Setting the Stage II: Continuing conversations with Carolyn Rapanos

October 4, 2016

This week we continue our talks on the behind-the-scenes process with Carolyn Rapanos, Set Designer for ‘An Inspector Calls’. Carolyn is best known in Rosebud for her design work on ‘The Sunset Limited’ and ‘Mass Appeal’. Other designs include ‘Common Grace’, ‘Freud’s Last Session' (Pacific Theatre), and her Jessie Award winning ‘Jack and the Bean’ (Presentation House).

Where do you call home?

Vancouver, B.C., where I grew up.

What’s something you love about the city?

It’s not quite time yet, but I’m really looking forward to cross-country skiing and snowboarding!

‘An Inspector Calls’ is billed as a classic ‘who-dun-it’. What’s important to you, as a designer, about the genre? What factors into the design?

There is a certain overall aesthetic appeal of the classic mystery that’s fun to capture! I tried to bring out the heavy, dark feel, exaggerated shadows, and an overall sleekness. In a mystery, you know the audience will be looking for the set of clues, so there’s a lot of attention to detail. And it’s exciting to try to feed into the idea that the answer is there in front of you but you can’t see it.

The set beautifully evokes structural elements of the early 20th century (the sturdy English details of the home) while still bringing in a sense of threat… almost ominous with exposure and the surrounding industrialization. In an era when World War I is on the horizon, what feelings/inspirations were important to you?

Thank you! I started looking at images of industrial factories of the time, which are alluded to in the play, and ways to bring the architecture I was seeing into the set. This ended up being our way of representing a dark future and the threat of the present. I wanted to contrast this imagery with the rich, warm, comfortable world of the characters, so found a lot of inspiration in the luxurious woodwork and textiles of the time / place. The fireplace went a long way towards enhancing their living space while also connecting it to the more ominous surroundings through the imagery of smoke. I was inspired by just how deluded and oblivious many of the characters are, so we gave them an overwhelming backdrop that’s largely invisible to them.

The maquette (or set model) for An Inspector Calls. Photo and Design by Carolyn Rapanos.

How much does your initial design change (if at all) when you enter into rehearsals?

The set if often built and painted by the time rehearsals start so, on the one hand, there isn’t a lot of room for change. However, a lot can change with how you’ve imagined set pieces will be used. Places for further detail in props and set dec[oration] also crop up when the set becomes a real, full scale thing. There can also be a sort of domino effect when something has to change for a logistical or artistic reason because this makes us rethink other related aspects. This can be challenging but also rewarding because it hones the design.

What do you do to fill your time when you’re not working on the show?

I love working/relaxing outside in beautiful Rosebud and the last few times, I’ve also made small trips into Drumheller and Calgary.

What’s next for you?

I’m really looking forward to working on a play called 'šxʷʔamət' (the Musqueam word for home), which will explore issues of reconciliation through workshops with people directly engaged with these issues. The play is presented as a piece of Forum Theatre in which the story is performed twice, and the second time, audience members can stop the action and offer solutions or commentary. The story itself is ever evolving so the design process will be challenging.

You studied English in university before becoming a designer. What are you reading? Any books you’d recommend?

I recently finished my first PD James novel (which I found upstairs in the Thorny Rose café in Rosebud actually!) Now, I have the latest Ian McEwan novel, Nutshell, on hold at the library. He’s a favourite author of mine, so I’ll recommend another one of his: Saturday. And if you’re looking for more mystery, I’d recommend Laurie R. King’s entire Mary Russell series (mysteries from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes’s imagined wife and detective partner, Mary Russell).

A classic and celebrated play, J.B. Priestley wrote 'An Inspector Calls' in the 1940’s, but set the story in 1912 to examine themes relevant to the present. How do you keep designs/stories set in the past feeling fresh and relevant?

A lot of thought is put into choosing plays for a season that have themes that matter to a modern audience, so I often get a good perspective on this early on from the director and/or Artistic Director. Aesthetically, I think seeing the past brought to life is inherently exciting. And a modern audience is very accepting of visual theatricality, so there’s a lot of room for stretching a more traditional representation into something more metaphorical.

Setting the Stage II: Continuing conversations with Carolyn Rapanos

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