The 39 Steps

By Barbara Ford

Michael Gianfrancesco & the Shaw Festival Cabaret maquette.  Photo by David Cooper.

Designer Michael Gianfrancesco

Centaur Theatre welcomes Toronto-based set and costume designer, Michael Gianfrancesco, back to Montreal for his second production here.  He has worked across Canada for theatre, opera and dance productions, including more than a decade each at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Canadian Stage Company, Citadel Theatre, Opera Atelier, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, the Canadian Opera Company, the National Ballet of Canada, the Royal Conservatory of Music and more.


Centaur Stage: What initially drew you to set and costume design?


Michael Gianfrancesco: Growing up, I was lucky to see a lot of live performance through school trips and family outings. I always participated in school productions and by the time I got to high school, I was working on musicals and plays as a part of the arts program at Eastwood Collegiate in Kitchener. While I initially focused on music and visual art, it was there that I discovered the idea of designing sets and costumes for the theatre, and realized that it was a perfect combination of all of the things I enjoyed doing. I really loved the collaborative experience of putting a show together with other people. We were offered so many opportunities to create and experiment in high school that by the end of my time there, I knew it was what I wanted to do. The teachers in that program were incredible and gave us such great training and allowed us to discover what the possibilities of a career in the arts could be.


CS: Where did you study your craft and who did you hold in high regard at the time?


MG: First I studied theatre design at Concordia University with the wonderful designer and professor, Ana Cappelluto. I also took many classes in the visual arts department. Moving to Montreal was very inspiring; it’s such a great place to be a student. While studying I was also able to see theatre throughout the City, go to museums, galleries and concerts - something my friends and I did constantly. Everything I saw was very influential and a perfect supplement to what we were doing at school. I took some time off to work at the Banff Centre as a design assistant in the opera program, which was an eye opening experience. The following year, they sent me to the Houston Grand Opera to assist a designer on the creation of a new opera they were co-producing; that’s where I got a sense of how new work is developed.


Growing up, having seen a lot of work at the Stratford Festival, it was the designers there that I really admired: Desmond Heeley, Patrick Clark, Ann Curtis, Debra Hanson. Desmond Heeley designed an incredible production of Amadeus ... it completely blew me away. He created a sense of the 18th century with a set made out of clear plastic covered in packing tape and metallic leaf. It was completely magical and a total illusion. His work has always been an inspiration.


I learned a lot about how to dress people from working with Patrick Clark. He has a beautiful sense of colour, and really tailors his costumes to the actors in a way that is seamless and believable. His knowledge of period clothing is encyclopedic. While in Montreal I was exposed to theatre productions that were less realistic, more conceptual and impressionistic, and movement based, which was a nice contrast to the kind of work I saw in Stratford growing up.


CS: Was there a time when you considered interior and/or fashion design as a profession?


MG: Yes, that was something I was always interested in, especially growing up not knowing about theatre design. I was obsessed with watching Jeanne Beker Sunday nights on Fashion Television! It was like escaping into another world. A fashion show can be highly theatrical and I loved learning about all of the different designers she interviewed and was fascinated by that world. But it is very different. Costumes and clothing are really completely different things.


CS: Can you talk us through the basic steps of designing a set.


MG: First I read the script, which is our guide in this process. I learn what the story is about, where it’s set (if anywhere), the time period, what the essential ideas and concepts are. I start to think about what the space should be like, how people should move through it, how it might need to change. Research is a very important part of my process. I look at a lot of different kinds of art for inspiration. I discover what is happening socially and politically at the time too … it all factors into the final design. After discussions with the director, I do a bit of sketching and start working on a rough maquette, starting with basic shapes and ideas. The maquette is a great tool to illustrate ideas to the director and for us to use to experiment with what the set will be. As the ideas crystalize, the maquette becomes more specific and detailed. It then becomes a way to communicate all of the design ideas to everyone working on the production: other designers, stage managers, and carpenters.


CS: Are there differences between theatre, opera and dance design?


MG: I think the initial process for designing for different disciplines is the same for me - but there are always things to consider that are different in regards to the kind of show. A dance show usually requires more open space, and often a less realistic, more poetic or abstract approach to an idea, as there is usually no text. I have worked on operas in many different scales, from shows in a black box theatre to shows in a large opera house. One has to consider what the space is like to sing in; will the surfaces be friendly to the acoustic nature of opera? Opera allows for a heightened sense of scale that sometimes a play is not suited to. It all relates to the story, and how I can support it as a designer.


CS: What were the most challenging aspects of designing the set and costumes for The 39 Steps? What were the most fun aspects?


MG: I love working on plays about the theatre and though this is inspired by the Hitchcock film, there are scenes that are set in a theatre; that was the jumping off point for how we approached the design. We set The 39 Steps in an old, abandoned vaudeville style theatre. We wanted to create a theatre that looked like it had been there for 100 years, so our approach was inspired by toy paper theatres as a possible way to execute the idea. The challenge was to create an environment that four actors could inhabit and manipulate, that is not too big or too small, that they are in control of. It was really enjoyable collaborating with Eda Holmes on what elements we would use to tell the story. The key component was that everything had to look like it came from backstage, as if it was left over from a previous production.


CS: You’ve designed for a lot of big musicals and large cast dramas. Was it strange working with a small cast for a production that relies on simple costuming to enable quick changes and a single set that has to conjure such a wide array of settings?


MG: I have worked on a lot of large shows, but I have also done lots of small scale productions. I really enjoy the differences between doing both; figuring out how to make it all work in one environment. Eda and I had to focus on what we needed to tell the story and to let the actors play and experiment in the rehearsal process. The costumes have to function in a very technical way, along with creating character and period. The clowns have to change at lightning speed and things need to come on and off easily for them. That pushed us to discover what they really needed to define each character. Sometimes it was a full change, and others it was just a hat. That’s what is so great about this play - its acknowledgement of the theatre. It is a celebration of theatricality, of how to convince the audience of something in a totally theatrical and stylized way that is not at all realistic. The actors contribute so much to this process in this kind of show.


CS: Is there a production that you’ve always dreamed of designing?


MG: I have always wanted to design a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Since high school, I have always been enamoured of his work, and particularly this show, as it is about the creative process.


CS: What are you working on for the remainder of the 2017-18 season?


MG: I am doing lots of exciting, new work this season. I just finished working on the new musical, The Hockey Sweater, at the Segal Theatre. After this Centaur show I will be at the Grand Theatre in London (Ontario), designing a new play called Silence with Peter Hinton. At Stratford next season I am designing the sets for two musicals: The Music Man and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both directed by Donna Feore. Then I’m designing the costumes for a new ballet being created by Robert LePage and Guillaume Côté for the National Ballet of Canada and Ex Machina. They are all intriguing projects that I am very excited about.


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