Several months back, we worked with the National Theater of Great Britain to produce and design a gala in New York City coinciding with the opening of War Horse, this year’s Tony winner for Best Play. A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing this incredible theater piece for the first time. It’s not unusual that we design events for cultural institutions without seeing the actual productions. Of course, that is not ideal, but it does create a great design brain teaser!
You might ask, “How do you design for something that you have not seen?” The answer? Research, research, research, and let the mind flow!
We never look to copy or replicate the magic that has occurred on stage, so in some ways, it is almost better to interpret the material, the time period, the vibe without watching the actual show. We research the era – in this case, World War I in Britain. We look at the set design, costumes, graphics, and story elements in detail. We think about the foods of a region and moment, the music, the styles of the times. And we think about our actual event space at hand. In our case here, the event was held in a grand tent that felt much more like an airplane hangar than an intimate party space.
The actual show is dark and filled with the angst of war and conflict, but parties are about celebration, so we hung on to a brief moment in the production, before the men marched off to war, where a countryside celebration in rural Britain unfolded. And then we had fun. We draped the tent in midnight blue to make it more intimately scaled and to conceal the unattractive hardware. We erected a fanciful maypole in the center of the room; its pink and blue streamers becoming an airy canopy overhead. We interspersed glowing strings of old fashioned festooned bulbs, and we elevated floral bunting above an array of rectangular tables set with mismatched china and field flowers overflowing from tea cups and other vessels. Grand portraits of kings and queens presided over the festivities on one wall and opposite, a giant drawing from the set of the rural town in Britain greeted guests upon arrival to set the tone for this fantasy location.
Keep reading for more details behind the design for the War Horse gala.
It’s important to me to create a setting that is both forward thinking, and at the same time reflective of the production, and to create a fantasy setting that not only extends the drama of what the guests just saw in the theater, but feels fresh and new. When the incredible horse puppets of the production entered the dinner tent for a standing ovation, I knew we hit our mark for the party, but I was so happy to see the production to realize just how spot on our research really was.
Go see War Horse! It has been playing to packed houses in London for quite some time, so we are very lucky to now have a brilliant production at Lincoln Center. The artistry of the puppets and the set are groundbreaking, the story and acting are special, but this show as an entire, creative vision makes one of the greatest arguments for the magic and metaphor that only live theater can deliver.
Thank you for the inspiring post, David! If you missed David Stark's first guest post, check out When Décor Tells a Real Story and David Stark Shares Photos From the Joyful Heart Foundation Gala.