My Theatre

27 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Claire Hill

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Scenographer Claire Hill is one of only a handful of designers really defining the aesthetic of the indie theatre scene in Toronto. Nominated for a fourth time in three years for Outstanding Set & Costume Design on Desiderata Theatre Co’s Changeling: A Grand Guignol for Murderous Times (with co-nominee Julia Matias), Claire dropped by the Nominee Interview Series to explain how she yet again built a rich world out of almost nothing.

We talked to you last year for the Nominee Interview Series, so catch us up on what you’ve been up to.
Well, I’m still at York, finishing my MFA. And I’ve got a big project coming up in the summer that I can’t really talk about yet, but that will be out soon. I’ve only done a few plays and I still don’t own a cat. 

When will you be done at York?
Presumably in the early fall of 2017. I have to actually write my thesis, which is the hard part.

What’s the focus of your program at York?
The program is devoted to sustainable theatre and how to approach theatre thinking ecologically, thinking about sustainability in the future. So it’s a lot of looking at what that means and developing a design aesthetic with an understanding of that.

Your nomination this year is for Desiderata’s Changeling. How did you get involved with that company?
I worked with Harrison [Thomas] last year on The Castle, and I ended up at a few of the Bellows on Monday nights at Theatre Passe Muraille. I met the playwright Julian Munds and I hung more with Harrison and John Chou, who’s also one of the main company members there, and we just got talking about it, and it turned out it was something I should do.

You were tasked with designing a play about aristocrats on an indie budget, a problem you keep running into. How did you deal with that discrepancy?
I think a lot of the design came from the costumes. Harrison had some very particular ideas about what he wanted to do, so I sort of stuck with the core ideas of his aesthetic, and then expounded on that. A lot of the costume design was built around John Chou’s character, who we described as a Kanye West kind of guy- he was this sort of ridiculous man in leather pants with died blonde hair and those Kanye West sunglasses from way back in the day. It was an exercise in thinking differently.

With such specific direction, did you have big fights at all about what the aesthetic was going to be and how you were going to execute it?
Not really, no. I would say we came to it from the same page. I knew what [Harrison] wanted to do and how to do it, and how to do it a little more fanciful than he had been intending. I talked him out of a few things that I didn’t agree on. I don’t think we fought. He’s a nice guy, he’s easy to get along with and he tries hard.

This production pulled The Changeling out of its original time period. How did you adapt the look of those characters into something that was contemporary?
Along with my assistant Julia [Matias], who’s fantastic, we weren’t really looking at it as a historical piece to begin with. It was always looked at as something that Julian adapted, as an adaptation that was sort of timeless. So, you can look at the costumes and you can see elements from different ideas and different places, because it doesn’t exist in this world. It doesn’t exist in this reality, but it also doesn’t exist in any historical reality. So it was really about making it its own self-contained little reality that was sort of based on Grand Guignol and sort of based on the actual Changeling and sort of based on elements from 20th century history.

photo by John Gundy

Who was your favourite character to design for?
That’s easy, John Chou’s character [Alonzo Di Piracquo]. It was so fun, and I had to talk John into dyeing his hair blonde. We had a couple of fun sessions where he was like, “I don’t know if I should do this–” and I was like, “It’ll be fine, it’ll be good, it’ll be fine–“. The cap on the whole thing was when I found the sunglasses, which I got for a dollar at The Dollar Store. I was like, “You have to walk in with these, and then just take them off, very dramatically and it’ll be good.”

How did you balance approaching a very dramatic story from a sort of comical aesthetic viewpoint? 
We always thought of it. We know it’s a drama. Realistically it’s a drama and, based on the original story, it is. But Julian wrote it so that it was a comedy. He always wanted it to be a comedy, and the intention was always for it to be comedic. So I think that was something that definitely filtered down into the design.

The set was really versatile. What were some of the practical demands of the production that you had to accommodate?
There was a lot of things I liked about that set, but definitely one of the problems with it was that it was coroplast so it was very lightweight but it wasn’t as structurally stable as we’d hoped it would be. So that made some problems for the actors as they were getting used to moving it. Then the floor itself in The Box is not even so, when you move something around on an uneven floor, you have some problems.

What did fellow nominee Julia Matias bring to the table in terms of your collaboration?
Julia works really hard and she knows a lot more about costume construction than I do, in part because she’s a burlesque dancer and she has been working from that perspective for a long time. I gave her a fair bit of free reign with some of the characters. We’ve been working together for two or three years now and it’s always been a collaboration between us, where one of us has an idea and the other one runs with it. She comes to me for advice and, sometimes I’m looking at something and I’m like “something’s just not quite right” and she’s like “you need to fix it this way” and I’m like, “you are right”. It was a collaboration. It wasn’t like, one person was the costume designer and one person wasn’t.

The character of Beatrice in particular had some really beautiful gowns. Can you tell us about developing those?
The dress was a dress I found at Exile from one of the independent dress makers in the city. It was on sale, so I was able to get that and then we made a few alterations to it. The wedding dress was actually my grandmother’s. We needed a wedding dress, we couldn’t find one. I was over at my mom’s house, and I was like “Mom, I don’t know what to do about this” because I was thinking about just getting a skirt, and my mom said, “Uh… lemme see something…” and my mom pulled out my grandmother’s wedding dress! [laughs]

Did it make it back to her in one piece?
Yeah. It did. Lauren [Horejda] had to be very very careful in it, because it is an actual vintage garment. I was a little nervous about it, but we had a lot stain remover, and we had a lot of cleaner, so every week it got cleaned in my bathtub. I had these very specific instructions from my mother about how to clean it and how to take care of this particular type of fabric and this garment. It went back in one piece but that’s probably more use than it’s ever received in 70 years.

