To be moved, to be entertained, to be astounded. But above all, whether it is to a bygone era or a purely fantastical dimension, the ultimate wish of audiences is to be transported. How fortunate we are to have set designers like Brenton Staples, the multi-award winning innovator who has cast his design spell on CLOC’s Sunset Boulevard, as our guide.
In order to totally immerse the audience in the theatrical experience, Brenton has worked his magic for CLOC’s upcoming premiere. With over 25 years of involvement in musical and repertory theatre companies, and an incredible 18 nominations and seven wins for Best Set Design, he has put his design chops to great use in order to depict the glamorously deluded world which Norma Desmond inhabits and remain faithful to the period.
It was only an added bonus that the designer had quite a soft spot for the show. “The black and white 1950’s film with William Holden and Gloria Swanson is one of my favourites of all time”, Brenton shares, “So, I did have that at the back of my mind and I watched it a number of times over the months that I was designing the set.”
However, viewing the timeless film was only one component of his 12 month design process. “I do spend a lot of time doing research before I start designing”, Brenton says, having devoted quite a lot of time to reading scripts, looking at photographs, and busily consuming any helpful information in regards to the set.
Even with his vast amount of experience, the design of Sunset Boulevard has had its fair share of challenges. Brenton admits, “This one has been big in terms of its physical size and it has been challenging trying to make it look quite authentic.” Especially considering that Norma’s iconic mansion, a setting on which most of the action of the musical takes place, weighs between four and five tonnes and is supported by over 70 castors.
Creating such a colossal and highly detailed set has been facilitated greatly by the superior facilities hosted by CLOC. Principally, CLOCworks, a two-storey shed where the company both constructs its sets and utilises as a rehearsal site. Though these high-tech amenities have been crucial in executing Brenton’s vision, he also prides the work of others involved. “CLOC has now become my family company…I do enjoy what the company is able to provide, but they also have a fantastic crew.” In particular, he highlights the expertise of the head of the production team, Grant Alley, and the fabulous input of the director of Sunset Boulevard, Chris Bradtke.
With such lovely things to say of CLOC, it’s of little surprise that he considers several of their productions for which he designed the set his personal favourites, namely Jekyll and Hyde in 2005, and The Scarlet Pimpernel in 2006.
Although Brenton may be too modest to say it, adamant that he has “just been very lucky” to receive copious recognition for his designs, Sunset Boulevard could present an eighth award to his future. “The whole set has come together pretty much as it should. It’s great and I think it sets off the show perfectly”, he concedes. Of all the components, he is especially proud of the classically iconic elements of the set, “I am particularly pleased with the mansion…I also like the big Paramount Pictures gates we made.”
And like performing is for actors, the excitement of seeing the fruits of your hard work is just as prominent for designers. “It’s an enormous thrill seeing it lit up on stage…that thrill never goes away no matter what show I am doing.”
If there’s a single point that, for Brenton, overrides all others when it comes to set design, it is ensuring that it plays a central role to the show. “What I had running through my head all the time is that audiences shouldn’t leave whistling the scenery”, he says, “The set should be there to give the actors the best possible platform to perform on.”
With a mere glimpse at the set, it is irrefutable that audiences will be praising its great complexity and artistic design. The stage only adds to the brilliant plot and music of which Sunset Boulevard boasts. “The costumes are excellent, the performers and the story are just brilliant, and, under the consummate skill and vision of our director Chris, the set just ties it all together.”
“So instead of one thing outstanding another, it should be a fabulous whole”, says Brenton.
CLOC’s Sunset Boulevard runs from May 4 – 19 at the National Theatre in St Kilda for twelve performances. Tickets can be purchased by phone on 1300 362 547, or online at www.cloc.org.au.