time he is designing for Denver Center Theatre Company, in collaboration with director Scott Wentworth.
CHRISTINA PODDUBIUK (CP) is a Canadian designer currently based in Stratford, Ontario. She studied at the National Theatre School of Canada, and worked many theatre jobs before becoming a designer at the Stratford Festival.
Prologue: Michael, Christina: Can you tell me first what period the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) production of Romeo & Juliet is set in?
MG: Director Scott Wentworth’s concept is to keep the play in the Elizabethan era, probably around 1590 and up. It’s a very elegant, lush, and stylish period to re-create onstage.
P: Let’s start with the set. You’re designing for DCTC’s Stage Theatre, which has a thrust stage rather than a proscenium. Is that a challenge?
MG: Yes and no. I’ve designed for every theatre at Oregon Shakespeare—thrust stages, proscenium, three-quarter round. Each theatre makes its own design demands—DCTC’s Stage Theatre is a thrust, which allows the action to move downstage more. The Stage was originally designed by OSF’s Richard L. Hay, so I’m very well acquainted with it. Sightlines are one of the first issues for The Stage or any other theatre—I don’t want my sets to be aimed just at the expensive seats, I want the entire audience to have a clear view of the set and the action.
P: Will we see a classic Shakespearean set à la the Globe Theatre?
MG: No, indeed. My set will be very streamlined, almost a neutral space for the action to take place on. In a sense, the set will work as a frame to set off Christina’s gorgeous, detailed Elizabethan costumes—as well as the swift action of the play. Having a beautiful neutral surrounding will highlight the costumes and free up Christina to use whatever palette she decides on. We’re also designing all the props—the detail, color, size and style of the props works with the costumes to create the world of the play. Our goal is to enable the audience to actually hear the play, to engage their imaginations, without a lot of visual distraction. We want them to follow the story, to be entertained, but also to fall in love with Shakespeare’s language.
P: You used a great metaphor involving dinner plates—
MG: Yes! I like to think of the set as a plate—and the action of the play as the meal that goes on that plate. The plate by itself means nothing, but it is crucial to serving the meal.
P: There’s so much more to set design than many people realize—not only research and sketches and building a scale model, and turning sketches into blueprints. Do you have an assistant?
MG: I don’t have an assistant. In a way, DCTC’s amazing design studio manager, Lisa Orzolek, acts as my assistant here. I do send a quarter-inch model of the set to Lisa, then she and her staff make a larger half-inch model and also create all the technical renderings that the scene shop needs to budget and build the sets accurately. Unfortunately not all theatres I design for have a Lisa Orzolek on staff. In some cases I have to take on a more technical role in addition to the designs.
P: Christina, this production will be set in the Elizabethan era, a time when wealthy families such as the Capulets and Montagues wore beautifully elaborate clothes. What can you tell us about the nuts and bolts of costume design—what must you consider when creating costumes?
CP: I started out doing hands-on work with costumes. My first jobs in theatre were wardrobe work: sewing, building, dressing actors. I did an opera tour as wardrobe assistant, doing everything from loading costumes into the theatre and maintaining them after every performance. Within two years I had my first job at the Stratford Festival as a dyer and that was probably my first real creative experience in which I learned how beautiful clothes can be when you actually have the time and budget to really pay attention to detail in every step of the process. I loved that work and soon afterward I started to design at Stratford.
P: It sounds as though you have a very practical understanding of how clothing needs to work for the actor.
CP: Yes, true. In a period piece such as Romeo & Juliet, which is physically very active, we want clothes that look wonderful, evoke the period, but also are easy to move in and won’t damage easily. And more: I want the costumes to have the rich period hand-work and detail that a firstclass shop like DCTC’s can create.
P: Can you tell me some secrets of the costume design process?
CP: I like to be well prepared for the first meeting with the director, because often his or her time is limited. At that meeting, I will have read the play several times—
MG: Me too! And I listen to recordings of the play when I can, as I’m working—
CP: Yes! To see how many costume changes there are, to make a prop list, to analyze where the entrances and exits are.
P: So, you really know the text inside out by then.
CP: Next I start to do visual research. I look at photography of the period or paintings or history books, and I look for thematic influences.
P: To both of you, who are your most important collaborators?
CP: I need to be in touch with the set designer as soon as possible so we’re not going off in two entirely different directions.
MG: Ditto for me—the director, the costume designer.
CP: It can be very rewarding to work with set designers on a show. If they have different ideas, it really influences my process, so we need to stay in close communication. Whereas a lighting designer might normally come into the process a little later on.
MG: BUT. That lighting designer is crucial to our work as well. He not only lights the action, but the costumes and sets as well—the lighting man is really the fourth piece of the design equation, along with the director, sets and costumes. Not to mention the actors.
CP: It’s all about teamwork. We act together to serve the director’s vision, and contribute our own individual aesthetic, experience and imagination to make the play wonderful for the audience, the actors, the director—and the theatre itself.
P: Thanks to you both. Lots to look forward to.
This article was first published in Prologue, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.