Designing Jekyll and Hyde in 7 Steps

My latest set design for Jekyll and Hyde the Musical opened on the Meadowvale Theatre stage in Mississauga last week. In the wake of the reactions and reviews I have been receiving since the show opened, I wanted to take a few minutes to take you step-by-step through the design process.

Before we go too far, you should have a basic understanding of what this set is and does. What I call the “base set” consists of 6 scrim framework panels measuring 8′ wide by 20′ high. (they’re actually 24′ by the audience can only see the lower 20′) These panels are fixed at centre on 3 sets of moving track which open and close just like a traveler curtain. By changing how much you open each set of panels, you can create different looks, hide and reveal scenes and so much more. As many have already said, the set is almost like a character in the show. With 48 panel cues, this set moves this show!

Now before you call me an evil genius, the panels were not my idea. Our fabulous director, Michael MacLennan, brought the initial concept to the table after having seen something similar in a production show. I took the concept, redesigned the panels to create a cohesive look to the show, added elements and designed all of the scenes to utilize the panel concept. This means that aside from the panels, many other pieces are designed to fit among them to create bedrooms, Jekyll’s lab, study, the Red Rat (a bar), street scenes and much more.

My job as the designer is really to take what the director wants both visually and physically and turn it into a cohesive set of items which fit together to create the experience that is Jekyll and Hyde’s world. Throughout this process I create 3D renderings, blueprints, build lists, paint charts, lineset schedules and technical requirements. Additionally, I act as the central point of contact between the theatre technical staff, track rental company and the build team to make sure everything comes together.

Yep, it’s a busy job! So let’s take a look at how this crazy journey progresses. It is essentially a 7 step process.

1: Plan

This is where I sit down with the director and start to gather requirements. This is where we ask and answer a lot of questions including:

  • What is the general tone and feeling of the show?
  • What can/should the panels do?
  • How do you want to stage certain scenes?
  • Are there certain elements you must have in each scene (I create a big chart of all must-have items scene by scene.)

2: Design

Once the director and I are on the same page, I go to work. I disappear for a while and create sketch after sketch until I start to see some things I like. I then move into the 3D space where things really start to come to life.

For this show, I started with Jekyll’s lab. I had created a rough sketch of a set of bookcases which were built to look like DNA. I put these in the air, designed a simple lab table and started adding other elements to it. While the bookcase later ended up in the study, it was a good starting point and ended up influencing other scenic pieces as well.

Side note: I have wanted to do accents like the ones in the top corners of the pros for a while now. I’m glad that I finally had the right set to do them on. It helps frame the proscenium to give it a certain look, but more importantly helps to give a sense of depth to the other elements on the stage.

Once the scenes have all been mocked up to scale in 3D, everything is dropped into a PowerPoint presentation which I take to the director.

3: Revise

So I have all these wonderful images and it’s done now right? Nope! Now it’s time to really pick it apart. The director and I sit down and hash through each scene making changes based on how things will be staged, moved or should look. Elements are cut, added and tweaked over several meetings until we have reached the right blend of visual and practical.

Once this stage is complete, I take everything to the technical director at the theatre to hash out the details. Because this show involved the rental and installation of 3 lines of scenic tracks, every little detail had to be crystal clear. Where does it go, what does it weigh, how are you building it etc.

4: Documentation & Plans

Now that the design is ready to go, I move into documentation mode creating the following:

Blueprints

Blueprints are created for every single item we build from the smallest chair to the 24′ tall panels. For this show, there were roughly 20 elements requiring blueprints, although some shows have many more.

Lineset

This document details where elements are to be rigged for flying. It details which lines are used for what, how much cable we need, what needs power and much more. This was revised multiple times before move-in to ensure that the location of flown elements all worked seamlessly around how the show was blocked.

Build & Paint Lists

Because I also take part in the build, I help maintain the lists of what needs to be built, painted etc. while running around making design decisions and cutting myself on the table saw (yep, it happened, let’s move on). Organization is key with a set like this, especially when it all has to be built in under 9 shop days.

There are also several less exciting items like budgets sheets, but I left those out to keep you from falling asleep!

5: The Build

Leveraging the blueprints and 3D drawings, it’s time to put it together. I have been lucky enough to work with the most incredible build team the last few years. Led by our master carpenter Paul, we build all of the major set pieces and any furniture which has to be built. In this particular case there was so much furniture to source, that we ended up taking on some of the key items which meant a last minute design and build in the final days before moving into the theatre. But like I said, I work with an amazing team and they made it happen.<.p>

6: Move-In

This is it, the day several months have led to. The day we actually load the trucks and move into the theatre. For this set, there was no structure to build on the stage, meaning every single scenic element (excluding furniture) was flown. We managed to get the track units on the pipes and all 6 panels up between the hours of 10am and 10pm. This was a very meticulous task as everything had to be done carefully and with a certain element of precision. It quite literally took an army of smart people to get the set in the air.

7: Finesse

Now that the set is physically standing, I can start to play. A lot of work goes into adding accent pieces, adjusting trim heights and fly positioning, adjusting furniture placement, working with the lighting designer and finding the right balance to all of the elements on the stage. All of this is happening while the crew is coordinating set changes, the lighting designer is focusing and the build team is polishing off last minute details.

We only get one night before the cast hits the stage and a few days worth of sneaking around behind them before the show opens, so it really is crunch time.

The Final Result

Months of designing, planning and physical labour have finally all come together. The way this set looks and moves is both practical and something of a spectacle to watch and it certainly wouldn’t have happened without all of the talented people who came together to make this project a reality. Every screw, brush stroke and stage light helps to take our audience away to another time and place.

Stand by LX1….

And LX1…

…GO!

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