tue 28/02/2017

We Made It: Stage Technician Tom Robinson | reviews, news & interviews

We Made It: Stage Technician Tom Robinson

We Made It: Stage Technician Tom Robinson

Peek behind the scenes with the set builder of the Young Vic's amazing mirrored box for Caryl Churchill's A Number

John Shrapnel and Lex Shrapnel in A Number at the Young VicPhoto by Johan Persson

If you’ve read any of the glowing reviews for the current revival of Caryl Churchill’s cloning play A Number, you’ll know all about the extraordinary set. Produced at the Nuffield in Southampton last year and transferred to the Young Vic this week, the intense production places father-and-son performers John and Lex Shrapnel inside a mirrored box where their every move is reflected infinitely. The audience is split into four around its edges, and watches the action through one-way glass. In between scenes, the mirror effect is reversed and the audience sees itself reflected. How the hell do you go about making such a set? We asked Nuffield Theatre’s Stage Technician, Tom Robinson.

BELLA TODD: Can you describe the set for A Number

TOM ROBINSON: The idea is that the actors don’t see the audience, and the different sections of the audience don’t see each other. The designer, Tom Scutt, explained the idea behind the mirrors as a play on cloning, the fact there are so many different versions of Lex’s character. The set is a box with a false floor and eight two-way mirrors in it, plus four wood-clad auditorium bays. At the Young Vic you start with one chair in the box and end up with two, because there’s a trap in the floor with a folding chair hidden underneath the actual box. But I’ve just ruined the trick for you now!

What was your initial reaction to the concept? 

We had what we call a white card meeting where the designer brings in phase one of the idea, and you chat about what is possible within the budget. It’s exciting to build a show on that scale. When you think of a set normally, it’s what you see on stage. With this show, all of the auditorium is technically part of the set. At the back of my mind I was thinking, oh god, there’s so much to do! We were in the workshop for ten days working on the build, then had another four to get it into the Nuffield.

How did you create the two-way mirror effect? 

Two-way mirrors aren’t manufactured as much as you would think anymore, so they were bespoke made for us. It’s two panes of glass with a film in between. They’re very heavy and fragile. The box itself has to be very bright – it has to be much lighter inside than out. Which is why, when the lights go out in the box, the audience sees itself. The tricky thing was that, the more lights we put inside, the hotter it got. And acting inside a hot box for an hour isn’t very pleasant. We put holes in the top of the false ceiling to get some air flow.

What was the trickiest aspect of the build? 

We had to work out the sightlines and get the mirrors at the right height. And we had to make the steel frame strong enough to hold the mirrors but not so heavy that they would break. It’s all about knowing the different materials and their limits. Another challenge was that everything would be seen, because the audience are seated on all four sides of the box and can see both sides. So even the screws holding the metal work to the sheet wood had to match perfectly all over the piece.

Did Lex and John Shrapnel talk to you about what it's like to perform inside?

They said it was very strange at the end of the show when they bow to the audience on each of the four sides, but it feels as though they’re just bowing to their own reflection. Lex said he only sees the audience for the opening six seconds of the show. You can hear in there, but it’s very muffled, and you have no clue where someone is standing outside the box. You lose all your bearings. They also said it was strange seeing countless reflections of themselves throughout, and that they had to try not to be distracted by them.

How did you feel when you saw the final show? 

I saw it once, and then went on to the next project. For me to see other people come and enjoy it makes all the work worth it. It’s satisfying to sit back and see that what you have made looks exactly the same as the original model.

What drew you to set building? 

I’ve been at the Nuffield for two years now, as a stage tech and carpenter. I did a lot of drama at school but was drawn to the production side because creatively I’m very hands-on. I studied set design and prop making at Brighton University. It’s a great way to use your skills. I’ve just finished doing the Nuffield’s youth theatre show, His Dark Materials. In August I build Henry IV for Hampshire Youth Theatre. It’s an awe-inspiring job. You never build the same thing twice.

Read other articles in We Made It, our series on craft in partnership with Bruichladdich

The more lights we put inside, the hotter it got. And acting inside a hot box for an hour isn’t very pleasant

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