Interview with Ailsa Paterson

Accomplished set designer Ailsa Paterson is one of the talented production crew of Ensemble Theatre’s A Christmas Carol and Boxing Day BBQ. She conceptualises how the stage should look, sets it all up, and at the end of the show resets it all, ready for the next audience.

Ensemble Theatre’s current 2-show bill has seen Paterson create sets for two very different representations of the holidays, and regularly changing between them – sometimes having to completely transform the stage in only 15 minutes!

We sat down with Paterson to hear all about the productions, her journey into set design and of course her wine pairing for these holiday productions.

What made you decide to get involved in theatre production, and how did you establish yourself in Australia’s theatre scene?  

I found my way into design for theatre through my passion for visual art and my love of reading plays. My high school art teacher was Judy Kurzel, mother of Justin Kurzel (Australian designer and director). She told me about the design course at NIDA, which Justin had completed, and it was a lightbulb moment for me. It was the perfect marriage of my interests. I established myself in the theatre scene through working hard across many areas, starting out as an assistant in film and TV, dressing on the big musicals at night and designing for many independent productions. Director Adam Cook, who I first worked with at NIDA, gave me my first professional job at the State Theatre Company of SA.

What do audiences not know about set design but should?

Some audience members may not realise the scope of the set design role. The design process often begins 6 months or more before a production goes into rehearsal. The set designer is responsible for drawing up the building plans for the set and overseeing the construction of every scenic element. It’s not a matter of having an idea and then handing it over, you need to collaborate with a raft of other creatives, builders, scenic artists, prop makers, marketing people, ticketing people to realise the vision. The whole process begins with the director/designer collaboration.

Tell me about your experience of developing A Christmas Carol and Boxing Day BBQ with Ensemble Theatre. Both a Christmas stories but from different eras and with different focuses, how did this affect set design?

The design for these two shows required very different approaches. Hilary Bell’s wonderful version of A Christmas Carol, under the brilliant vision of director Damien Ryan, embraces a theatricality and is necessarily timeless. While there are nods to Dickensian London, the world of a travelling theatrical troupe brings an inventiveness and inherent stylisation.

Boxing Day BBQ required a more naturalistic design approach. There are certain scripted elements that had to be incorporated into the design, including the back door of the house, the BBQ itself, the lawn and the beehives. The play moves into a kind of absurdist dream state at times, which allows the naturalism of the space to be countered. We have embraced this dream quality by sitting the yard within a black void and not fully articulating the extremities of the space. The back deck acts as a frontier, the border between nature and domesticity, but also a a border between reality and dream space.

You have some very quick set changes on the nights when both A Christmas Carol and Boxing Day BBQ! What is your approach to changing up the set?

The challenge of presenting these two very different worlds in rep is obviously the question of how they can be overlayed and how the necessary changes can be made in 15 minutes by two crew members.  I started to play with the possibility that the main stage structure and floor treatment could be in place for both pieces. When I found a look for the back deck that could double as stage floorboards it unlocked the solution. The fencing panels for BBQ remain in place behind the mirrored wall and curtain for Christmas Carol. Then it is about changing over the many props and adding some grass and plants for BBQ.

What do you enjoy about the Aussie theatre scene, and what do you think needs improvement?

I enjoy the increasing diversity of the Aussie theatre scene. There is a new focus on the importance of telling stories by, about and for all parts of the diverse multicultural society we inhabit. The huge cuts in government funding, coupled with COVID, have really had a devastating impact on the arts. It is very hard to forge a sustainable career in live performance – budgets are hugely restricted, and the pay is terrible. Increased government support, at every level of artistic creation, is essential to help the industry to thrive and to allow companies to tour their work to more of the country.

What type of wine would you pair with A Christmas Carol and Boxing Day BBQ, and why?

I would pair A Christmas Carol with a sparkling Shiraz (The Black Chook Sparkling Shiraz from McLaren Vale SA is a personal favourite). It has a festive vibe to it but is fuller and heavier than a sparkling white. It has a northern hemisphere Christmas feel. One of the characters in Boxing Day BBQ is a wine seller, and there are some hilarious moments about tasting white wine, so I would pair that show with a Riesling, something that is easy to drink but surprisingly complex after the initial sip. I love the Skillogalee from the Clare Valley. It is perfect for a hot Australian Boxing Day!

Purchase your ticket to A Christmas Carol and Boxing Day BBQ here.

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