re-visiting the little shop part two: designing the set

Concept drawings conjure the mood  for Little Shop.

My set model for the production.

When preparing the Theatr Clwyd production of Little Shop of Horrors, my starting point was imagery drawn from histories of film design and German Expressionism. Everything was rendered in chiaroscuro to imitate a black and white film. I wanted a staircase to feature prominently, something steeply-pitched and dangerous to set the appropriate psychological tone. (Staircases in Expressionist films are invariably places of transition, often leading from dangerous spaces to positively lethal ones.) Mushnik’s run-down New York florist shop became one of those commercial premises set below sidewalk level. The large, greasy window looked out into a narrow light-well/litter-trap, hemmed by a high brick wall at the top of which the feet of passing pedestrians could be seen hurrying about their business. The descent from the door to the shop was through a skewed passage, and I had the staircase constructed so steeply that the actors had to negotiate it with great care, adding to the palpable sense of unease.

The set under construction on stage at Theatr Clwyd.

The black and white tiled shop floor too was very steeply raked. In fact such was its pitch that the first day the actors rehearsed on it, they were all too clearly hanging on to the bolted-down furniture for dear life, fearful of slipping and rolling into the orchestra pit. At the centre front was a sinister hole, the entrance to the flower-shop cellar out of which Seymour the down-trodden shop assistant first emerges. It was designed to mimic the way water spirals down a sink-hole, and the tiles were painted as though stretched and distorted by the vortex. Furniture was trundled into place on visible, heavy iron rails leading from tunnels in the brickwork, facilitating fast scene transitions and lending a subterranean, industrialised quality to the environment. This was emphasised by a really wonderfully imaginative, almost subliminal and continuous soundtrack to the production. A bleak orchestration of machinery, the bass rumble of passing subway trains and the sharp, distant punctuation of clanging, unceasingly underlining the isolation of Audrey and Seymour in the shabby basement. Not even the flowers that stocked Mushnik’s shop brought any relief, all of them looking undernourished and wilted.

One of the tunnels under construction on stage. The rails have yet to be laid.

At the front of the stage high brick tenements framed the action, the fire-escapes and balconies creating multiple levels for the trio of street-smart girls who provide the Greek-chorus/Tamla Motown sung-narrative to Little Shop of Horrors. Peeling posters of my favourite noir movies were pasted high on the slimy brick walls. Behind this ‘exterior’ strip, an off-kilter aperture framed the shop interior, the crazy-angles conjuring an Expressionist world. Into this dropped asymmetric screens, one of them a ‘showcloth’ painted with iconic film references: Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein, the female robot from Metropolis and the long-nailed vampire of Nosferatu.

Design for the asymmetric ‘showcloth’.

The showcloth takes form in the paint workshop.

Another depicted a brutally overwhelming skyscraper looming over the stage, perforated with hundreds of windows that could be lit from behind to conjure the night-time cityscape.

With Little Shop we managed to create a great deal out of a modest budget. Much was achieved thanks to the fantastic workshops and the great staff at Theatr Clwyd. Once the set model had been shown to the technical team, everybody pulled like dray-horses to make the show work. Everything was done with commitment and pride in achievement.

Neon signs differentiated night from day in a production which featured precious little sunlight!

In the next post I’ll write about the design evolution and construction of Little Shop’s subterranean carnivorous plant, Audrey II!

19 thoughts on “re-visiting the little shop part two: designing the set

  1. I agree with AM – though never published anything myself.

    There are so few theatre design books which actually tell the story of being a designer. Some of the new ones touch on it, but in a very limited way that’s not too inspirational. A book is desperately needed to put a stop to mediocrity.

    I have considered writing a book on making. I take the idea off the shelf then put it back. Soon I start a new job at BathSpa Uni. The book idea is on again or, though I plan a website with pictures. I’m not good with essays. But writing is is something at which you are so good.

    I may have mentioned that I did a project with the second years a couple of years ago on Audrey II. They did great work. I have some nice pictures which may be of interest to you, as I taught them exactly the way I made Twoey. Of course they loved it. Why wouldn’t they?

    I still am deeply fond of puppets and they became a major part of the course at Trinity. I want to add puppets to BathSpa, and they may become another part of my research work there. So would like to speak with you at some point.

    I still get to design and build. The Reluctant Dragon is actually finishing its tour today in Carnarvon Castle. I had the book adapted by Toby Hulse. it was a great story that deserved to be told and has had great success for the graduate company that have taken it out. I always wanted to tour castles in Wales, and finally got to do it because of the dedication of a few talented students who indeed would not stand for mediocrity. The Dragon was a puppet and Scott made him his own, which was great to see. You could see the kids that were in the audience live the dream. I believe it is because of my having had the privilege of working with people like you, that makes this still possible.

    So think about the book eh!

  2. Clive this is a fascinating insight into LSof H Thankyou for bringing back so many memories and for describing your thought process behind the conception and delivery .

