by Rick Vincent
A set is meant to catch the eye, draw an audience into the world of the play, spark the imagination and suspend belief. Catherine Harari has been doing that for many years, designing sets with GEDS for some incredible productions. Some of the spectacular sets she has designed include Relative Values, Dancing At Lughnasa, God of Carnage, The Little Foxes, Blithe Spirit, The Rivals, with more than 20 over the years. Recently, I had a chance to catch up with her and talk about how an idea sparks to life before the hammers begin driving in nails.
Rick Vincent (RV): How did you get interested in set design?
Catherine Harari (CH): I come from an artistic family. I was involved in a lot of things, mostly drawing and painting. Later in life I discovered interior design and took a private course. I got involved with GEDS through my husband who wanted to act. I thought there was good acting and great plays, but I was not so impressed with the sets they had at the time.
In GAOS, there was a gentleman named George Krasker who was very good at set design and building and taught me the important things about the stage and the pitfalls you have to be aware of. It’s not just about having a good idea, you need to know if you can make it work and how it can work so everyone is safe. Even though through all my youth I had the opportunity to see everything
RV: How does an idea come to you?
CH: First, you read the play and speak with the director to see what he/she has in mind. Then you look at the stage you have to work with. You get all the technical information. If a show needs an impressive staircase, which we cannot have because of the stage dimensions and the height limitations, you have to look for ways to trick the eye. What you must keep in mind, always, is that even though your imagination needs to be free, you have to understand your technical limitations. Once you have a plan ready, and it is agreed, then I make elevation drawings which means each flat drawn with its dimensions. This will help the Chippendales (the GEDS set builders) in their work. Then comes the model which needs to be scaled and accurate. Any problems you may have overlook will show up there. The model can also help the actors imagine the space they will be moving in.
RV: How do you handle plays with multiple sets?
CH: I try to stay away from those, but many modern plays require this type of staging, so I try to find one space that works for everything, or find a way to use multiple sets without complicating, slowing down the pace of the play.
RV: Where do you come up with some of your ideas?
CH: Oh, many places. Sometimes magazines. Advertisements in magazines are a great source for ideas. Keep looking around you and you’ll notice lots of good (or bad) ideas. Of course nowadays, the internet is a great place for looking at past plays. You take any ideas you want but you have to be careful not to just copy. The fun is creating your own designs.
RV: What were your favourite sets to design that came closest to your intended realization? What about the set made it special for you?
CH: I must have designed around twenty sets, so it is difficult to choose. I liked the very first set I designed for Death and the Maiden, the various sets for Noel Coward plays as I love the period and the elegance called by them. The last one, Relative Values, turned out to be a real challenge for the Chippendales and they rose to the occasion, building a very elaborate set and making it work on stage. It is always a very special moment when an image you have been carrying in your mind for weeks and months, finally becomes reality on stage. You look at it and think “Yes!” It’s almost like a magic trick, and it makes me feel like I want to start again on a new project, forgetting all the difficulties we had met along the way. I guess it is what anybody involved in the miracle of theatre feels.