This piece has been written by one of our very experienced set design team, Louis Lawrence, explaining how he has taken on the challenge of designing a stage for Little Gem...a play without staging.....
I asked Maggie for an opportunity to design a stage set in the current season. She asked me to work on ‘Little Gem’. When I got the script I was surprised to find there were no stage directions and there was no previous set design illustrated.
This is very unusual as, in normal circumstances, the playwright is very specific about how they see the play and the settings, leaving little room for anything but surfaces and ambience of décor.
Shakespeare specifies settings and activity, and George Bernard Shaw was notorious for his meticulous notes about how his plays should be staged. It's not often a set-designer works without any kind of parameter. It is a challenge. The only previous experience I had of this situation was at Toynbee Hall in the 1950’s when a friend of mine authored two plays both of which sank without trace.
Having read the script twice, I began to get an impression of how the actors might be moving about, and when research produced a critique published after the original show in Dublin, it became clear that the action would revolve around some chairs.
Indeed the critic seemed obsessed by the chairs and assumed because they were an ill assorted lot, that there was some meaning to them, which it turns out there is not other than as seating.
It bears out the understanding that everything appearing on stage however small the detail is attributed some significance by the onlooker.
The action of the play could be taking place in a number of locations as the actors speak about their lives and times. It was manifestly impossible to provide all these on the Apollo stage. Also It would have been a distraction from the continuity of the action were there lots of scene changes.
When I discussed this with Maggie she agreed with me that a neutral setting would be best and she asked only for one simple piece of furniture to be available for multiple uses: a raised dais as an acting area, and a prop bed to be brought on (apart from those pesky chairs!)
But how neutral? The ethos of this play lies entirely in the individual actors’ monologues and the mental pictures they create for the audience. The stage set could not impinge on or distract. It needed to be totally neutral, undecorated, leaving the audiences eyes to focus on the actors only. Technically, allowance has to be made for getting on and off but apart from that It could be all black ….we chose white.
In the actual production I hope the audience will be totally unaware of the stage set– just the players, that’s how it should be!