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  5. I was looking at some writings on New York and bumped into this. Superb! The fascinating notes on set design had me leafing through a well thumbed Exhibition Catalogue Neue Zachlicheit of 1979 (I think): Beckmann; Otto Dix etc. Even stuff from St Petersburg (Notes from the Underground) seem to work into this: the Stray Dog Cafe. Then, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin and back to “I speak of the City, poems of NY” – worth a look. You have captured this so well. The performance must have been terrific against that backdrop. I live near Hull. It is the sort of thing that would be brilliant at Hull Truck. Don’t trash the set just yet!!! Fascinating! Ta!

    • Ahhh, the wonders of the world web! Glad you found your way here and I’m pleased my designs for that long-ago production of Little Shop of Horrors captivated you long enough to stay and read. Alas I don’t have the model set on which I lavished such attention to detail, though it may well be still stored somewhere at Theatr Clwyd. I was (and still am) completely in thrall to the world of German Expressionism, and felt that it was an appropriate field of exploration for a musical springing from a tradition of American horror films that were themselves rooted in European notions carried to the USA by Jewish film-makers and artists fleeing persecution. My heart rather sank at the idea of doing yet another kitsch version of LSoH… there had been a few productions that had veered too much toward the hammy at that time… but felt that at heart the ‘book’ was strong enough for a more serious approach, and indeed it turned out to be so. The actors were very trusting and turned in wonderfully ‘expressionist’ performances, paring away any vestiges of the overly cute and allowing the text to do the work for them. It was very funny, but dark and disturbing too. They were all pitch perfect. I’ve never seen the musical done in this way since. I was very proud of the achievement at the time. I tweaked the casting slightly to edge the piece toward where I wanted it. Instead of casting three black girls in the ‘Motown’ chorus, which is the usual way in Little Shop, I went for one black, one mixed-race ‘hispanic’ and a wonderful singer who convinced that she was both overweight and Jewish. This brought a whole new dimension to the musical.

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  8. i love the angles, especially that central opening, with its top parallel to the stair rail…and the curved opening to the right where the stairs let out–fantastic! what a great set… i agree with anita, sorry 😀

  9. The more of these sorts of things I see, the more I am convinced there must be a book about your design work for the theater. Now who might we get to write it?

  10. Agree with Dave. This is incredibly cool! Once again, it is so amazing to be able to see such terrific documentation – the concept drawings and the photos of everything during the design and construction. I loved your description of the set and how the actors responded to the pitched floor. Just wonderful!

    • Glad you’re enjoying this one Bev. I have three more posts to go on it: The plant design, the costume design and then a final portfolio of production photographs. It was such a great show, funny but also quite dark. Plenty of Grand Guignol! We avoided the ‘camp’ tone that I think too often mars this musical, and the actors played it absolutely for real. The production was a lot edgier than other versions of LSoH I’ve seen.

      • I look forward to the rest of the posts about the LSoH production. Of course, the problem about hearing about an especially good production after the fact, is that there’s always such a feeling of disappointment knowing that you can’t actually go to see it! (-:

        • That’s right Bev. Out here in the far reaches of West Wales I’m forever hearing about productions I should have seen but didn’t know about until they were over. LSoH was intended to have a limited run at Theatr Clwyd and then to close and be dismantled. The set wasn’t designed to tour. It wasn’t until the show was up and running and garnering amazing reviews and audience responses that anyone thought that it might have a longer life, but by then it was too late to do much about it. One of the Theatr Clwyd administrators and I tried to bring on board financiers and production partners to help underwrite a tour. Had everything been done ahead of time instead of while the show was on but due imminently to close, then I think we may have managed that, but it was all too last minute, and when the production closed at Theatr Clwyd, that proved to be the end of it.

          I never did anything that was that good… that well thought through and frankly, magical… again. In fact I never designed another production for the stage. I was never asked to do so. I soldiered on directing so-so musicals and romantic comedies and such like… whatever basically came my way… trying to make silk purses out of sows’ ears, hampered by mediocre production companies and celebrity casts that were not of my own choosing. Little Shop haunted me. I knew that given good material I was a sound director/designer with interesting ideas, but I was working in a commercial field where producers only really wanted a ‘jobsworth’ director. It slowly broke my spirit and I made the decision to quit.

          Looking back over the photographs and designs I feel privileged to have had such an opportunity to produce something so innovative, and yet dispirited that after LSoH I wasn’t able to find better opportunities to make shows equally as good. These conflicting feelings are uncomfortable, and are the reason why until now I’d hidden away all the boxes of photographs, designs and programmes, finding them too upsetting to sort through. But it seems the Artlog is a good place to re-examine the past in this year of my retrospective as a painter, and I hope that those reading my accounts of these stage productions will find them germane to what came later, something I increasingly understand and recognise.

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