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
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. org.uk
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