March 10, 2007

Grand designs

This year's Life! Theatre Awards Best Set Design nominees include two students majoring in architecture and interior design


UNDERGRADUATE Nicholas Li skipped a week of school to paint the set of The Theatre Practice's landmark production, Thunderstorm, about an ill-fated family with closets bursting with skeletons.

The 22-year-old and a group of five friends holed themselves up in a factory in Paya Lebar from 9am to 2am the next morning every day to finish the job. The two-storey set is a behemoth, comprising intricate paper cut-outs and wooden grilles.

Li, whose past set designs include last year's Death And The Maiden and Homesick, says of Thunderstorm: 'It's the most intensive set I've done. I don't speak Chinese very well and Wu Xi (the director) helped me to understand the play.'

The second-year architecture undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is not the only student nominated for Best Set Design in this year's Life! Theatre Awards, to be presented on March 19 at the SPH Auditorium.

Another is Melia Linggasari Simon, a second-year interior design student at the Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts. She is nominated for her architectural creation for the Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Gingerbread Man, and shares the nomination with her two teachers, Mr Mohd Fared Jainal and Ms Goh Suhan.

The set was part of a school project and marks the first time that Lasalle has collaborated with a theatre company on a professional production.

The 20-year-old explains that she was inspired by paper cut-outs to create her imaginative set for the children's production, about a brave Gingerbread Man who rallies his friends to help their friend Herr Von Cuckoo get his voice back.

She says: 'There's more room for fantasy and the two-dimensional pieces become a three-dimensional set when you layer them.'

Mr Fared, 33, adds: 'It had to be interesting visually and we used many bright colours. We wanted an element of fun in the set so that the cast could play within it.'

The result was a two-storey-high set with slides and a life-size cuckoo clock from which characters could spring out.

Indeed, tickling the audience's imagination is key to good set design.

Thai set designer Thoranisorn Pitikul transported his audience to the Bronx of the 1960s for Doubt, Action Theatre's production of the American playwright John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-winning play about a sex scandal in a Catholic school.

Veteran set designer Sebastian Zeng, 43, scored a double nomination this year for the Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Dresser and the NUS Centre For The Arts' Man Of Letters.

The head of design services at Asian Civilisations Museum won a Life! Theatre Award for his set design for luna-id Theatre's The Physicists in 2005, and has created more than 100 sets for theatrical productions since 1989.

In Man Of Letters, a musical adaption of Cyrano De Bergerac, he created a three-story set which reflected the 1950s NUS campus. He designed a more stylised design for The Dresser, about a theatre troupe in World War II-era Britain.

He says the challenge in the latter was in creating a set which showcased a dressing room, a backstage area and the front stage, with no scene transitions. He solved the problem by placing a gauze screen in the middle of the stage. With the clever use of lighting, the screen resembled a solid brick wall at times and became translucent at others to reveal the rooms behind.

He says: 'A set designer's role is to give the audience a remarkable visual experience. The design should move with the script. This way, the set itself gains a soul.'

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Sebastian Zeng

Production: Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Dresser and NUS Centre For The Arts' Man Of Letters

Why: Lianhe Zaobao arts correspondent Chew Boon Leong says: 'The Dresser was staged at the DBS Arts Centre and the stage had quite a lot of restrictions. It was small and there's not enough depth. Still, Zeng managed to work around these limitations. For example, he used the simple opening and closing of doors to change the scene.

'Man Of Letters was also quite impressive. I liked that he used a lot of ladders and platforms to create different levels. One moment, the characters were on a high platform singing and the next, they were on the ground. The whole set was like a moving character by itself.'

Thoranisorn Pitikul

Production: Action Theatre's Doubt

Why: University lecturer K.K. Seet says: 'The interiors and exteriors of the school were captured with minimal fuss and optimal impact, and the set was a clever play with perspective to convey an expanse of sky in the alfresco scenes.'

Melia Linggasari Simon, Mohd Fared Jainal and Goh Suhan

Production: Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Gingerbread Man

Why: Awards judge and freelance reviewer Sangeetha Madhavan says: 'It was really imaginatively done to evoke crockery on the shelves. It was quite realistic and was not simplified just because it was a children's production. The set made good use of the space and there were three different levels of action.'

Nicholas Li

Production: The Theatre Practice's Thunderstorm

Why: Chew says: 'I liked how the set conjured up the atmosphere of the play. It was epic and it established the mood well. I liked the twist in the second half of the play where they flipped the house interior around.'