Portrait

A chat with theatre designer Tracy Grant Lord, side stage at a rehearsal for Twelfth Night. By Cass Moriarty.

Theatre designer Tracy Grant Lord

We are seated two along from music legend Tim Finn. Director Sam Strong and his wife are one row in front. The performance of Twelfth Night is immersive and entertaining, full of drama and colour, curlicued language and outrageous plot twists. We are transported to the magical world of Illyria, where we live happily for almost three hours, the theatre seats dissolving around us.

As a theatre designer it is Tracy Grant Lord’s task to “complete the world, to pull the audience in so that they don’t question where they are”. While our first glance at a play, ballet, opera or musical might be drawn to the actors’ performances or the quality of the script, we often don’t consciously critique set and costume design because they are so much an integral part of the theatre experience. These background aspects are so seamlessly stitched into the fabric of the performance that we notice only when something breaks the illusion. And it is Grant Lord’s job to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Grant Lord’s role is to blur the lines between art, design and fashion as she honours the vision of the director, the capacity of the performer, the intention of the writer, and the experience of the audience. As designer for Queensland Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, responsible for both set and costume design, her focus is to serve these distinct groups and provide support to enable the entire ensemble to coalesce.

The intention of the writer or composer is paramount. “A script really speaks to you; it’s all on the page. As a visual designer, hearing the words and listening to the music informs the creation of the pictures,” says Grant Lord.

Trained in holistic design interpretation in New Zealand, she served as an in-house apprentice for 10 years before going freelance, and now designs for companies in Australia and around the world. The designer – like a performer – is “cast for a specific production”, and then spends a year or two in preparation for the show.

Typically, she will present thumbnails to the director, which progress to costume drawings; the finished wardrobe for Twelfth Night is overseen by a team of 12.

Set design begins as a white card model, “a conceptual three-dimensional idea of where we’re going”. In consideration of project budget and direction, this becomes a more detailed finished model in a 1:25 scale, which is used by the production crew to build the backdrops, furniture and props. All theatres have different requirements; some shows need to be portable for touring.

Grant Lord enjoys the epic classical stories that combine narrative, music and dance and are “so evocative of other worlds”.

Shakespeare is “so robust in integrity, [telling] universal stories that ring completely true no matter where or when or how or why. There’s just a truth to them, a magic.”

Grant Lord says that while film is composed of one performance by many contributors, live theatre is “different and fresh every night; it creates its own energy and draws you in; people become entranced by it”. She believes that theatre audiences are more engaged. “Everyone in that room shares that particular performance that night, it’s never going to happen in the same way again.”

Her favourite part of the process is sitting in the audience on opening night and “knowing you’ve done the best you possibly can for them to receive the work. I love live performance. I love sitting in an auditorium and feeling the energy. I love that participation.”

Despite winning awards for her work, Grant Lord still finds it difficult to pin down the point of difference of a popular production but describes the sense of “some magical quality, a successful level of engagement with people who have really enjoyed the show”.

She says a designer needs not only a deep understanding of the music and the writing but also of the personalities and strengths of the director and performers.

When explaining to design students her threefold integrity bond to script, audience and performers, Grant Lord says there is always one who raises a hand and asks, “but what about the director?”

She emphasises their teamwork. “There needs to be a good, strong sharing of information at the conceptual stage. Most of our work is agreed to in the earlier process of production before rehearsals even start.” And while there may be external differences in everything from the physical stage to the art form to the concepts, fundamentally the essence of the work remains the same: the evocation of feeling.

The sense of collaboration between director, cast and crew is strong. She compares it to conducting an orchestra, in that different instruments must be developed in isolation but need to come together in harmony inside the same world.

Twelfth Night is a darkly funny work that explores gender and sexuality, desire and yearning. The mischief and fun lies in cross-dressing and disguises – perfect raw material for a costume designer – mistaken identities and the ridiculous entanglements and misunderstandings that befall the array of characters. This contemporary interpretation of Twelfth Night is distinguished by original songs and new versions of the music, composed by Tim Finn, but still contains classical references and images. Grant Lord feels fortunate to work with Finn again – “being a Kiwi, he wrote the soundtrack to my life” – along with Sam Strong and a cast of “extraordinary performers”.

“[Designers] plant the seed, we transport people to a fantastical place,” she says, “but the performers have to pull it off and create the magic. It’s like working out a puzzle. The essence is important: what is the audience going to believe? What is the best way of telling this story?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Staging new worlds". Subscribe here.

Cass Moriarty
is the author of Parting Words and The Promise Seed.