The musical Side Show, which recently opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse, is another achievement for one of the most distinctive stage designers around. For several years now, the reputation of takis (the lower case ‘t’ is deliberate) has acquired immense respect from theatre and opera producers alike. Having admired takis’ work for years, I am one of the few reviewers to have seen much of his work in both theatre and opera as well as a number of regional productions. Before Side Show opened, I spoke with takis to learn a little more about his designs for the show, as well as aspects of his other work, including In The Heights.
I have to start with your distinctive name. Please enlighten me.
Well, I am from Greece and it is a Greek name! It was there that my passion with the theatre commenced. I joined an amateur theatre over there and did a lot of work with them. Everything! Performing, choreographing, designing and, from the age of 14 to 18, I spent one month a year in Italy doing ancient Greek drama, festivals and touring. That’s how it all built up. Then when I was 16, I was like, “That’s what I want to do, costumes and design!” So I decided to study Fine Arts and Costumes in a very old fashioned academy in Bucharest, learnt Romanian and set off.
Is Side Show your first time back at the Southwark Playhouse since In The Heights?
Yes, and designing the show has been a blessing and a challenge at the same time. A blessing, as the audience have an inclusive, immersive experience of a freak/vaudeville show and are able to observe closely the life journey of (the real life conjoined twins) Violet and Daisy Hilton played extraordinarily by Laura Pitt-Pulford and Louise Dearman. On the other hand, having the audience that close you need to be as authentic as possible with the overall design and its details.
Designing real people and in our case ‘freaks’ has not been an easy task. My first challenge was the conjoining of the two sisters, we kept changing the device until Laura and Louise felt connected. We are not talking about only a simple costume connection, but something more anatomical. Their joining has an impact of how they move, dance and how both embodied the two sisters. After achieving the ‘connection’ we worked on how to make them look alike and how to create all the costumes around the achieved conjoined bodies. We had also to create the ‘freaks’, real people of the 1920s with physical abnormalities.
The realisation of all the freaks (bearded lady, 3 leg man, pin cushion human, cannibal, lizard man, half man/half woman, tattooed lady, fortune teller/dolly dimple, dog boy) is based on each performer and period research. All the designs are driven by the physique and look of each performer. We experimented and tested ideas until each character came alive. To be fair, the only way we were able to achieve this was to have two extremely talented team members in Clare Amos (wardrobe supervisor) and Natasha Lawes (Wigs, Make up, Prosthetics & Tech-Fx Supervisor).
Moving to the set design; from the beginning we decided that the best configuration would be ‘in thrust’ which means the actual stage space is very limited. I had to create levels, entrances and exits and then, within that, incorporate 7 musicians & 14 cast members. I always design by responding to the actual architecture of the venue, making the space a friend rather than an enemy and I have tried to create a 1920s environment which can change from a freak show to a vaudeville stage.
With the metal structure, cladded with wooden plunks and lighting bulbs I tried to play with illusions, to exaggerate height and depth, create perspective compositions. All the wooden planks are connected but are taking different directions mirroring the characters of the 2 sisters. The metal, art deco circular shapes bring glimpses of the period style, but also illustrate the circles of life; from the full circle to the interrupted ones.
I am really proud of what we have achieved here.
JB: Looking at some of your other work, tell me firstly about the Oliver! that you designed at Leicester’s Curve last year.
takis: Well, I’d worked a lot with the director Paul Kerryson before, so I knew that we wanted to make sure that the understanding of the period was correct. We knew that it needed to be dark as well as brightly coloured.
We have the posh characters, so you want to help that number to really be strong, have silks. Then you have Fagin’s gang, the underground, where you have the ability to bring in a lot of textures and colours of the era. Then I will put some modern fabrics within that, some fabrics that you could question them if they are of the time, but as a feeling they will give you exactly that. I went with feelings and textures.
Then of course with the main characters, I always want to meet them. I want to see, “Who do I have? What is interesting of them?” Sometimes they have incredible eyes, they have a nose which you want to exaggerate, or they have a bosom, or they have a waist. Each performer has something to give you that is good to know. Sometimes you have a conversation with them. Sometimes you have to design much earlier before you meet them, but still I do a lot of research per individual, who are these people?
JB: Tell me more about the importance of costume in your work.
Takis: In Bucharest we learned costume through art and through dance. Much like a choreographer will learn the dances of the period, so we understood how dress changes in society according to the movements that they made and how they danced and so on.
Then we opened up the garments to see the patterns, sometimes deconstructing them into something else. Having worked with the opera in Rome for many summers, while I was studying I learned scenic paint, costume making and many other skills. I know the basics and the tools and then I twist them to suit my needs.
JB: Explain more about your work in opera.
takis: Opera and ballet are on such grand scales! I did a world premiere of ballet with The Little Mermaid and it took a year to design it. The scale was enormous. The vision there, in Scandinavia, was something that we don’t have here. They’re really up for exploring.
The brief that they gave me was, “takis, we want a design that will bring the classic ballet into the future”. So I brought in 3D projections, floors moving up, moving down, things coming in, flying people, flying through the auditorium, things coming out. There were 12 full sets, moving floors, lifts.
JB: That sounds spectacular – what was the budget that you had to work with for that?
takis: I never asked!
This year in particular has been very opera-focussed for me too with an elegant Die Fledermaus at Holland Park this summer and currently the English Touring Opera’s production of Ulysses’ Homecoming and La Calisto.
We push these works to different areas, genres and feelings according to where they are performed and for which audience and why. As with musicals, the music leads you. That’s what I love now more and more in musicals, opera and ballets – the stimulation is via the music.
In The Heights
JB: Coming back to musical theatre I want to ask you about In The Heights. When you first put it together at Southwark, what were your thoughts about the show?
takis: I think when we heard the music, we all went, “Wow!”. It is a fusion of different cultures. It hits you. It’s something that moves you. It moves your body somehow.
The thing that comes out for In The Heights is the heat and the sexiness if you like, that is around there. Also, the values of friends and family are all these elements that are familiar to me because strangely enough, these Latin values are very close to Mediterranean values. We might not dance Latin, but it’s these kind of things that sometimes make you respond by dance.
At Southwark we kind of brought the audience in the three sides and then I had to work with the floor and the wall. It’s not a big space and we wanted to keep the key locations. Then I played with the lights of the subway, kind of taking us a different direction, different houses, different lines of like, if you like. We see the life of a society, but the life of differing individuals and how they take this cross between each other. That’s kind of what’s strung for it. We play with bold colours and then I just had the idea to put in fluorescence and of course Howard Hudson is an absolutely incredible lighting designer. We always work so well together.
JB: And the transfer to the Kings Cross Theatre and sharing the venue itself with The Railway Children. That must have been a fascinating challenge from a design perspective?
takis: Yes and you’ve driven the train there haven’t you? So you realise what the space is there! How we change between the two shows within one hour has been an amazing challenge. It was more of an engineering designing rather than designing for a show.
I had to work with platforms that are 2 meters square. We put in fills, where the trucks are and then we roll out a dance floor that brings it all together.
I feel happy that we managed to do it, in the sense of we all wanted the show to come back and it’s so good that it’s back, with all the Oliviers and everything that happened to it. We all have put our souls in that show. It is one of the shows that from day one, we were like, “Yeah”. We were like kids, you know how you feel, no matter what age you are. We had this energy in all of us and I think that comes across to the audience.
Side Show plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 3rd December
In The Heights plays at the Kings Cross Theatre until 8th January 2017