Dreamgirls set designer, Tim Hatley discusses how he created the set for the show, working with Swarovski and how he got into set design.
Can you tell us about this project?
This project is a very, very special project because it’s the first time Dreamgirls has ever been produced in the UK. It’s particularly exciting because there was a landmark production of it in the 80s in New York which was hugely popular and well known and everybody knows about it, so it feels very special to be selected to be part of this new production of a classic.
What attracted you to Dreamgirls initially, how were you approached and what made you want to do it?
It’s such a fantastic book, it’s such fantastic music, it’s such a great story. I didn’t see the original production but I was very aware of the show and I have many, many friends who have seen it, so I’d heard all about it so it felt like I’d seen it. It’s always been one of those shows that you think it’s in your top 5 list of what to do, and Dreamgirls is right up there so it really was just one of the most magical calls actually from Casey [Nicholaw] to get to say would you be interested in doing the sets for Dreamgirls?
What was your creative vision and inspiration for the set?
It felt to me that the set, which they got so right in the original production, had to be incredibly simple. You have to get from on stage to off stage; you’re in a dressing room one minute and within a second you’re performing on stage so the set had to never ever get in the way of that. The set had to contribute and move the story forward, and be a part almost like another actor, it had to be a part of the ensemble and help the situation and not hinder it. So that was always the overriding challenge. I had to think of simple devices, of ways to move from on stage to off stage and the way that I approached it because so much of it is about being on stage it felt to me that theatre lights had to be a big part of that, so I worked very very closely with Hugh Vanstone the lighting designer and we’ve come up with a framework that hopefully tells the story in a smooth and swift way.
Why did you want to use Swarovski crystals?
We absolutely had to use Swarovski crystals and I was delighted when they agreed to help us because it was very early on. It seemed that we had to get a sense of glamour into the production and we wanted it to shine and shimmer; there are certain songs and numbers where we needed the help of something very, very sophisticated and elegant and Swarovski just seemed to be the perfect thing. Very early on when I listened to the songs and thought of the staging I imagined that we’d have this wonderful shimmering world for the presentation so that’s where it came about. We picked certain moments, the story has a very clear arc, the characters start at one end of a journey and they go to the far end of a journey. It’s a progression and I wanted the set to move with that progression so that by the end of the show we’ve got the most fantastic shimmering effect which Swarovski have helped us with.
What makes it unique and exciting to be working with them?
Swarovski in my opinion, and I’ve worked with them before in the word of costume design, there is no other product like it that has the ability to shine and shimmer – and there are many ways of doing that, we could use glitter, there’s all sort of other products that sparkle, but we weren’t interested in that we wanted it to be much more sophisticated so that’s why it felt right.
What is so unique about this particular set?
The uniqueness of it is its’ simplicity, its’ integration with lighting design because the set is covered in lights and they are as much a part of the set design as the set design is. So it’s hand in glove. The other thing is the simplicity is also there to support the story and the costumes, the idea is that the costumes really stand out. It’s a very dark set and it’s only going to be coloured with light and crystals and costume. The story is very strong, it’s very simple so we’re allowing those elements of the show to move us forward.
How challenging was it to create the set?
The biggest challenge has been the automation side of it. Although it’s a very simple set to look at, there’s a lot of moving pieces so all of those pieces have to be programmed and we have to work out very, very clearly with the storyboards how it’s all going to work and we’ve had to be very, very clear, because the programming takes an awful lot of time to do in the theatre so we had to be extremely clear with the organisation of it and working together with the director, with lighting with the production management, with the set builders, with the engineers. That’s been the challenge to get everybody working together to create what looks like a very simple set but actually to get all the moves to work and for it to be smooth.
What attracted you to scenic design as a career?
I’ve always wanted to work in the theatre from a very young age, from 7 years old I was obsessed with story-telling and puppets and theatre and I’ve always enjoyed stories and I’ve always loved drawing and it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve been extremely fortunate in that it’s just been one road and I’ve never wanted to divert off that and I’ve just always wanted to do it. I feel extremely lucky and privileged to have that in my mind that that’s what I wanted to do. Because frankly if you do want to work in the theatre, you have to want to do it and you have to love it and you have to live it, it’s a life it’s not a job, it’s a way of life and if you don’t have that drive inside you, it’s not going to work, so luckily I had the drive!
How did you get into set design in the first place?
I had a fantastic teacher at school who taught me drawing and he was a huge theatre fan, we would come and see exhibitions in London, or round the country but mainly in London, and always in the evenings he’d say “well we’re in town so let’s go and see some theatre”. So I went to see a lot of work at the National Theatre actually and I first saw in fact the legendary production of Guys and Dolls directed by Richard Eyre, I saw that and that was the moment where I thought, aged 15, it’s absolutely set design that I want to do.