The Designers Challenge – Epsilon Summer Season Blog



Mike Lees is a theatre designer and has a long standing working collaboration with Epsilon Productions’ Artistic Director Jemma Gross, here Mike talks about the challenge of designing the two productions in their forthcoming summer season.


“I’m not sure…there’s something not quite…”

“What if we did this…”

“Better…but there still something…”

“I know what it is…I don’t like it!”

“Oh thank god…neither do I!”

There aren’t many design meetings with directors that start that way. But luckily Jemma Gross and I have worked together often enough to be able to be honest and to be able to trust each other’s decisions.

We have been sitting in my garden in Brixton in the glorious London summer, which has finally arrived, starring onto a lovingly recreated 1:25 scale model of the Park Theatre’s 90 stage. Amidst the foam board and card seating units are sitting scale figures and tiny chairs, attempting to give a representation of what the finished design for Epsilon’s forthcoming double bill of Crystal Springs and Chicken Shop will be.

Both plays offer totally different challenges: Crystal Springs is heavily influenced by technology and cyber bullying, whilst Chicken Shop deals with bullying and sex.

Jemma and I have been chatting backwards and forwards about the look of the two plays for some time now. Sending each other images and inspiration, dismissing almost enough ideas and designs for a whole years worth of plays. The concept of designing a season isn’t a new challenge to me, but there is the task of creating two very distinct worlds and making the space as different as possible for a returning audience.

Playwrights have the wonderful habit of being very explicit in their stage directions and setting of the scenes. They have created an image in their heads of where and how the play takes place and sometimes, due to the budget or the technical restrictions of the theatre, it isn’t always possible to create three distinct living spaces, which is the case in Chicken Shop, or to base the entire action around an abstract light-up table. As a designer, of course I read the stage directions, but sometimes, its just easier to take a big black marker pen and to cross all of them out, concentrating on the words the characters say, freeing up the action and listening to the emotion of the piece. I mean…if it worked for Shakespeare!

Freed up from the physical restrictions of the piece, Jemma and I played with figures and pieces of furniture in the model box, looking at formations and textures, pieces of ripped up coloured paper and folded cardboard shapes litter the box, and most of the garden.

“Does it say technology?”

“No…but what if…”

“it needs to say masculine as well as giving a feminine edge…”

“So what if….” An idea strikes, I shut the mac we are working with and place a scale figure on the closed lid. “So what if that’s it?”

“Oooo…Yes. I can see that!”

Sometimes, a happy accident can result in a really simple and effective set design.

Now we have the seed of an idea, the sets develop at an alarming pace. Tiny props are recreated and little people populate the model to play with formations and spatial blocking; seating configurations are played with and dismissed: we look at staging one of the plays in the round, and toy with the idea of rotating the stage 180 degrees mid show to give the audience new perspectives on the action. Characters begin to form and costumes suggest themselves. I like allowing Actors to create characters in rehearsal rather than imposing restrictions through costume before they’ve even got to grasps with the text. For Crystal Springs, I found a visual artist who creates outfits inspired social media, using their work as a basis, the actors have been exploring these concepts in rehearsal and how their characters have been influenced by them. The nice thing about designing two shows set in the present is that there are so many Internet as well as high street stores which can allow us to source the exact thing we need…quickly and well within the budget. A stark contrast to my other show this summer; the premiere of a new WW1 play by Rolf Huchhuth at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court entitled Sommer:14, all Edwardian corsets, dresses and German army uniforms, where period detail is important and incredibly noticeable in such a small space.

So as I type, the set for Crystal Springs is well under construction. Props are being sourced and pieces of costume are populating the dress rail in my office ready for fitting. Colour and paint samples sit on my desk and the final elements for Chicken Shop are slowly falling into place, ready to start rehearsals once the other shows have opened. Scripts for the autumn and my next play with Jemma in the New Year sit in a pile in the corner covered in post-it notes alongside theatre models and ground plans yet to be looked at…maybe I could take five minutes break in the garden and enjoy the sunshine…maybe…


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