Oliver Twist!: Interview with the designer, Elizabeth Wright

Tell us about the style of Oliver Twist! how did you decide on this direction?

The script references the dirty sootiness of London’s streets and early Victorian theatricality as important aspects of the world of Oliver Twist! We have drawn parallels between the ropes, trapdoors, and wooden structures found in theatre, with the kind of warehouse space Fagin’s gang might have lived.

The floor is planked, like the boards of a traditional stage, but the plank design is drawn from the pattern at the centre of Seven Dials in London today. Around the edges of the floor, the painted cloudy London skyline helps to locate the play and add to the smoggy feel of the London streets.

We wanted the action of Oliver Twist! to move easily and quickly from scene to scene without any complicated changes of scenery to interrupt the story, so we worked on creating a multifunctional space with elements that can be used in different ways.

The steps and the platform, for example, can be used as part of the den as well as the steps to Mr Brownlow’s front door and as a bridge. The crates can be moved around the stage by the actors and used in lots of different ways and there is a surprise behind the brick walls plastered Victorian theatre bill posters.

The costumes are rooted in the period when Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist (around 1837-38) and include lots of the features of clothes worn at this time, such as voluminous skirts and sleeves and period tailoring. Like the contemporary songs of Oliver Twist!, however, they also include a few modern references – especially for the more rebellious or criminal characters – and reflect the cultural backgrounds of characters like Fagin and Mrs Sowerberry.

Growing up, were there elements of your visual experience that stimulated your interest in design?

My dad is very practical and worked as an engineer; my mum taught me to knit and sew and took me to art galleries. Theatre design involves all these skills – from making a scale model of the set and creating technical drawings, to designing the costumes and understanding fabrics – I probably inherited all of these traits from my mum and dad.

At my school in Liverpool, there was a brilliant English and Drama teacher, Mrs Graver, who took us on trips to theatres like the Liverpool Everyman, Theatr Clwyd and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was always drawn to the visual element of the plays I saw and started to become interested in theatre design.

While I was still at school I was lucky to be able to do work experience on a Christmas production at the Liverpool Playhouse with Resident Designer, Billy Meall. Although this involved washing quite a lot of buckets, I also got to see what was involved in being a theatre designer and this made me even more interested in the idea of theatre design as a career.

What is the process of collaborating like with the director and other creatives? How much do their thoughts impact on your design and how much are you completely in control?

Collaboration is a very important part of a theatre designer’s job. We work closely with each of the backstage departments in theatre and rely on their skills and expertise to realise a design.

The process of creating a design usually happens in two phases: developing the design and then bringing it to life.

The development process begins months before the actors start rehearsing when the director and designer start collaborating. Me and Kash Arshad, the director of Oliver Twist!, met regularly to talk about how we wanted to stage the play and look at ideas in the scale model box. Along the way we had support and input from the Storyhouse team to make sure the design fitted the brief that they wanted.

The second phase involves making or sourcing everything we need to create the design. This is when I begin to work more closely with the costume supervisor and makers, the stage managers responsible for all of the props and costumes, the scenic workshops who build and paint the set, the lighting designer who enhances the design and helps to create the atmosphere onstage, the actors who add to the costume designs with their knowledge of the characters, the producer and production manager who make sure everything comes together smoothly within budget… and everybody else that has a hand in making the show.

I would say that I am in control of shaping the overall vision for the design and keeping it on track but I am always grateful for the knowledge and experience of the whole team. Two (or more) heads are always better than one when it comes to solving problems or working out the best approach to an aspect of the design.

Is there a dream play that you would love to design?

I like to work on any theatre project that allows me to be creative, I don’t have a specific play that I would love to design. Over time I’ve realised that it’s not always possible to predict which scripts will be the best to work on, and in every play there’s something interesting – working in theatre has introduced me to so many new topics and ideas.

I do have a list of dream theatre companies that I would love to work with, and Storyhouse was one of them, which is why it’s so brilliant to be working here on Oliver Twist!

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