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.
By Sylvie Drake
Perhaps because we’re all in love with love to some degree or because we know the story so well, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is never far from the general consciousness or the pantheon of great plays. If anything, it may suffer from overfamiliarity, but the many versions of this story—in music, opera, ballet, theatre, film and musical comedy—reaffirm a persistent interest.
Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson says “everybody identifies with Romeo and Juliet and in some sense almost everybody wants to be Romeo and Juliet because [they embody] the emotional surge and intensity of the teenage years and the absolute kind of decision [we make] to love another person.
Besides, Shakespeare’s play is a tale of endless dramatic possibilities. It has fights, feuds, parental and societal intolerance, death and suicide—all the euphoric joys and profound problems that still bedevil us today.
So how do you approach staging something as well-worn and yet so vital and endlessly fascinating without retreading other people’s concepts?
“That’s the big challenge,” says director Scott Wentworth who staged the production you’re about so see. “Everyone has a scenario in their head. But Romeo & Juliet is a deceptively rich play. It’s not a closed room; it’s a mansion with many rooms.”
Shakespeare famously was never terribly interested in the process of coming up with a good story. If one existed that met his needs, why reinvent it? The origin of Romeo & Juliet was a novella by the prolific 15th century Italian Matteo Bandello, translated and transformed into a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke as The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) and recycled several times thereafter. It resurfaced in prose in 1582 in William Paynter’scollection of stories The Palace of Pleasure, which included other Bandello novellas and provided Shakespeare with handy additional plots, or partial plots, with which to enlarge his canvas (among them Twelfth Night and parts of Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline).
In spite of this varied provenance, Romeo & Juliet, written sometime between 1591 and 1595, is most readily identified with Shakespeare. And because it is so familiar, directors—Wentworth included—love to mine for fresh aspects of the story.
“One of the things I like to do with a Shakespeare play is to look at the end and ask, ‘what does he want to leave us with?’ With Romeo & Juliet, he wanted to leave us with the sense of a generation that sacrifices its young. That spoke to me. Equally interesting to me (and I think to Shakespeare) is the notion of Verona, of that culture. In many ways Shakespeare was always writing about Elizabethan London—for and about his world. Looking at it that way illuminates parts of the play that are often downplayed: how the society functions, what the economics are, how love and marriage figure into this world.”
Wentworth chose to set the play around 1600. In his view, the Montagues and the Capulets are venture capitalists. “Like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice,” he says, “they’re making money in business.” This aristocracy is cash poor, but owns land it sells off to the new money so it can continue to rule, while the new money loves to brush up to the aristocracy for snatches of reflected glory.
Exploring a love story in that context becomes more interesting, because it is not just about two individuals. It becomes political and cultural,” says Wentworth. “The sexual politics are important, which is part of the reason why I was not very interested in doing a modern production where the restrictions wouldn’t be as profound. To fully experience the play it’s helpful to understand the world it was written to represent.
“Shakespeare’s plays exist on two story-telling planes: narrative or horizontal and vertical or mythological. In the 21st century, we tend to be more comfortable with narrative or realism, and less interested in the vertical or mythological story that Shakespeare was interested in. At the end of King Lear, when Lear walks on with the body of the dead Cordelia, it’s an action in a narrative; but it’s also an image of tragedy with a capital T.”
Design may be one way to encompass the mythological: “I’ve asked the designer to abstract the space so it’s epic and not solely realistic,” he continued. “I wanted to have a realistic costume world but a scenic world that would provide access to the mythological story. You can do realistic acting on it—and we will when the text takes us there—but when the text seems to be saying that this language, this moment, is more mythic or psychological, we’ll have access to it in a way that a realistic setting might not give us.”
This marriage of realism and abstraction—opening up the play to engage more universal or bigger ideas and invite the audience to join the actors in that exercise—is the goal. Romeo & Juliet may be about the tragic love affair of two children, but it is also about the difficulty of achieving deep love in any world that puts up obstacles at every turn.
“With a play this rich,” adds Wentworth, “anything we can do to stretch an audience’s ability to listen by giving it the tools with which to do it, will broaden the experience for that audience. It’s in how we costume the actors, how we light and stage the scenes, how we use the music. It’s not about me telling them what I think the play’s about.
“My job in coordinating these many elements is to help people actively create the play they see—in collaboration with the actors, in the moment that they watch the play—so that they might totally engage with the production.”
But how, may you ask, does the interrelationship of fate and character move the play? How much does the one interfere with or influence the other?
“Interesting question,” Wentworth muses. “There’s an intricate and delicate relationship between fate or whatever you want to call it, and character. In the early stories on which the play is based, fate played a bigger role than in the Shakespeare. Wagner said that Romeo & Juliet is the exemplar of the Liebestod, the deathlove or lovedeath.
“It’s one of those German words that doesn’t translate well, but the connection between love and death is at the center of these kinds of stories. Fate in a way is the cumulative energy that a whole society creates. Romeo and Juliet just happen to bump into each other; the letter does not get delivered because of an accident; Romeo’s arrival before Juliet wakens at the end is terrible timing. If Juliet had had the imagination and maturity to be Rosalind [the feisty heroine of As You Like It], wear trousers and join Romeo in Mantua, she wouldn’t have died.
Because fate plays so heavy a hand, a lot of scholars think of Romeo & Juliet as a lesser tragedy than the so-called great later tragedies—the Hamlets, Macbeths and Lears—but Shakespeare was true to the genre. The individual character writing is incredibly astute. The creation of Juliet is a miracle. The nurse is a full portrait of a person. In this type of story, Time and Fate, with a capital T and a capital F, play an active role.”
It is also possible love itself was the driver. Could Shakespeare have been in love at the time?
“He may well have been. Whatever it was, it ignited that thing that he does and engaged his genius. He was able to create the greatest love story in the English language. That’s why to this day his plays always feel so real. They’re not always realistic, but they always feel real.”
This article was originally published in Applause program magazine.