How Up­stage De­signs brings magic to the theatre from their Glouces­ter home

Be­hind the magic, be­hind the smoke and mir­rors, of some of the world’s best the­atri­cal pro­duc­tions are a cou­ple of cre­ative souls work­ing qui­etly away in their Glouces­ter home

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS - WORDS: Candia Mckormack PHO­TOS: Antony Thomp­son

Ido love a spot of serendip­ity. A few weeks ago, there I was sit­ting in the stalls at the Every­man Theatre in Chel­tenham watch­ing a per­for­mance of Drac­ula, which was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a few tech­ni­cal glitches. It was press night – of all the nights! – but the sil­ver lin­ing was that the au­di­ence had the op­por­tu­nity to look at the theatre’s beau­ti­fully painted safety screen for longer than was usual. The cheeky ex­pres­sions of the cherubs, the star-stud­ded night sky far above, and the gor­geously re­alised trompe l’oeil of the vel­vet cur­tain… I won­dered who was be­hind such a bril­liant de­sign.

And then… just two days later an email pings through from Mssrs Phil R Daniels and Charles Cu­sick Smith of Up­stage De­signs, ask­ing if I’d like a chat. It turns out that their de­sign for Chel­tenham’s safety cur­tain has been ac­cepted into the na­tional col­lec­tion at the V&A. Cu­ri­ouser and cu­ri­ouser.

Two weeks later I’m wel­comed with open arms and a pot of tea into the de­sign pair’s Glouces­ter home. And – here’s a lit­tle more serendip­ity for you – not only had they also been to see the Chel­tenham pro­duc­tion of Drac­ula, they had just fin­ished work­ing on a bal­let of the same story in West Aus­tralia. A very dif­fer­ent crea­ture to the one I had ex­pe­ri­enced in Glouces­ter­shire, though, as Phil ex­plained.

“The chore­og­ra­pher for the Drac­ula bal­let that we worked on was Krzysztof Pas­tor, di­rec­tor of the Pol­ish Na­tional Bal­let, cul­tural icon and world-renowned chore­og­ra­pher.” Cor. “Al­though we hadn’t worked with him be­fore, we were put for­ward by the di­rec­tor of West Aus­tralian Bal­let’s Nut­cracker.

“We said we wouldn’t work with him, though, un­less he re­ally wanted

us; theatre is a very cre­ative and col­lab­o­ra­tive process, so it’s im­por­tant you’re work­ing with the right peo­ple.”

And so Phil and Charles went to see Krzysztof’s pro­duc­tion of Romeo and Juliet and were blown away by the pro­duc­tion. “The cur­tain came down and, be­fore any­body came on stage, the whole au­di­to­rium stood up; it was amaz­ing,” con­tin­ues Phil, “and so we said to each other, ‘We must work with him!’”

The three got on so well that Krzysztof came over to stay with them in Glouces­ter, where they took him to see the Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture at the Cathe­dral and to look at table­top tombs in Pain­swick… all grist for the Drac­ula cre­ative mill.

“He didn’t want things to be to­tally real­is­tic in the de­sign for the bal­let,” Phil con­tin­ues, “but he loved black Catholic lace and so we made the ar­chi­tec­ture out of that, but in three di­men­sions and at 14 me­tres across.”

“We had two Drac­u­las on stage,” con­tin­ues Charles, “one we called ‘mon­ster’ Drac­ula and the other ‘beau­ti­ful’ Drac­ula, and they’d switch per­sonas on stage in such a way that you couldn’t see how they did it!”

Charles and Phil have been work­ing in the theatre for 36 and 35 years re­spec­tively, and have a wealth of sto­ries to tell. Aged just eight, Phil had his first taste of theatre – again, at Chel­tenham’s Every­man – and got the bug. Be­ing from a work­ing-class back­ground in Glouces­ter’s Vic­to­ria Street, though, how could he pos­si­bly com­pre­hend go­ing on to be­come a world-class the­atri­cal de­signer? From study­ing de­sign in the city, the de­ter­mined stu­dent then went on to Bris­tol Old Vic. Charles, who still has his Scot­tish lilt, stud­ied at Glas­gow School of Art, pro­gress­ing to the Slade in Lon­don.

