We Made It: Stage Designer John Napier

It may seem like a long way from Shakespeare to Siegfried and Roy, but John Napier has had a remarkable career in which high and low art come together and share the applause. So not only has the theatre designer staged a magic show in Vegas, he’s worked a more subtle magic in his time at the RSC. And in a world where musicals run for decades, Napier’s stage sets have been among the most consistent and celebrated factors in the success of many of our best loved West End shows.

So if you’ve ever seen Cats, Les Misérables or Miss Saigon - or caught Nicholas Nickleby in the 1980s - you’ll have enjoyed the designer’s work and contributed to the success of his ventures. Napier helped keep bums on seats, and won a host of industry gongs (including five Tony Awards, four Olivier Awards and a BAFTA). Although best known for plays, operas and musicals, Napier comes from a sculpture background, and claims to hate mere scenery. So this month he returns to his roots, some 40 years after leaving art school, with a show of his sculpture at Towner Gallery in Eastbourne

What first inspired you to get into theatre design?

I went into theatre after having seen works by other sculptors, particularly Noguchi, who worked with Martha Graham, and people like Rauschenberg, who worked with Merce Cunningham. I got very influenced when I was a young art student by seeing David Hockney’s Ubu Roi the Royal Court. It was fantastic to see what was primarily a flat convention of painting become three-dimensional and have a kind of depth to it. And then within that painting, people moved and they spoke and I just got really excited by that. So I started to move towards performance art rather than gallery art and then I became immersed in it. I became very successful at doing it. The knowledge that I had as a sculptor reinforced what I was doing at the time, which was quite unusual.

What do you look for when you first get a script or meet a director?

It’s really strange actually because I will have discussions sometimes with directors about their wants and needs and go away, and I’ll come back with something completely different to what they’ve been talking about and to my astonishment they go, “That’s fantastic, I can work with that.” I think one of the things which I’ve brought to that performance world was to bring things that are a bit grittier, a bit more sculptural.

Do you think with a pad and pen or with a model?

Oh, always with a model. I occasionally draw an idea, but that will very quickly be turned into a model because you actually need to test it in space. You need to know the physics of that space to actually be able to control the physics. They do everything in Broadway on a drafting board. So they will draw it up first, then they might make a white card model of it, then they will do a colour board for the artists to paint this white model. They’ll have a flat painting and slap the paint on and it’s retro. In my mind it’s retro, because it only allows for up and down, side to side and very rarely back and forwards. I’m also interested in round and round. But I don’t like scenery. Basically I’ve fought my entire career fighting scenery. I think you have to believe in what you’re looking at and sometimes an abstraction can read better and tell a better story.

What has been the most technically challenging set you’ve worked on?

I did a massive show in Las Vegas with Siegfried and Roy, these two mad German magicians who are fantastic. And there I was working with tigers and I had huge mechanical dragons which had 40 hydraulic and computerised-driven motions on it, so that it could pick stuff up. So it picked up these iron maiden things that Siegfried and Roy had been put in and lifted them up crushed them, blew fire down in them, dropped them and then Siegfried and Roy appeared elsewhere. It was ludicrous fun. So I had to learn all their tricks. It took two years and it was massive, with people pushing buttons and elevators moving and elephants coming out and holes in the ground and up in the air. No, it was absolutely mad! That was the most technically difficult.

What has been your biggest intellectual challenge?

It’s extraordinary. For a secondary modern school boy who got a chance to go to art school and then do fine art, it was always incredibly shocking to me and thrilling that I would be asked by people who had degrees in English literature (i.e. the directors) for my opinion. It was wonderful. Once you engage with people who have that kind of intellect or that ability, you know that, and they know that, you bring something different. And they ask your opinion and they respect your opinion.

What does your sculpture allow you to do that you haven’t been able to with set design?

It’s the opposite of theatre. Theatre’s all about literacy and sculpture is about intuition and shapes and space. But I am not of the modern, contemporary generation. I’m nearly 72 years old and I studied sculpture at art school in the 60s. I did eight years of art school in the 60s and survived. I went to visit Henry Moore probably three or four times. He would produce a wonderful maquette and that’s not dissimilar from doing theatre work, because basically you’re going from scale and sizing up.

So what is the difference between conceiving of a sculpture and a set design?

On a West End show, there’s a kind of pyrotechnics involved, of mechanics, of just a vision of the whole production, which gives you a kind of gravitas. When I’m doing a piece of sculpture or even painting, it doesn’t come from anywhere logical. It comes from a less logical space and more from a visceral, spinal cord place. And I try, actually, when I’m doing sculpture, not to think about it. It’s almost exactly the reverse. It’s tactile. It’s form in space, and I delight in being able to create things that don’t have to tell a story, other than a subliminal narrative.

And how does your process change between sculpture and approaching a stage set?

Primarily, when you’ re doing theatre work you are working in collaboration with the writer, the director, or a musician if it’s an opera or a musical. So you are part of a team. You’re people hoping that you can all come together and arrive at something that’s in the consciousness of other people, which makes that narrative (or sometimes non narrative if it’s dance) have meaning and in the end you all agree on it. I would say 70 or 80 percent of the time in theatre, you’re working to the boundaries of a script or you are working within the constraints of the space. It’s a kind of service that you’re doing to the playwright, to the author, in trying to translate from the script.

Do you think that innovation on the stage has gone as far as it can go?

It’s going backwards at the moment, I think. I think that’s partly to do with producers I mean, they think I’m much too expensive. There’s a slight cheapness to it, apart from places like the National, where there’s always a sense of gravitas. But I’ve had three four decades of working with fantastic people doing really great work; you’ve got to pass it on. You’ve got to pass on the baton. You can’t be the sole arbiter of what’s going to be new or fresh. And there are whole new video implications and projection implications that go on, particularly in opera houses and stuff.

  • John Napier: Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall is at Towner Art Gallery from 29 November to 31 January 2016

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