Douglas Paraschuk, who has been designing at the Stratford Festival for 22 seasons, was Director of Design at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and has created multiple projects in Qatar, imagined the innovative sets that will make up Hamlet's universe on the stage of the Ludger-Duvernay theatre this season. We chatted with him about his inspiration for this classic tragedy and about the knowledge he wishes to pass on to students.
When Alisa [Palmer, the director] and I started talking, she wanted to break down the 4th wall, so I thought it might be fun to elongate the stage and bring the action out into the audience.
Every theatre has its play in terms of the way in which the design is conceived. For Hamlet, the interesting thing is the fun tension we created between a very traditional space and the fact that we’ve added this thrust into it. The theatre itself inspired some choices based on the fact that we wanted to react against its traditional aspect. It’s a beautiful space. It’s got fantastic ambiance. So we wanted to create a little bit more tension by coming out into the heart of it.
The material choices in the set work for all periods of time. For example, the metallic-looking risers can cross all periods and allow us to do something slightly non-specific. In that way, we’re definitely connected to what’s going on with costumes for this production. There are a lot of textures, lines and ideas in the set that can still say medieval or Elizabethan, while still keeping it within the context of the 21st century. We want the audience to understand that they’re seeing a play done by young students. We’re not going to make any of the students look older than they really are. Yes, they’re playing characters that are much older than they are, but this production is very self-aware. We’re not trying to fool the audience into thinking that they’re seeing a period production.
From an acting point of view, the fact that it’s not a traditional proscenium stage scenario is a big challenge in itself. That alone will force them to make some new and interesting choices that they may not have made thus far.
From a design and production point of view, it’s a fairly ambitious project. Which means that they’re working very hard and they’ve all risen to the occasion. I’m really just a mentor. I’ve given them a core idea, but they’re running with it. And it is quite challenging, but that’s what education is all about.
I love scale. I love playing with scale. But ultimately, we have to work within the physical, financial and time constraints, the reality of the production. We’ve landed right in the middle here. So I try to push the limits as much as I can, and get students to force the limits as much as they can, but still within the parameters of what we have time to do. Again, I think it’s a great exercise for the students to be pushed right to the edge.
Lighting choices will play a big part into that. There’s also a set of gates and a bridge that will move up and down and in and out. These elements will be continually in a state of change. There are some fabric elements that will fly in when we’re at court to help find that sense of power and politics. During a few scenes that are more intimate, we’ll use lighting and fabric pieces to create a more private playing space.
Like most of Shakespeare’s work, this is a play that explores a lot of political and power dynamics, but it’s not always about that. What we’ve tried to do is create a set that can change to evoke more intimacy and more inward-thinking sometimes, and then a sense of power and governance at other moments.
One of Hamlet’s great battles is the fact that he’s surrounded by this very staged political structure. He’s connected to the King and Queen, the power of Denmark. At some moments the architecture, the lighting and the scenic embellishments will reflect that more, and then there are other scenes that are much more intimate, such as inside of Gertrude’s bed chamber, or at the grave. The set can play on both things and can be lit in different ways to reflect those different emotional qualities.