In Conversation: Conor Murphy | West Side Story

Conor Murphy is an Irish set and costume designer. He trained at Wimbledon School of Art and gained an MA in Scenography in the Netherlands. Conor designed the set for the highly successful West Side Story, through The Fugard Theatre. We caught up with Conor to get the inside scoop on set design and his immaculate work on West Side Story.

How did you get into the world of theatre? What pushed you towards set design?
Growing up in rural Ireland, theatre was mainly available through a local drama festival each summer where we saw theatre groups from around the country performing classic Irish plays by Sean O’Casey, JM Synge and many others. I was always impressed at how the stage could be transformed for each new play. At school, I enjoyed both arts and science and I intended to study medicine or dentistry at university. However, after a few painful months of a dentistry degree, I decided it was not the right choice so I applied to art schools in London for a foundation year. I was accepted at Wimbledon and it was there that I re-discovered theatre as one of our projects was to design a play; ‘Look Back in Anger’ by John Osborne.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

The process of attempting to design it in an original way was both daunting and challenging as it brought together many of my interests; literature, technical skills, performance and visual art. From there I went on to complete a degree in theatre design where we had further opportunities to work on plays and operas as theoretical designs and as practical projects. We also learned the basics of scene painting, prop-making and even welding and carpentry for set-building. After a few years of working in fringe theatre and assisting several established designers in London, I spent a year in Holland to complete an MA in scenography. Seeing a design idea through from first reading a script or listening to a piece of music to it becoming a reality on stage was very exciting as a student and it still is now.

Is it design before theatre or theatre before design for you?
The best productions are when the design feels essential to the whole experience; when it supports the piece and allows us to see or hear it from a fresh perspective.

How did you get involved with The Fugard for their production of West Side Story?
This was an unusual project for me as the design was initiated by the great South African designer Johan Engels who sadly passed away before completing it. I was approached by my agent to look at the possibility of finishing it and as soon as I saw Johan’s ideas for the production I felt that it would be an honour to complete his work. The idea of using the stage machinery was Johan’s, as were the movable towers and huge concrete walls. Johan had spent just a few days with the director, Matthew Wild, so there was still a lot to do in order to realize the design. I flew to Cape Town to work with Matthew and we adapted the design to work both with Matthew’s ideas for the production and with the Artscape stage machinery.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

It was an intense visit where we also worked closely with the technical director, Alistair Kilbee, and the brilliant team at the Fugard to help make the project work. We did shift several elements around and expanded or clarified some of the original ideas and even though I did leave my mark on the production in some way my intention was to preserve the essence of Johan’s design. I hope he is pleased with our efforts.

What does West Side Story mean to you? Has it had any impact on your life prior to this or growing up?
I was vaguely familiar with it from seeing the 1961 film as a teenager. I did really enjoy the music and the parallels with Romeo and Juliet. Re-watching the film again recently it is clearly based on the original stage production.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

I’m sure you must have had to study the musical intensely?
West Side Story is extremely well put together and feels more like an opera than a musical in some ways. Bernstein’s music reminds me of a piece like Bohème where Puccini manages to create a vivid emotional journey with what could so easily become sentimental in the hands of a less gifted composer. One of the things that I responded to in Johan’s sketches was that he seemed to let the music tell the story and the design was there to support it visually rather than overpowering the piece. That’s something I feel strongly about in my own approach to design and why I was happy to get involved in the project.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

What was your favourite scene or set?
An empty stage is full of possibilities so I do like the opening scene very much when a lone kid is playing basketball and he gets caught up in the initial gang rivalry between the Jets and Sharks. Other moments I enjoy are the opening up of the backstage area for the dance at the gym and of course the ‘Tonight’ sequence where the whole stage comes alive with light during Tony and Maria’s blossoming romance.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

You work on theatre sets all over the place – Where are you based and how do you split your time?
I live in Bristol in the UK and try to do most of my studio work from there; model making, technical drawing and often costume drawings. It does sometimes mean setting up a temporary studio wherever I happen to be in order to continue on a project. As a freelance designer, time management has always been a challenge. It was more difficult at the beginning of my career as I felt I had to say yes to almost every opportunity. I have been fortunate enough to be asked to design shows on widely differing scales and those experiences have made it a bit easier to judge the number of projects that I can commit to at any one time. I have found that one of the most important aspects of choosing projects is who you are working with and the level of confidence you have in each other; new collaborations can often take more time than those with a director you have worked with before.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

