Theatre production designers dress up the stage

Production designers are dressing up their theatre sets innovatively to provide a complete theatrical experience

It was a unique experience for theatre lovers watching Ayn Rand’s The Night of January 16, staged by Hyderabad’s Coliseum Productions. Even as the murder mystery kept audience on tenterhooks, what also caught attention was the set design and its detailing. Staged at Phoenix Arena, the wall transformed into a New York skyline, the centre stage had a court room that seemed so real with a four-and-half-feet elevation for judge’s seat, a two-and-half feet high witness stand, prosecution and defence tables in the court room drama. The stage had flexis, 13 feet pillars (fibre, wood and hardboard), a wooden wall to support these pillars, and a justice logo! Preksha Trivedi, one of the founders of Coliseum, who also dabbled as a production designer for this play, shares that it is a result of 45 days of planning, long before the auditions were held. In fact, Coliseum’s earlier production Macbeth also had heavy sets.

A scene from the Ayn Rand’s The Night of January 16

Set design, props, costumes, make-up and lighting set the mood and add to the visual appeal of a play. Big productions that are backed by sponsors find it easy to allocate a budget for different departments, but production without sponsors and by small theatre companies do face hurdles. However, what is remarkable is the way they create innovative sets using the limited space and resources.

Preksha lived in New York for six years and recalls her experience of watching an opera for the first time. “I was walking in Times Square and it was magical to witness The Phantom of Opera. I realised how technical aspects consisting of music, costumes, light, sets and others are important to a performance.” After coming back to Hyderabad and having worked as a celebrity manager, she wanted to bring in a theatrical experience; that’s when she founded Coliseum Productions along with Dwij Vasavada.

Often, theatre directors step into the shoes of artistic directors. Rammohan Holagundi of Nishumbita Theatre calls it a necessity. “Directors have better understanding of the concept and are able to visualise their scenes. They can explain to the production designer but when two creative people pitch in with ideas, the interpretation might sometimes alter,” he adds.

Gunjan Bhattacharya
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By arrangement

Gunjan Bhattacharya’s free time and weekends are packed as an actor and artistic director for KissaGo and Sankalan Theatre. In his 16-year theatre journey, the director of sales at ValueLabs has spent six years in Hyderabad. “You may have a brilliant performer but without a right set and lighting, his acting will not shine,” he points out. With a masters in environment science, Gunjan tries to create sets with carbon neutral materials using less water and VOC paints. Old city is his destination to buy accessories for décor. In the dozen sets that he has created till now, he has worked on a big budgets ranging from ₹ 40,000 to even as less as ₹ 8,000. Reuse, recycle

  • Wooden frames
  • Bamboo sticks
  • Rectangle and square boxes of plywood,
  • Cotton and jute cloth
  • Paintings
  • Geru soil

A scene from the play Pardon
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By arrangement

“It is a challenge to create a palace with only ₹ 6k but with stringent budgets I have learnt to manage the expenditure, not throw away props and realised how reusing and recycling can cut down 40 per cent of a budget,” he smiles. Watching the rehearsals regularly and understanding the actors’ body movement is vital for these designers. “I also watch each person’s handling of stage and give space for the actors to move around. If well built artiste is leaning on a delicate wall, I have to ensure the set doesn’t crumble,”

A scene from a Shudrka’s play
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By arrangement

Most production designers in theatre have learnt their craft on the job. Pulak Haldar, a scientist with DRDO is the production designer for Shudrka Theatre. A passionate photographer, Pulak began by creating Durga puja mandaps during Dasara. “Our main objective was to bring out the best of a play with less time money, and transportation costs,” he shares and gives his own example of how he cut down costs by using alternative material. “Some theatre companies use real objects like furniture and other décor items. Once we had to create a wedding scene. We used teak and a decorative cloth and two artistes held it as pillars so that it looked like the entrance of a gate.”

Production designers also have to ensure that their set does not dominate performances. Nishumbita’s Hamlet was a set-heavy play which distracted the audiences’ attention from performances. Ram adds, “We need to be creative but not swayed by creative process.”

It is also remarkable how these theatre groups support each other during tough times. Kissago lends some of its things to Kaash and Darpan Theatre. Says Gunjan, “No one is competing here and we are only trying to uplift the theatre scene in Hyderabad.” There has been new experiments too in the form of multi-sets (complex script which required multiple locations) abstract and three dimensional ones. While providing a visual treat, these production designers hope to make their sets an important part of storytelling.

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