It was one of the more bloody productions of the year. How do you approach maintaining those costumes and getting them clean for the next performance when they’re so destroyed by the end of each show?
We didn’t really know how to handle it for a lot of it. It was a lot of flying by the seat of our pants, a lot of trying to figure it out as it went along. It was a lot of discovery. We washed the costumes every single night. Harrison used to live really close to the theatre and he had laundry en-suite, so he had sort of approached the play with the perspective of, “Oh, I have laundry en-suite, that’ll solve all the problems”. It didn’t really solve all the problems, but it was a nice effort.

If you had an unlimited budget and time and no real restrictions, what would the show have looked like?
I don’t really know, because I don’t always let myself go there. I probably would have made things taller. I think Grand Guignol sort of requires that Vaudeville house aesthetic that’s really fun- the gilded proscenium arch and the grand aspect. I think, if we got another shot at it, I would want to be in a space with some height so we could create that false proscenium and we could create a lot of elements around it.

So you start from a place of your budgetary restrictions?
Not always. I think it starts with a discussion with the director about what we think the play is and what we want to accomplish. Then you look at the budget [laughs]

What was your favourite design element of Changeling?
The costumes were great. It was a good time, you know? The costumes were fun.

What was the most difficult element to execute technically?
The blood. Getting it out, and getting it to a consistency that we wanted. We went through a lot of batches of blood through the rehearsal period and throughout the tech week, trying to figure out the right consistency.

Do you have a favorite moment in the production?
I always liked whenever Sebastian [Marziali] and John Chou were interacting on stage. They were great together; Sebastian really kind of hammed it up. And the whole sequence where Prince [Amponsah] is showing John around, and trying to kill him, and John turns around and Prince is like, “I’m not doing anything” [laughs]

photo by John Gundy

You worked on another nominated production this year- 4 1/2 (ig)noble truths. Tell us about that show. 
That was an interesting process. Definitely something very different from anything I’ve done over the last few years. Again Julia was with us, although she was assisting Mike because she’s also interested in directing. [Playwright/performer] Thomas McKechnie and our fantastic producer Kelly Read and [director] Mike Reinhart and I – we had such a long dramaturgical period for that play, one that I’ve never quite experienced. I’ve worked on a lot of new productions but I’ve never done the thing that those guys from [elephants] Collective do, which is they dramaturge the shit out of everything. We questioned everything. And we argued about it. And it was nice. It was really nice to just sit there in Mike’s apartment and argue with him for hours and have that kind of relationship with a director and a playwright and performer where you can do that. It’s rare.

The design for that show was interesting because it had real practical requirements with Thomas building a tower out of all the set and props in the middle of the show. How did you choose pieces that would work with the physics of that?
Oh yeah, that was hard. Before we came up with the egg concept, we were on a totally different path, which is not worth talking about. Then one day we were in rehearsal and Kelly Read said, “what if Tom has these eggs and, in the party scene, he’s rolling the eggs around and that sort of creates a sense of tension because the audience is feeling really tense about whether or not the eggs are going to fall off the table”. I went out and I bought some eggs and we did it and it worked, and it created a weird tension in the scene that we hadn’t been able to get in any of the scenes before that. From there, I think it was Mike who had the idea that we would put everything on top of the eggs. 

Were there any props or design elements that you needed to swap out because they were too heavy or they weren’t balancing correctly?
Oh yeah. It was hard to figure out the balance thing. I came up with the coroplast idea and Kelly Read and even Christopher Ross came in and helped build that and they did a great job. I was in Edinburgh by then. I know that they worked really really hard on that and figuring out the balancing process was many hours of work. A few of the cups and little items had to get switched out so that we could have things that would buffer the larger objects and hold them in place.

Everything was white with blue outlines. What was the thinking behind the colour scheme?
Thomas is in a white shirt and blue jeans, so the idea was that he was a plinth as well. The world around him is like him, so all the plinths were white with blue edges, and he was white with blue and the table was white with blue legs, so it was just to sort of create this monotone look.

Tell us about your experience in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh was interesting because, you know, you go to the world’s largest Fringe festival, and you’re going to see such a wide variety of things. I saw some of the worst pieces of shit I have ever seen in my life and that I hope I never ever have to repeat the experience of. I saw some really unique things. And I saw some sort of okay things. I was looking at it from the perspective of sustainability with my advisor because he runs an award for the most sustainable show at the Edinburgh Fringe. So, I wasn’t examining it so much from the perspective of “this is quality art” as “this is art that is accomplishing a specific goal that we want to meet” and that was a really interesting way to view that, through that lens.

How do you think the Toronto theatre community is doing in terms of approaching their work from a sustainability viewpoint? What could be done better?
There’s a lot that’s happening that is helping. Like, there’s the Facebook group Production Resources Toronto, which helps a lot of production managers and designers and technicians exchange resources and exchange ideas, which has been a huge way to open up the field but I still think that we need to examine our materials and our wastefulness. For example, in a resource-rich nation like Canada, the concept of throwing out wood is totally okay. In other countries, where wood is highly expensive, it’s not okay. I remember even when I was building sets in Banff, compared to building sets in Halifax, because of the types of wood that were available there and the shipping costs there versus the shipping costs in Halifax, they were much more careful with their resources than we were in Halifax. I think it’s a privilege thing. We need to examine the privilege that allows us to be so wasteful, philosophically and financially and practically.

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