Hello and welcome to another edition of Talking Theatre.
I’m Alex Donovan and today I’m joined by Colin Winslow, Set and Costume Designer for Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol, a satirical play currently running at the Timms Centre until February 18. You can read an excerpt of our interview here, or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
You have quite the storied career, I was hoping you could share some highlights with us.
It’s been a very long career. I was actually born on a small farm in a remote part of – in the middle of England. It was quite clear I was never going to be a farmer. At the age of 11, I was taken to the theatre by my parents and decided I wanted to work in the theatre. The big problem was how on earth I was going to do it! Much of family, that weren’t farmers, were school teachers. My parents thought it would be very nice if I were to become a school teacher. So I devised a rather nasty plan. I remember I was 17 and I was cycling home one night and I worked out exactly how to do it. I would tell my parents I would become a teacher to please them, but I wanted to become an art teacher. This meant I would have to go to an arts school and they asked me where, and I said Canterbury has quite a nice art school. This was very good because it’s a nice respectable cathedral town but I knew they had a theatre there. A repertory theatre. So my first day I dropped my bags where I was staying, found the theatre, went round to the stage door and knocked. I said I’m a student, is there anything I can do to help? And they said, oh yes indeed! In the paint shop, we’ve just opened a show, and we have dozens of dirty buckets. I scrubbed them! You’ve never seen cleaner paint buckets. I almost flunked my courses at the art school because I was round there every night helping paint scenery. Weekends, long holidays I stayed over and worked there. When I graduated, I came round and asked if they had a job for me and they said yes, indeed. So I worked there as a scene painter and assistant designer and worked there for three years, becoming a designer. So I literally got into the theatre by the back door.
You’ve worked in a lot of a different countries, Scotland, England, Holland, the US, and more. What are some of the differences working here in Canada?
There’s a great difference I’ve found. I’ve had to earn a living, enough to make the rent. For that reason, a lot of my work has been commercial theatre, where frankly, artistic standards are secondary to getting bums in the auditorium. I’ve had to work primarily technically, making sure it comes into budget and will fit into whichever theatre it tours to. Also, it seems extraordinary to have such a long period for rehearsals and such a long period for setting the show up onstage that we do here. In England, I was used to doing the presentation on the first day of rehearsals, they’d then read the play and start putting it on its feet. If you were lucky you’d maybe get three weeks of rehearsals and then you may be getting the scenery up on the stage overnight Sunday, dress rehearsing Monday morning and opening in the afternoon. It’s been that sort of thing. So it’s been a great luxury here to focus a bit more on artistic standards rather than just the business of theatre. But business of theatre pays the rent, or at least my rent!
Could you talk to us a bit about what your design process is?
The design process changes for the nature of the shows and conditions you’re working on. I probably would not approach a production of Hamlet or King Lear in the way I would approach this one. This play, Government Inspector, is rather extraordinary because I’ve done a lot of Russian classics, I’ve designed this one before, and in my experience it’s suffered greatly from very respectful translations. People tend to say lines like “pray, will you take a seat?” Whereas in this version they say “park your ass”! So the fact that it’s done in very colloquial, rather vulgar language at times, means you approach it in a very different way. I wasn’t at all interested in historical accuracy. Ron Jenkins, who’s a friend, we’ve worked together before. One of the first things he said to me was “this isn’t Downton Abbey”. I didn’t find it necessary to do any research into the costumes, I don’t know what the period looked like it’s just what I felt, what I’ve seen them like. We decided it should look a bit like Russia some years ago but that’s about it. That actually gave me a lot of freedom. It’s also very iconoclastic, it’s very rebellious… which is nice, because I believe the original production way back in 1836 was pretty shocking. It really was! And so in a way we’ve got something of the same shock value in this production. So that meant we go very very colourful, and very very crude in a way. It’s the first time I’ve done a completely yellow set. When I started working at Canterbury as a scene painter, one of the things I was told was you can’t have yellow on the stage because it’s an inherently nasty colour and doesn’t work in the theatre. That’s why the set is basically yellow from top to bottom! And I suppose I was looking for a sort of toy town feel. Originally I wanted the mayor’s house to open up like a doll’s house so that when they audience comes in they’d see the front and it would open up. We couldn’t do that because of budget essentially. We’ve replaced that with a projection of the outside which works fine.
I know most of these actors quite well and I barely recognize them, could you talk a bit about the costuming choices?
It’s very much character driven and that’s what I tried to do in the costume design. Most of the actors are wearing an extraordinary amount of padding over various places to give different shapes to the characters. They actors are of course very young while most of the characters in the play are elderly and doddery. I think it probably helps to hide their youthful figures and helps to make them feel a little less comfortable than they would be skipping around in jeans and a sweatshirt. I have to say I’m so very proud of the work wardrobe has done on this and the workshops as well.
Now that the set and costumes are in the space, what is the transition like from your page to the stage?
Doesn’t quite go like that. Theatre is a collaborative art form. I take that to the nth degree. Right from the very start if I have an idea I go to whomever is involved, and in this case we had an idea from the start that in the hotel room (it’s supposed to be the worst hotel room in Russia) that a train goes past occasionally and the whole set bounces up and down. Ron thought that would be quite funny. Before I did anything else with it I went to talk to Darryl, our master carpenter, how do we do this? And he did some work on it. He’s got more expertise than I do on these sorts of things. And talking about the form of padding and costumes I went to wardrobe first to ask what is involved, so if you’ve got any sense then you use the expertise of all the people around you. This is collaboration. I’ve never been the type of designer who goes and says “I want this, this is how I want it”. Because if you do that you’re on very shaky ground because you’ve got a whole group of people around you who’ve got a vast amount of experience in all sorts of different fields and you’re an idiot not to use it, really.
I think that’s the beauty of working in this kind of university level, there’s so many people with so much expertise here. I imagine this collaborative process eliminates any type of surprises when the set is put into the theatre?
Well there shouldn’t be any surprises. Except that after a great many years as a designer I still get, every show I’ve ever done, I get a slight surprise when I walk into the workshops. My first reaction is, oh my god, isn’t it big! But that’s because I’ve been working on a half inch/foot scale model for a long time on my desk and I’ve got used to those tiny little bits. Of course it’s much bigger when you see it for real!
If you found that interesting then give a listen to the whole podcast below or at Talking Theatre on iTunes. Until next time, this has been Alex Donovan giving you a glimpse behind the world of theatre creation. Thank you to my guest Colin Winslow, and get yourself to the theatre to see Government Inspector!
Government Inspector runs each evening at 7:30 p.m. February 9 – 18, 2017 in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see www.ualberta.ca/arts/shows/theatre-listings/government-inspector
Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.