Designing The Secret in the Wings

MFA Theatre Design candidate Camille Paris shares secrets behind designing the set, lights and costumes for Studio Theatre’s latest production

Erik Einsiedel - 22 April 2021

Studio Theatre’s The Secret in the Wings by Mary Zimmerman is the next production to take the stage at The Timms Centre for the Arts, available for online viewing April 28-30, 2021. It is also the final thesis project for MFA Theatre Design candidate Camille Paris, who designed the set, costumes and lighting.

We caught up with Camille to give us an inside look at the world she created.

Tell us about your role in The Secret in the Wings.

I designed everything you see in the set, costumes and lighting. Since all the visual design is my responsibility, I have a tremendous artistic freedom, but any mistakes are mine alone. There’s very little room for error which is a huge responsibility.

Tell us about your designs for the show. What are you excited for audiences to see?

The story is set within a childish and fragile kingdom — an in-between world where fairy tales overlap.

Layers of consciousness are symbolized in different levels of the set: a stage level, platform levels, and invisible down and top levels. There are many corners and shadows, and a backdrop forest that can hide or reveal things.

Instead of presenting this in “grandma’s cozy home” with a scary basement full of dusty wooden furniture, I chose to set the story in an open shipping container. It frames the action in a modern, transitory and temporary shelter, and introduces my concept of “reuse.” The container is supported by lighting trusses which is also an unconventional practice, and incorporates the theme of reuse (the trusses are made to hang lighting instruments above the set, not to support structures).

I also designed the costumes with reuse in mind. A sewing machine’s plastic wrap becomes a princess’s veil, pillows become period headpieces, and long panier skirts (which were meant as slips, back in the day) become the main costume pieces.

It’s precarious, already made and unfinished. I believe in the importance of leaving empty spaces for the audience to fill with their own imagination. In my opinion that’s where the magic happens.

What has it been like designing this show during the pandemic?

Pre-Covid, I would often be designing for several productions at a time, so I was looking forward to having only this one production to work on so I could push my rendering skills further. It turned out to be the opposite, and quite challenging.

Covid teaches a good lesson: theatre is very much a team process. The pandemic made collaborative work more challenging by forcing new practices and innovative problem solving. For a while, it was uncertain the show would even happen, and I found it hard to keep myself motivated. It was even harder to communicate my artistic vision and enthusiasm with the crew. I’d spent 12 months talking about it once a week, and all of a sudden: a deadline in three days.

Costumes and props became a huge challenge. I’d originally designed the set so the wardrobe pieces would be hanging on stage, and open for actors to take freely. But the new restrictions required them to be behind a closed door, which forced me to redesign the set.

And because of Covid social distancing, we had to reposition the whole set at the last minute, pushing it farther back. This also meant redoing lightings and curtain positioning. This is a big show for a pandemic!

How has your time at the U of A influenced you as a theatre designer?

It gave me a lot of technical skills to work with, inspired and grounded me.

Anything else you'd like to say about the show?

It’s a great show. Try to spot all my examples of reuse!

Camille Paris is an international student from Paris, France, who spends some of her time working at L'UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s professional francophone theatre company. The Secret in the Wings will be available for digital viewing April 28-30, 2021. Tickets and more information can be found at the Faculty of Arts website.