New musical mixes digital tech and live theatre in a new adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale from Rufus Norris and Moira Buffini, with music by Blur’s Damon Albarn. As the show hits the National Theatre in London, we chat to set designer Rae Smith, costume designer Katrina Lindsay, and projection designer Lysander Ashton

CR: What were the influences and inspirations behind the design of

Rae Smith: Obviously John Tenniel’s original drawings have a profound effect on any designer working on a show about Alice in Wonderland. In a sense you’re stepping back into the past in order to create an Alice, but it was very clear that we would be working and using our imaginations in the poetic ‘now’. One of the basic premises was to make the world that Alice lived in, in the present tense, but it’s also a poetic world of the imagination, rather than a literal world.

I was also very interested in exploring a graphic novel-type world, and looked at Shaun Tan’s graphic novels. I knew I wanted to create a storybook world that worked on a large scale in projection and also on a small scale in a room. Aly and her Alice avatar Aly and her Alice avatar grey 'real' world grey ‘real’ world

Katrina Lindsay: We knew early on that our wonderland would be a digital one, where going down the rabbit hole was about losing yourself into your phone and the online world. The story that Moria, Damon and Rufus came up with was the starting point, but also the iconic classic world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. Many of the characters in our story has an equivalent in Carroll’s stories, so I was trying to find a way to build on the iconic characters we recognise and place them into the digital world of online avatars.

For Aly’s world, Rae came up with a poetic gritty world for Aly to live in, with reference to artist Shaun Tan’s work in the early stages – the sense of child like alienation in his stories felt right for this young girl trying to find her identity. I also looked at Manga images for the Alice avatar as I felt this world would be something a girl of Aly’s age may be interested in. So the ‘real’ grey world of Aly took on a graphic novel-feel that I brought into the costumes for these characters, which looked slightly animated. the ‘real’ grey world inside the online game

Lysander Ashton: I was very keen to make the online world a sumptuous and natural place, so I’ve tried to stay away from the hard lines and geometrical shapes that are often used to represent it. I’ve been particularly inspired by the abstract organic shapes you can find in microscopic creatures and in bizarre underwater worlds. I worked with the talented animator Marco Sandeman who created the lush in the show, amongst other things.

wonderland projection including the Cheshire Cat (from Lysander Ashton and 59 Productions) projection including the Cheshire Cat (from Lysander Ashton and 59 Productions) Aly creating her avatar

CR: How did you collaborate with Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris and how much did the music and visuals directly influence one another? 

RS: The creative team facilitated the working process of Damon, Moria and Rufus and all three of them threw us challenges. In particular, we had to be able to tell a story where the online world of and the everyday world of reality could coexist in the same stage space.

Damon’s music very much gave us a context – there’s a great spirit of rock-and-roll that has a very young vibe. There’s also a music hall vibe, with a sense of fun and performance. Those were my clues to keep the scenery on its feet, never holding up the storytelling and having a sense of entertainment to it.

KL: Damon created the music, Moria worked on narrative structure, characters and song lyrics, and Rufus helped orchestrate it all together. We would have creative meetings with the whole team so we all more or less knew where each of us were coming from and could share visuals, sound, movement and all the elements putting on a musical involves.

The music was one of the earliest elements, so I could listen to Damon’s demos whilst thinking about the characters and trying to get a feel of the emotional moment even before it was finalised in the script. The atmosphere and tone of the music was key to the world being created and influenced choices of colour, texture and silhouettes of characters and the costumes. The hope is that all elements integrate seamlessly together, and all influence and belong to one other.

Act 1 storyboard
Act 1 storyboard

LA: I started to develop ideas for the look and feel of in response to Damon’s early demos, so the music set the tone and the direction from the off. Right from the start it was very clear that there were going to be two very distinct parallel worlds – the real world and the online world. In a new production like this the script and music are evolving and being developed at the same time as all of the visual design, so there is a huge amount of back and forth and responding to each other’s work.

CR: Can you tell me more about the design process and production, and how designs were realised?

RS: The first draft of script gave us a basic outline of how the story might happen. I started off with a white card model and Rufus and I worked through the script, telling the story in the space so I could get a good idea of how he visualised and the everyday world. I also knew that there would be a lot of projection in the show so my challenge was to make a scenic world that also allowed the projection to be 3D.

One of the most exciting things for me was to build a model of the city that Alice lives in, a bit like a special effects model used in film. Then Lysander filmed that and projected that model back on to the scenery on stage, layered with projections. So we had built scenery and projected scenery living in the same world with the same painterly finish.

Development of grey 'real' world
Development of grey ‘real’ world
Preliminary grey world model
Preliminary grey world model
Storyboards for
Storyboards for

KL: After the first stages of early creative meetings, script outlines and music demos, I then did costume drawings based on the characters evolving in the piece, often whilst listening to the music demos, so I could feel the world we were discussing. These drawings were then used as the starting point for conversations with the costume makers, with the majority made by the NT’s costume department.

