It takes a lot of skill to create a purposefully unpleasant space and Pascal Labillois’ evocative Outstanding Set & Costume Design-nominated work on Unit 102 Actor’s Company’s Red Light Winter was exactly that. First a dirty Amsterdam hostel then a depressing New York one-bedroom, the grotty, lonely space of Red Light Winter set the tone for one of the most transcendent pieces of the year.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first experience with theatre was in 2009. I designed a show called Willy Wonka. So that was my first experience and it was great, because I had been in the music industry for a long time, and I was like “I’m getting old, I don’t feel like it anymore,” kind of un-motivated, and so through my partner and friends, we had a dinner, and then they talked about “oh, you know, we’re looking for a set designer for the show,” and I’m like “I can do that!” I could paint, I could draw, I could build, I could do a bunch of things. And I’m very spontaneous and crazy, so I’m like “let’s do it”. And yeah, they were like “oh, cool.” I just tried that, it encompassed everything I liked. Like music, painting, drawing, creativity, and working with my hands. It was like “wow”. I really enjoyed it. And from there I started doing conferences, and workshops, and everything I could. And eventually it led me to meeting this girl who told me about an opportunity at Drayton as the head of scenic painting.
What were some of the coolest paintings you did for them?
Well, I did their first big show at the new theatre in Cambridge, so that was Mary Poppins. And then it was happening really fast – we had a bunch of shows, because that year they were opening the theatre, and I think they were trying to be more year-round. So we did probably 5 shows in the span of 3-4 months, so it’s like, go, go.
How did you get involved with Unit 102?
It’s funny, because I believe if I recall properly, they posted an ad. And my same friend, who got me to Drayton, sent me a message. She’s like “oh, look, there’s this post.” I looked it up, and I wrote, “I’d be interested in getting information about it”. So then they wrote back, and we met, and I’ve done a bunch of shows with them, it’s been fun.
What most excited you about the design possibilities for Red Light Winter?
It’s a bit of a dark show. I think for me it was that the set is fairly basic, like it’s kind of an apartment that has multi-uses. In Act 1, it’s a hotel, in Act 2, it’s his apartment back in New York. But I was to be able to play with texture, create something very intimate, because I’m so used to having huge sets on huge stages, and now it was something very intimate, independent. So that was kind of fun, a new experience, and it kind of surprised me when they said “are we going to send things to your house? Where is your building space?” And I was like “I’m a designer, I’m not a carpenter”. I knew I could work, and I’ve been exposed, and I’ve helped, and all that, but to take on the project by myself… but, being crazy, I’m like “sure. I’ll do it.” So I just ordered the material and just built everything at this space.
Without any experience in building, you just figured it out?
Yeah. Well, it’s kind of common sense, a little bit, when you’ve been exposed to it, right? Back to my childhood where I helped my dad finish the basement, we built a garage, and then working for different groups and helping in Drayton– so I knew roughly. I mean, I’m building walls, it’s not like I’m creating some kind of crazy curves and suspended things. And I wrote to a friend of mine at some point and said “oh, look where I’m at” – he’s an engineer – and we’ve worked on different shows together, and now he’s moved to Kelowna. But he said “send me a photo once you’ve installed the doors” – because apparently that’s hard, right? But I managed to do that, and I had to cut the doors by 1/8th of an inch or something, just so that it fit. Because I had built the frames, I guess, a little too tight. But I did it, and then I sent photos, and said “see?” But again, I like to research and just read, and Google measurements. How if you have a door this size, what’s the spacing in between the frame…
Speaking of research, the first half of Red Light Winter takes place in Europe, in a hotel room. What sort of research and source photos did you take a look at, to get your ideas of what that would look like?
I looked up on Google. I’ve been to Europe, but I’d never been to Amsterdam. I’d been to England, France… so I was familiar with buildings and the history behind it. And I could see my headlight textures, and colours, and try to create something dark. Dark scenery, but something still warm. And then I looked up online Amsterdam bars, Amsterdam hotels, Amsterdam this and that, like everything I could potentially find in streets. Because we had windows upstage, and wanted to use the windows at the opening of the show to pretend we were outside, and have the strippers dancing, and all that. So then, I thought “okay, I’ll create a concrete kind of wall,” so you could be inside, you could be outside, and kind of play with both. And use that exposed brick at the back, so we could create that atmosphere of an alley. On the street.
It’s funny because the brick wall at the back, the stone was covered with drywall. So I saw on the other side and they have all these stones, so I asked “is it stones at the back?” I said, “Do you mind if I remove [the drywall]?”. I was by myself when I took it down; the panels came down and this cloud of dust [lingered] for probably 10 minutes. I had to open all the doors, you couldn’t see anything. I love Europe, so I was trying to recreate how I felt when I was there, and how the scenery and the buildings and what the city felt like for me, and being obviously inspired by those photos of Amsterdam and a little bit of the colours, the red and the burgundy on the curtain, which matched the title [of the play] but was still what hotels would look like, and there’s the whole thing about prostitution and drugs. So yeah, that was kind of my process, and then I knew we could use concrete walls inside the hotel. They were not in some fancy, high-end hotel. It worked, and again we could use that for the apartment back in New York, because he’s poor.
