By Alex Courtenay
Robert Pickering was recently hired by UK Opera/Theater to design and build the set for “Les Misérables.” Unfortunately, the show is over and the set has been striked. But I did have the opportunity to ask Pickering about his time and experience with the “Les Misérables” show.
What do you teach at Georgetown College?
I teach THE227, which is the technical theater or production course in the department of theater and film. We focus on the behind the scenes elements of live theater with an emphasis on the five main areas for the theatre: scenery/properties, lighting, costumes/makeup, sound and projections.
How long have you designed and built theater sets?
I have been designing, building and painting scenery for nearly 30 years.
How would you describe your experience working on a musical like “Les Misérables”?
The show is rather iconic with worldwide recognition and many loyal fans. Of course there was also a recent, award winning, major motion picture version which brought on many new fans. I knew there would be high but undefined expectations for how the show should look and feel. I wanted to meet those expectations as best I could, but I also wanted to bring my own individual touch to the design. I jumped right in to the anticipation (and hope) of getting the job and began preliminary research including making arrangements to see the current national touring productions —which happened to be in Canada at the time! I had about eight weeks to immerse myself in research, design, construction, painting, hiring crews, rental facilities, purchasing materials, keeping track of expenses, etc. There was lots of artistic work but lots of practical business work as well. It was a bit consuming, but I had lots of very good help along the way!
“Les Misérables” is such a well-known musical, how did you put your own personal touch on the set?
There were certain elements of the touring production that the producers were really attracted to, and there were beautiful, grand, cinematic elements that the movie brought forth that would be out of scope for use on the stage. These existing productions were among my research. I wanted to find the essence of what made these “looks” work and build from them – to present them in a way that was not a repeat but more of an inspiration. I also wanted the story, which has many scenes, characters and plot lines, to be understood by the first time viewer. I wanted the scenes to be as clear as possible to them.
What was the creative process of coming up with the set design?
The creative process required lots and lots and lots of research. I looked at many photos of Paris by photographer Charles Marville and also the paintings of Eugene Delacroix and others. I viewed three of four film versions of the story plus the latest musical version. I listened to different cast recordings over and over to get a sense of the flow of the story and the emotional dynamics. When I actually started to gets things on paper, I started with a basic ground plan of the set and then developed and tweaked it after meeting with the producers and director a few times. I shared ideas and thoughts about the look, feel and colors of the show. Further on in the process, I built a scale model of the set and presented it to the cast. I believe the model helped the director, the cast and myself. I had a more clearly visual understanding of the scenery, the levels, the moving pieces, so they were a bit more prepared for what they were going to have to move around on.
What other productions, plays, musicals and/or theaters have you done/worked for?
I have worked on hundreds of shows in numerous venues, including the Santa Fe Opera and Utah Shakespeare Festival, and I have built and painted sets that were presented on stages in Texas, Georgia, Florida and California. “Les Misérables” is probably one of the largest I have worked on — over 25 scene changes! — but one of my favorite productions was Georgetown College’s fall 2012 production of “The 39 Steps.” I never got tired of watching that show, the set changes and the numerous characters that the actors transformed into each night.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in designing and building sets?
We are always welcoming people to participate in our productions here on campus. I think that working on as many shows as possible is the best way to gain experience and knowledge. Of course the THE227 class introduces a lot of material from design theory to theatre and stage types to how to analyze a script for its design requirements. But it’s not all about theatre classes either. Good understanding of art, art history, architecture and basic construction techniques are essential, but I also think it is equally important for designers to understand acting, as it is imperative for actors to understand the technical aspects of theatre. I don’t think that either element can truly flourish without understanding, appreciating and supporting the other.