Let's talk about sets: Cecilia Carey on staging three plays in rep for the NYT

Designer Carey discusses the trials and tribulations of developing three different sets that work with the existing ”Stomp” set up

On signing my contract with the National Youth Theatre it became apparent I had a unique design challenge on my hands! My brief was to solve three very different shows for their REP season over the set of Stomp that each had to be turned around from one show to the next in an hour. But most importantly the sets needed to be bundled up and squashed into any last remaining nooks and crannies of the Ambassadors Theatre storage that could be found. I was apprehensively excited – an amazing opportunity to work with a variety of brilliant creatives and a superb talented young cast, in the West End.

The Merchant of Venice was the first design I had to deliver of the three. I usually work on new writing, so it was a joy to be collaborating with director Anna Niland on her first Shakespeare play so we could tap into the language together and find a voice for the REP Company. Tom Stoppard‘s adaptation allowed us to have fun and develop this abstract modern world, where influences of Venetian and Modernist architecture and contemporary architects such as David Kohn prevailed. Light and shadows flitted in and out of the stage through the huge monochrome Venetian blinds that were printed with fragments of the Rialto and buildings. The three modules were constantly re-configured for scenes and set off the block colour costumes.

Consensual threw me in a totally different direction with this hard hitting, provocative play that needed two very separate feels either side of the interval. The first act is multi-locationed and director Pia Furtado and I felt it required a grimy, scarred quality – floor and backdrop. I really enjoyed developing a surface to reflect this marked and gritty teenage world, landing on a silver reflective material that was scenic paintedly scratched up and grubby. It also doubled as a ‘blackboard’ for the chalk moments. The table and set of school chairs, cleverly directed, transported us to each place. This worn texture for the multi-locationed first act felt crucial to contrast with the second – the stark reality of what had happened seven years previous.

I was excited to try something really different for Wuthering Heights as it is such a well known novel. The presence of nature felt hugely significant in Steph Street‘s adaptation and we also needed an arena for these adrenaline fuelled teenagers and ‘chorus’ to shift in and out. Black ‘soil’ was integral to the barefoot cast feeling the ‘ground’ and the effect on their movement.

Emily Lim and I spoke to lighting designer Josh Pharo a lot earlier on in the process than the other two shows because of the ethereal quality we were after with the swaths of plastic: hand held birdies, flouris and festoons. Once the plastic was finally erected in the theatre we could start to experiment with it and the landscape like contours became illuminated – not a normal material for making theatre drapes.

With Stomp‘s set permanently there, it is actually a deceptively small playing space for visiting shows, but with each design I strove to overcome this and made use of Stomp‘s higher levels upstage. It was such a fantastic experience to see all the 1:25 models become reality – I survived!

– Cecilia Carey is a set and costume designer. Find out more about her work here.

The National Youth Theatre's REP season plays at the Ambassadors Theatre, London until 4 December.