In the three decades-plus the two have been work­ing in theatre, they’ve main­tained a hu­mil­ity and warmth of na­ture that must surely be one of the rea­sons they’re so loved in a world known – per­haps un­fairly – for dif­fi­cult tem­per­a­ments and egos. Phil, who painted the safety cur­tain at the Every­man from scaf­fold­ing in its en­tirety in just two weeks, says – sur­pris­ingly – he’s a “ner­vous painter”.

“What gen­er­ally hap­pens,” says Phil, “is that I’ll go along for a few days to see what the on-set artists are do­ing, put on paint­ing over­alls and say ‘you do it like this’. It’s im­por­tant we all work to­gether as a team.”

And ‘col­lab­o­ra­tive’ is a word that crops up a lot when talk­ing to Phil and Charles; they work so closely to­gether that some­times it’s dif­fi­cult to tell who is re­spon­si­ble for which part of the de­sign process.

“We work on the sets to­gether,” says Charles, “but I tend to work on the cos­tume and Phil takes over the ren­der­ing – all the tech­niques for the painters to carry out.”

Phil con­tin­ues, “It does de­pend on the project, though, be­cause some­times Charles will make the scenery and then I’ll dec­o­rate it…

“With a cre­ative imag­i­na­tion such as Charles’s,” he men­tions qui­etly while Charles is in the kitchen mak­ing cof­fee, “he’ll look at some­thing and take it to a com­pletely dif­fer­ent level, such as he did with the dolls in the Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion of The Nut­cracker. He’s very tal­ented.”

Ear­lier this year, their work was heav­ily fea­tured in the ex­hi­bi­tion Contes De Fées (Fairy Tales) at the Cen­tre Na­tional du Cos­tume de Scene in Moulins, France. So well re­spected are they, that not only was Charles’s de­sign for the Queen of Hearts used

‘Theatre is a very cre­ative and col­lab­o­ra­tive process’

on the poster, but their Alice in Won­der­land de­signs for the Bal­let du Capi­tole in Toulouse were given their very own gallery. They had no idea un­til they ar­rived in France, and were nat­u­rally de­lighted to see their work right up there along­side the likes of Chris­tian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Much of their in­spi­ra­tion comes from where they live, and so you can see a clock face from Glouces­ter Mu­seum fea­tur­ing in the Aus­tralian Nut­cracker set, and sug­ges­tions of ar­chi­tec­ture pop up which are based on build­ings in the Docks.

One of their favourite cos­tume mak­ers to work with – and who has made the Dame’s cos­tume for the Every­man’s panto for the last three years – is Jane Thomas-colquhoun, and this is an ex­am­ple of how, when they find the right peo­ple to work with, they’ll do all in their power to take them on dif­fer­ent projects. It’s all down to col­lab­o­ra­tion again.

And yet again this year, Charles and Phil have de­signed all the cos­tumes and sets for the town’s pan­tomime – Aladdin, star­ring Tweedy the Clown and di­rected by Blue Peter’s Peter Dun­can. And, see­ing them both at the Every­man for a pro­duc­tion meet­ing and the fit­ting of the Dame’s cos­tume – the ban­ter, the be­hind-thescenes world, and the an­tic­i­pa­tion of a cur­tain about to rise on an­other per­for­mance – you can tell they truly are in their nat­u­ral el­e­ment.

Aladdin is at the Every­man Theatre, Re­gent Street, Chel­tenham, GL50 1HQ, from No­vem­ber 30 un­til Jan­uary 13, 2019. Box Of­fice: 01242 572573; ev­ery­manthe­atre.

Up­stage De­signs’ Hello Dolly opens at Tiroler Lan­desthe­ater in Inns­bruck, Aus­tria, in De­cem­ber. In 2019 they will be de­sign­ing a new Nut­cracker for a Ger­man au­di­ence, as well as the first non-replica tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, work­ing with Ja­son Dono­van and pre­mier­ing in Septem­ber.

Phil R Daniels, with the Every­man fire cur­tain which he painted

Phil and Charles in their Glouces­ter stu­dio

Panto dame Daniel Beales is fit­ted with one of his dresses by Jane Thomas-colquhoun and cos­tume de­signer Char­lie Cu­sick Smith

LEFT: Phil and Charles's set de­sign for West Aus­tralia Bal­let's The Nut­cracker

BE­LOW: One of Charles Cu­sick Smith's cos­tume de­signs for Widow Twankey at this year's Every­man Theatre pro­duc­tion of Aladdin

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