In Conversation: Francis O’Connor
Francis O’Connor is designer-in-residence for Druid’s Synge cycle. He discusses his work with Druid, and the intricate process of set designing with Charlie McBride. (26 August 2004)
How did you first get into design?
I started off wanting to act and did lots of youth theatre stuff in Teeside (where I’m from) but I gradually discovered I was better at art and design than drama. I did a drama course for two years then did a stage design course and I knew that was what I wanted to do. While at college I still used to direct and when I left I ran a company called Catch 22 for two years in London but I was also designing other shows. I started working with directors who would embrace my opinions and I realised I didn’t need to direct for my voice to be heard – I was working with people who were interested in a genuine dialogue and I found these collaborations were artistically fulfilling.
You’ve done nine or ten plays with Garry Hynes, what sustains that partnership?
What sustains it is what I’ve just said about collaboration, especially so with Garry, though, as we’ve had such a long relationship (Beauty Queen of Leenane was our first show together). What we do for one another is we contribute to each other’s work. We have a very good relationship, our aesthetics are very similar. The journeys we’ve made in our work together have been very productive. Some of my favourite personal designs have been productions I did with Garry, like Big Maggie, The Leenane Trilogy, Sharon’s Grave, Crestfall.
Could you describe the process behind creating a design?
I might start two weeks before rehearsals or two months, it can even be a year before, if I’m doing an opera project for example. With Druid it’s usually about a month or so beforehand that they’ll need the designs. Firstly Garry and myself will talk about the play, what we each feel about it, then I’ll go away and have some thoughts. Usually I’ll put those straight into a model box – I do draw but I find I can realise my ideas more quickly if I put them into a model, so I make a rough maquette of what my first idea looks like, Garry will come along and see that and comment on it and we’ll proceed from there. I always find it useful to proceed from something in a model box, even if it’s going to be abandoned. I find it easier to start with that physical object. The turn-around time tends to be between two and four weeks, if I’m working solidly on one show. It all depends if I’m feeling inspired or if we have a powerful idea that ignites us and when that happens it can be really quick, the idea and the germ of the design can happen in just a couple of hours. Coming up with the idea is one thing, actually visualising it and making it into a model can take a week or two. The model is on a 1:25 scale of what the design will actually look like onstage. Generally speaking though, the final design will develop a long way beyond what’s in the first model. Once Garry and I have come up with the basic set and that’s when lighting and sound designers and so on will come onboard.
How familiar were you with Synge’s work before embarking on the cycle?
I haven’t done any Synge before this, so I had no opinions about it, I came to it with totally fresh eyes. My work is interpretative and the way I start is always with a reaction to the text and a reaction to the physical landscape that I think the writer is trying to get across – and that isn’t necessarily the same as the instructions the writer gives at the top of the page, though I’m conscious of that too. I’m more interested in getting into what the heart of the play is about and what are these characters about and then you create a world from that rather than the externals of what a shebeen might look like at the turn of the century. I do a lot of research, but I start with what my instinct tells me about the world of the play. I’m a great believer that if things have a presence onstage, a resonance, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be historically accurate as long as they have a theatrical accuracy. I think we brought something new and unusual to Playboy.
Next up is a double-bill of Tinker’s Wedding and Well of the Saints. How have you approached those?
It’s a very different challenge, the aesthetic is very different to Playboy. The two plays are in the one space, -though it’s not like Tinkers is shoehorned into the Well set. Each play has its own integrity though they happen in a common space. The look and feel of the production is very different to Playboy and is a reaction very much to what we feel about Well of the Saints, that’s where our thoughts started from – that space. Well is more rooted in a specific place, whereas The Tinker’s Wedding could be anywhere. I think we’ve come up with something very interesting to convey that, it’s quite exciting. I absolutely love Well of the Saints, it’s a fantastic play and I had no knowledge of it before reading it for this production -it’s so contemporary, so well-written, it’s funny and sad. It’s been an interesting one to design and I think we’ve come up with a good idea for it. What’s exciting is when you’ve offered something that allows the audience to discover that play in a new way. What’s really important is that design isn’t about creating a backdrop for the space, it’s not about creating a picture. It’s about creating a whole world in which these characters exist. It means you must be aware of all aspects of it, the way people move in the space, they way it smells and feels. It’s not a picture you’re looking at, it’s an entire world. Doing scenery doesn’t interest me, doing plays really interests me.