The set, especially in the first act, needed to be really dreary. What were some of the key elements that went into capturing that tone?
The bedframes were made out of 2x4s. So it was very basic, and just painted to recreate wood on wood, which sounds stupid, but in theatres, so it reads, you can’t just paint something brown because then it looks brown. And we found old- well, they were new, but weird-coloured bedsheets. So we just had the bed, and the computer desk, and the lamp in the corner. What we were trying to recreate was the emptiness and the loneliness, which was pretty much what this guy was feeling and experiencing, right? He just wanted to die. He couldn’t see any future in his life until he met the girl, but unfortunately she was never really into him. That’s what it was in Act 1, a very naked set. Just the bed and nightstand with a lamp, and then we had this cheap desk where he had the computer and he was writing.
Tell us a little bit about the transition, because you were using one space for two different locations, and you didn’t really have time for a huge change-over. How did you approach creating two spaces out of one?
Obviously we had to change the furniture. And we changed the size of the bed. The placement was different. To represent the apartment, we put up a bookshelf, and his own chair- we had a La-Z-Boy or something, one of those reclining chairs, to make it feel like you’re in somebody’s personal space. We had a little counter, and a coffee machine, so you could tell “now we’ve transitioned to this person’s space”, versus this very generic, and very bare- we’re somewhere else.
In that apartment set where it was a specific character who lived there, it was more personalized with lots of details- PostIt notes, specific books, and things like that. What were some of the key details that we might have missed that you thought were really interesting?
The books were really old books from another theatre group that I work with, and they’re all empty. It’s all styrofoam in them so you can grab their shelves and move them. The kitchen counter was a butcher block from IKEA that I just repainted and altered a little bit to make it look different, kind of distressed, aged, worn down so you couldn’t really tell it was IKEA. They had one that Anne [van Leeuwen, the director] wanted but it didn’t fit in the budget, so that was fine, we just transformed [the IKEA butcher block] to make it more like the other one. [The character Matt] was really opening his heart, and everything was accessible in Act 2, so you could see everything from his phone to his little living space- kitchenette, and bookshelf, and his chair, which had a throw on it. It was more exposed- this is me, this is my space, I’m devastated, my place is falling apart. I can’t think of any [details] that people might have missed. I think we had some paintings that I had made, I can’t remember now.
What were some of the requests that Anne had for the design from a director’s point of view?
Well, she was specific on the windows upstage. And it was funny because when she sent me notes, I was reading the script, and that was exactly what I saw in my head, so we kind of fed off each other’s ideas and creativity. She was really pleasant to work with because she was open and receptive. Some directors are so specific that you can’t even achieve what they want; it’s almost like “you draw it for me, because I can’t seem to capture exactly what you want, because it’s so precise”. I just pitched ideas, and I had a bunch of different drawings and we tweaked things from there. At some point I remember she called me and she wanted to move a door – it was all built, and she wanted to move a door, I think, 2 feet over, or a foot over, or something – and I said, “okay, Anne, bear in mind that I’m not a carpenter. I probably can do it, but it’s gonna be a bit of time. I’ll have to cut panels – well, take it apart, cut panels, and we’re kind of running out of time.” She called back the next day and said “oh, it’s fine.” We figured it out.
What were some of the practical demands of the production with the requirements of the script and of the space that you had to accommodate?
The ceilings were extremely low, that was a challenge. But I don’t think there was anything that specific in the script that we were not able to achieve. It was more our theatre, our space, that had challenges. Installing lights, and they would fall down. [laughs]. I think the set was pretty [simple]- we’re creating a hostel, and creating somebody’s one-bedroom apartment. So we were just playing with that. The script didn’t ask, for example, “you need to fly this in, and fly that, and these walls open”.
Did you have any big ideas that were edited out for practical reasons?
No, because we wanted it simple. And we were very much in line, in our thought process.
What was your favourite design element of Red Light Winter?
I liked my stone wall, with the big windows and the openness to the rocks, and people could actually go behind, and all that. Every time I look at the photos, I’m like “oh, that was nice.”
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Seriously, I went to see the show 3 times, and I never really do that. Often I just don’t have time to see shows that I’ve worked on. I’ll see dress rehearsal. But this one I went 3 times. I just really enjoyed it. I thought the actors were brilliant. It was simple. Very effective.
I was in touch with Adam Rapp, who wrote the show, and his brother Anthony Rapp, who’s a Broadway actor. He would write back, and I’d send photos. I don’t know them, I just kind of reached out, and they replied. They’d like the photos, and I’d [tell the cast and crew] “oh my God, they liked it!”.
I don’t have any specific [favourite] moment. I think it was just so great. They were all super good. But I’d get like “oh my God, this is so sad!”
What are you doing now / what’s your next project?
I just finished a show called Strictly Murder, and I’m already working on this other show called Catch Me If You Can. It’s a musical with a community theatre group in Mississauga. And I’m using my painting skills to work on my first film project. I think it’s a sci-fi, and I have to paint two drops in the background, where they have green screens and different things.
What are you painting?
One is the night sky, like the universe, and then we’re going to put a planet thing, because they want two different angles. And the other one is a landscape- I guess when they get on the planet, so it looks almost like the Earth. I’m super excited, I haven’t done any film work but I’m really intrigued by movies.