I am interested in your design process – how do you begin conceptualizing the design of a set?
Each project is different but usually, after an initial talk with the director, I will read or listen to the piece several times and then try to find out as much as possible by researching around it. That generally leads to collecting visual references and discussing these with the director. Sometimes a director will suggest images too and we try to draw the most useful elements out of the reference when thinking about the design at the early stages.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

Do you sketch up your ideas? Build mock up models?
Yes. I often make very quick initial sketches of thoughts about the space as I read or listen. Going through the piece several times in this way helps to filter the most useful ideas into a rough storyboard. This really helps to get to know the piece better and it also helps to clarify the main elements which might become part of a model. Then I often make sketch models in order to look at the form and proportions of the space. There can be several of these before finding a solution for the whole piece. At each stage I discuss the piece with the director so that his/her ideas can become part of the design process as it moves forward.

© Conor Murphy
© Conor Murphy
© Conor Murphy
© Conor Murphy

Your sets use extraordinary lighting to create both space and atmosphere- do you do your own lighting designs or do you work closely with a specialist to realize your ideas?
Lighting is such an important part of any theatre experience. I do think about it a lot while designing the stage and often try to integrate lighting into the sets so that scenery and light can work together seamlessly. However, it is a specialist area as you say and I always work closely with lighting designers and occasionally video designers. They are the ones who really bring the stage to life by creating incredibly varied atmospheres with light.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

Your designs have quite a minimalist aesthetic, what inspires this?
What inspires me most is work which attempts to look at the essence of things in some way. Whether is in visual art, theatre, opera or any other form. The most rewarding experiences I have had as an audience member have been seeing work which allows the imagination to roam free because of the simplicity of the form. When things are spelled out too clearly I tend to lose interest. That is particularly true with set design where we still often see very detailed representation of real places on stage. Film and television do this very successfully but, for me, the theatre design is an area where we have an opportunity to leave some space for interpretation.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

The set of West side story almost had an industrial feel to it and I found the mechanics of the stage fascinating. We had no idea the Artscape even had that capability. Is movement/ moving parts an important feature of your work?
I suppose every theatre piece is about movement on some level; whether it is an actor or a dancer in an empty space or a huge piece of moving scenery in the context of an opera or musical. I’m not sure if moving parts are an important feature of my work although it is great to use them when possible. It depends so much on the needs of the piece and the possibilities of the venues as well as the design budget. A lot of productions need to be self-contained and therefore we don’t rely too heavily on the venue as it can be difficult to recreate the effects elsewhere. For West Side Story, it was a pleasure to be able to use all the stage machinery at Artscape. It was designed with the machinery in mind from the beginning and were able to incorporate it as much as possible to achieve the different looks throughout the piece.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

You have worked at the Artscape, Mandela Theatre in Joburg and various others around the world – how difficult is it to adapt a set to different theatre constraints?
If you know about the venues in advance, then they can all be incorporated in to the design from the start which is ideal. When a new venue comes up after the piece is designed then can be difficult as mentioned above. For example, with West Side Story moving to Joburg there are some significant differences with the venues machinery so we have adapted the set to work within these and within the allocated budget so that the audience gets an experience as close as possible to the show we had in Cape Town.

© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre
© Jesse Kate Kramer. Courtesy of The Fugard Theatre

Do you have any classic set designers that you look up to?
When you say classic set designers I immediately think of both Adolphe Appia and Josef Svoboda; both of whom were interested in the interrelation of light and 3-dimensional design for the stage and revolutionised design for theatre. I have been fascinated with Robert Wilson’s use of the theatre space since discovering ‘Einstein on the Beach’ when I was a student. I was fortunate to finally see it in 2012 when it was re-staged in London. From a personal perspective, I assisted the designer Alison Chitty for several years. It is from Alison that I learned most about designing for opera; her approach to design as well as her integrity and attention to detail have been inspiring.