Sketches for Ms Manxome and the Catapillar
Costume designs for Ms Manxome and the Catapillar
Costume designs for the White Rabbit
Costume designs for the White Rabbit

I have a team working alongside me consisting of the costume supervisor and two assistants, and we work out the production of the costumes with costings, fabrics and makers booked to construct them. The costume was more technical and sculptural than usual, so the challenge for the makers was how to make them work visually and physically on the actors’ bodies.

Once rehearsals started we had access to the actors for fittings and tried the costume prototypes in their early stages, and I could see how proportions, fabrics and colour were working and make adjustments. The production was quite physical and I needed to find ways of making these very sculptural costumes work for the physicality of the actors, which resulted in making costumes that could concertina, i.e. Dum and Dee limbs, and the light-weight structures of the Giant Mouse and Mock Turtle Bin.

Costume design for Alice avatar costume
Sketch for Alice avatar costume

The costume ideas are always designed in the drawing stage but I like to have a dialogue with the actors to make sure we understand each other’s process and can evolve elements together. For most new musicals it is an ever-evolving process so things kept shifting and changing throughout rehearsals, tech and previews which kept us on our toes, working right up to opening night.

Costume designs for Dum and Dee
Costume designs for Matt and Dodo

CR: Can you tell me more about the immersive projection technology used in the show and how you worked with sound, video and projection designers?

LA: The two worlds called for very different approaches to achieve very different looks. We wanted the ‘real’ world to be as analogue as possible, so working with the set design team, Rae and associate Tom Paris, we created a handmade scale model of the cityscape, which we shot at 4k to be able to get the fine detail of the brush strokes and thumb prints.

The material – the online world – in contrast, was all built completely digitally in 3D. The process for the Cheshire Cat, created by animator Zsolt Balogh, for example, was fairly iterative, moving from rough pencil sketches, to Photoshop mock-ups and simple animation tests, then onto production of the 3D assets. We used a markerless motion capture system and filmed Hal Fowler who plays the MC and Cheshire Cat character performing the song. projections projection including the Cheshire Cat

We worked very closely with the brilliant lighting designer Paule Constable and sound designer Paul Arditti. At every moment of the technical rehearsals the video, lighting and sound are completely synchronised. It was a great collaborative process. The relationship between the lighting and video has to be extremely tight otherwise it’s very easy for the projections to appear either out of place or overwhelmed. We used a very old trick of front projecting onto a gauze allowing it to appear to be an ‘invisible holographic screen’.

KL: With the video world Lysander and I collaborated directly on the avatars. For example, for Alice, I came up with the drawing of what she would look like, her clothing, silhouette and big hair. Lysander then took my drawing into a 3D modelling world and the Alice avatar was created digitally.

We looked at the whole computer game world of visuals and colours and once Lysander had started making the visuals for the world of on screen I would look at the colours and saturation of colour or non- colour in the grey world and choose fabrics that worked with these. I also worked with sound on where mics were positioned in relation to hair, hats and any mic packs on the body of the actor or inside wigs.

CR: What were the main challenges with designing and creating such a well-known story for the stage?

RS: The basic challenge is that Alice is often a passive character to whom the story happens. And in drama the main character has to happen to the story. So actually getting the story of Alice herself in wonderland to be interesting is what we all set out to do.

KL: I was constantly aware that the characters we were dealing with were iconic ones, some of which had been represented in as many ways as you could imagine over the 150 years of the original story. So I felt I needed to draw on these characters that we all knew but also make them very much from our own story too. They needed to feel contemporary and the challenge was to make them look and feel digital but also carry an emotional narrative we could relate to.

LA: It’s such an incredibly iconic story and so the hope is that you can bring to life the characters and moments that people are expecting in a clear, satisfying and surprising way whilst also creating a new world and aesthetic that doesn’t feel generic. Alice with Dum and Dee
Anna Francolini as Ms Manxome Ms Manxome

CR: Do you have any favourite parts of the design, or moments in the show?

KL:  To delve down a rabbit hole into a digital world of visuals where reality doesn’t have to make sense and even in the ‘real’ world there is a poetic visual aesthetic going on, is a bit of a dream job for one’s imagination. I think the white Rabbit with his bouncy ears, Alice in her shimmering blue and red dress and the Caterpillar are visually almost identical to what was drawn so I feel very happy we got there with them.

Ms Manoxme always makes me laugh and how she pulls off wearing that helmet wig and large houndstooth suit of armour. I also feel Aly and her family are really identifiable and heart warming. One of my favorite moments is when the big animated Cheshire Cat sings to us, looming over Aly, out into the audience. I find him mesmerising and it makes me feel like a child again being lured into an imaginary world.

RS: I love it when the big tea pot comes on – It gives the scenes a sense of surreal chaos and comedy which I think is really important. And it’s certainly out of proportion to any sense of reality, which is good fun for the end of Act 1.

LA: I think it might have to be the zombie swarm, as it’s a really great, tight and fun combination of choreography, video, music, sound, costume and lighting.

Chesire cat projection
Cheshire Cat projection runs until 30 April 2016, at the National Theatre, London

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