Alison Ashton is the set designer for Rendezvous, a series of five short plays that celebrate the life and work of playwright, novelist and poet Julia Darling.
How did you get involved in Rendezvous?
Gez Casey, Live Theatre’s Literary Manager, asked me to design Rendezvous. Our paths have crossed over the years and maybe he had seen some of my work recently, or spoken to others who had.
I didn’t meet Julia Darling as I haven’t always lived in the North East but I was very keen to create a design that reflected some of her quirky style. I knew that a large proportion of the audience would be made up of people who had known her and her work so really wanted the design to highlight some of her personality. When coming up with the design, I spoke with some of her close friends and family including The Poetry Virgins who she had worked with.
What is the design process for creating a set?
The design process goes something like this; A meeting to discuss the play/s. In this case I read quite a lot of Julia’s poems as well as the five short plays being presented in Rendezvous.
I will have a meeting with the director to talk about the play, the desired overall vision and the practicalities. I design many touring productions which means as well as being happy with the final design the set has to fit into a vehicle/s and look exactly the same on numerous different stages around the country. We also have to consider how many actors are on stage, whether it is a physical piece (dance/movement), how old they are i.e. children or people with disabilities. For example, I designed a set last year that involved a community choir of about 20 women and that was as well as the actors!
What themes in the show did you want to bring out in the design?
I was keen to create the Shoe Tree as this features in some of Julia’s work and is actually in Heaton Park, Newcastle where she lived. I talked to many people who know the Shoe Tree and it seems it means different things to different people but I like its quirky appeal.
Julia had many happy family holidays on the Isle of Wight and enjoyed the 1950’s nostalgia the place held for her. I tried to reflect this in the pale blue of the sky/sea against the pink of the apple blossom (shoes) of the tree. Pink of course is the colour we attach to breast cancer, which was the illness that Julia suffered from. She also loved the Rendezvous Cafe overlooking the beach at Whitley Bay and I have incorporated the tables and chairs from there to help set the scene.
The set needed to be abstract as the five plays are in numerous locations with a diverse mix of characters so it wouldn’t have felt right to design anything too literal.
What was the most challenging part of designing the set for Rendezvous?
It was a challenge to design a set that worked for all five pieces that’s why I wanted to try and understand a bit about Julia and use that as a starting point. I also considered the movement of the actors and the locations they found themselves in.
What kind of input from the creative team did you get and what were the implications of the feedback?
As a team we discussed practicalities and also lighting and sound ideas including the use of projection.
What is it like seeing your completed set on stage?
Seeing the final design on stage is a cumulative process where by all the research/meetings/drawings/ideas/models/costume fittings/building/painting has come together to reach this moment. It is the end of the journey for me but the start of one for the actors and crew.
Rendezvous runs from Thursday 28 May to Saturday 6 June in Live Theatre’s main theatre at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £14-£10 full price, over 60s concs £12-£10, other concs £5 and can be bought via Live Theatre’s box office on (0191) 232 1232 or online at www.live.org.uk. Find out more