Kōrero: Theatre design

Whārangi 2. Costume, lighting and sound design

Ngā whakaahua

Costume design

A theatre designer working in New Zealand is often responsible for both set and costumes. But for some costume is a singular specialisation, particularly for large-scale productions such as opera and ballet, where a strong emphasis is placed on costume to reveal the narrative and characters on stage.

The job of costumes

In 1948, as New Zealand stage design was beginning to venture beyond the bounds of realism, Wellington artist and designer Helen Hitchings gave her views on the role of costume design: ‘Stage clothes have a variety of duties. It may be necessary for them to indicate time – the hour of the day, the season, summer or winter, as well as the period. As well, they may need to indicate a particular occasion. Their shape and colour must point a type and personality. They must sketch the mood and atmosphere of the particular moment and of the whole play.’1

New Zealand-born Kristian Fredrikson was a major early influence in costume design. Although he worked mainly in Australia, he had a long association with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and was known for his opulent set and costume designs.

Other major costume designers working in New Zealand have included Elizabeth Whiting, Leslie Burkes-Harding, Kate Hawley and Gillie Coxhill. Their transferable design and technical skills also allow them to work in film and television production. Ngila Dickson won an Oscar for her costume designs for the third film in the Lord of the rings trilogy.

Lighting design

The shift to open staging, particularly for drama productions, increased the importance of stage lighting as a way to establish locale, define acting areas and create atmosphere. From the 1980s the dramatic potential of stage lighting as a prime design element signalled the emergence of specialist lighting designers. Jeremy Collins was among the first to expand this craft, working mainly at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland, and on numerous large operas and musicals. This experience was used to great advantage when Collins bought Selecon, a small New Zealand lighting company, which he developed into a recognised global leader in stage lighting fixtures.

Light years behind

In 1988 veteran theatre designer Tony Rabbit recalled sitting at the lighting controls of Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre during a production of Glide time, while reading a book by a European lighting designer. ‘I’d look out on the stage and then I’d read this book some more and I almost cried. What really upset me was that this book was really old, like 1970 or something … and it was light years [in advance of] the stage out there. We were doing plays and the book was about theatre. The difference is enormous.’2

Joe Hayes, a contemporary of Jeremy Collins, also advanced stage lighting design in New Zealand on productions at the Court Theatre, Canterbury Opera, Christchurch Operatic and Southern Ballet. Other notable lighting designers in New Zealand include Tony Rabbit, Phil and Stephen Blackburn, Marc Simpson, Ian Nicholls, Paul O’Brien and Helen Todd – best known for her work in modern dance, especially with MAU dance and theatre company.

Image projection

Image projection, allowing instant changes between locations, became popular for live performances towards the end of the 20th century, mainly as an alternative to building and managing physical sets. But in practice it provided little more than a modern equivalent of the painted backdrop. The light output from many earlier projectors was also poor when compared to the greater intensity of stage lighting. As a result, lighting designers often found themselves having to serve the projections rather than meeting the overall lighting needs of a production.

Advances in projection and digital technology, with large amounts of content able to be stored on media servers, made projection a more useful theatre design tool. A better understanding of the creative application of projection also advanced this art form, particularly in modern dance and physical theatre. The fusing of live action and video technology allowed performers to interact with projected imagery.

Sound design

Until the late 20th century the only available tools for amplifying and adding to the sound during theatre productions were clunky tape recorders, turntables and primitive analogue mixing consoles. These limited the use of sound in live performance. The introduction of compact discs, MiniDiscs and other technology in the 1990s, and then the arrival of low-cost quality digital audio equipment, gave sound designers greater flexibility and control of their art form. In the early 2000s it was common practice to have soundscapes included as part of the overall design concept, to reinforce and enhance dramatic impact. Notable sound designers to advance this art form have included Nigel Scott, Chris Ward and Stephen Gallagher.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Helen Hitchings, ‘Design in the theatre.’ Design Review 1, no. 4 (December 1948), p. 5. Back
  2. Quoted in ‘Lighting up design.’ OnFilm (April–May 1988), pp. 50–51. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Bill Guest, 'Theatre design - Costume, lighting and sound design', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/theatre-design/page-2 (accessed 19 September 2019)

Story by Bill Guest, published 22 Oct 2014