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INTERVIEW: Christopher Ash on Set Design, Lions

A humble throne (upstage center) is dwarfed by the massive staircase in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Lion in Winter. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Sit down to watch a production of The Lion in Winter at the Guthrie and one of the first things you’ll notice is the monumental set design. This evocative backdrop is filled with small touches that help impart a sense of scale and dynamicism, something that has been much-talked about during intermission and on the escalator after the show.  The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with co-set designer Christopher Ash about his work on this play.

You share a credit for set design in this production. What was the division of duties, and how did you set the tone for collaboration?

Set Designer Christopher Ash.

Beowulf [Boritt] and Kevin [Moriarty] have a relationship that goes back many years, so the majority of the creative decisions were made between Kevin and Beowulf.  When the shape of the design began to reveal itself, I became more involved in the process to fitting the ideas into the space and designing the details of the rooms, the turntable, lift and furniture. The term co-design might be a little misleading honestly. Beowulf was very much the leader in the creative decision making – then, I then took those initial ideas and made the most of them while making the day to day decisions in the theatre.

Since budgets are always a practical concern, many set designs artfully recycle elements built for previous productions. Were there any notable reuses/repurposings for this show?

When working on the design of a production, we almost always begin with an empty slate.  If you start to think about how you are going to use existing materials before you even know what the piece looks like then you inherently begin to box yourself in.

Now, once you know what you want, we always look in the garage first and see what we already have that will fit the bill.  If we had owned or knew of someone who owned hundreds of controllable LED candles, then I am sure we would have re-used those.

The truth is that so many things are being invented [that] so much of it needs to be created from scratch. Literally every piece of furniture was a piece that we designed from research.  I know the bed posts were re-purposed, many of the props, and the snow!!   (Although believe it or not… the snow gets dirty so you often need to replace that.)

There are many shops that are very good about recycling their materials once the show is over.  It’s possible that some of the materials for the structure were recycled.

The iconic candle frame in the Guthrie’s production of The Lion in Winter. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Who conceived the mammoth candle frame? Is there a within-the-play story about how those all get lit (e.g., some little peasant boy has to get sent up there), or is it pure rule-of-cool fantasy?

The candle frame is a piece conceived by Beowulf. Clifton and I knew that there is a lot of potential emotional narrative with the candles.  We talked about what would happen when a character would enter the space and he would make the candles flicker – as  blown by the wind from an open door – or as the family begins to fall apart, that the candles begin to burn out.

How they get lit in the first place?  Definitely little people…  castle gnomes…

What was the timeline like for the set construction, from design to construction to tech? 

Shorter than you would think – although I don’t think that means not carefully considered.

I believe Beowulf and I began speaking about the piece in the beginning of the summer.  He and Kevin had created a design idea by late July. By early August, we were in technical discussions and planning.

The shop at the Guthrie honestly works miracles with their efficiency, engineering, and clever use of materials to create this set snow and all in as little as 5-6 weeks…at the same time [as they were] working on A Christmas Carol.  Apparently the shop was a sight to behold, stuffed to the gills with scenery.

You did a lot of lighting and projection work before heading off to the Yale School of Drama. Has your focus become more narrow since then, or are you still working in multiple design areas?

I am fortunate that I continue to design scenery, projections, and lighting frequently. In my time at Yale, while my focus was in scenic design, my education and practice was also in lighting, projection, and costumes.

I believe that a designer for theatre should have a well-rounded understanding of all the disciplines. That includes stagecraft, management and directing. I don’t believe that in order to be a designer you need to practice all of the above, but I can’t imagine thinking about a set without having an idea of how it might be lit, or what the clothes might looks like, or how the blocking and tone of the performer will color the space.

Honestly, I would probably get a bit stir crazy if I were only designing one element all the time.

The Lion in Winter plays through Dec. 31 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Basil Considine