In our Masterclass series of interviews we take a look at the business of West End theatre, from the creatives behind the curtain to the people responsible for putting on a show.
Paul Wills, Theatre Designer
Paul Wills is a respected British theatre designer. His recent productions include Barnum directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel at Chichester and on national tour, A Human Being Died That Night directed by Jonathan Munby at Hampstead Theatre and Fugard Theatre South Africa, The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the RSC directed by Simon Godwin, Once a Catholic directed by Kathy Burke at the Tricycle Theatre and Liverpool Royal Court Theatre, and Finding Neverland at the Curve Theatre Leicester and Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse, both directed by Rob Ashford.
When did you first want to be a theatre designer?
I’ve always had a passion for theatre, although the Hendon schools I went to were gearing me up for a future of History and Law. Very last minute I followed my heart, left my place at LSE and took a clearing place at Bretton Hall to study scenography.
Where did you learn your trade?
Although a degree gives you the freedom to experiment and learn, assisting designers, particularly Christopher Oram and Stephen Brimson Lewis proved to be the most valuable part of my training. Working backstage for the Sheffield Crucible was a great way to discover the workings of every department of a theatre.
What was your breakthrough show?
I guess it was ‘Battina and The Moon’ in the studio in Sheffield (thank you director Karen Simpson for offering me my first professional show!) It was for children and families and it was a truly great first job! From that, Kathy Burke offered me the brilliant Blue Orange, also in Sheffield. Another major milestone was being offered a new Mark Ravenhill play starring Sir Ian Mckellen and Deborah Findlay at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Michael Grandage. That was a good phonecall to receive!
Did you have a mentor when you were starting out?
Neil Gidley from the props department in Sheffield taught me a great deal. Christopher Oram is definitely the Yoda to my Jedi. I assisted him for about 4 years and his teaching was invaluable.
What’s your favourite West End theatre and why?
The Donmar Warehouse has to be one of the most exciting theatres in the West End (maybe the world). It’s such a challenging space but the rewards to solving its challenges are wonderful. I’m falling for the Vaudeville now that my latest project, Di and Viv and Rose, is transferring there. It’s a great space.
What’s been your most challenging production?
Anna Christie, directed by Rob Ashford and staring Jude Law, was a challenge. Rob’s vision of a shipwreck on stage was inspired, and a great challenge! To create rain on that scale, hydraulics to raise the stage to such an extent and encourage the actors to work totally out of their comfort zones was thrilling to be part of.
Which part of the job do you love the most?
The design process in the model box and the lead up to that is wonderful. The Eureka moment (when that hopefully happens!), is always a thrill, especially if you are up against it and suddenly find unexpected inspiration in an image or painting. But I can just as often get a kick from slowly chiselling away at ideas to create a design. I also love meeting new casts and getting to know the actors, helping to shape the world they are to inhabit.
What would most surprise a non-theatre person about your job?
Probably the amount of hours, sometimes very lonely hours, designing and model making. Also the fact that you have to be able to turn your hand to quite a few different disciplines, including construction manager, painter, seamstress, animator, draughtsman… (and sometimes counsellor, diplomat and confidante!)
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into what you do?
If you have a strong desire to become a designer and are prepared to work very hard, follow the dream. Assist. If there’s nothing out there, assist for free. See whatever you can, theatre of course, but also exhibitions, movies, places, architecture. Soak it all up. It will all be needed!
Actors or director? Who do you love more?
Most of my work and commissions come through directors… so naturally directors! Although we would be nowhere without actors.
Who do you most admire in theatre?
The dedicated backstage crews, scenic artists and builders that never get mentioned but are the heart and soul of everything we do. And Producers for taking the risks.
What ambitions do you still have?
Thankfully there are still a lot of theatres I would like to design in and directors I would like to work for. I think the National Theatre is right at the top.
Tell us about your current projects
I currently have a brilliant show called Howie The Rookie which opens at The Barbican this week before going to BAM in New York. I’m also prepping for the West End transfer of Di and Viv and Rose, and some exciting projects for next year are in the off.
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