Wagon Of Wonder: Designing for Outdoor Theatre

an arty photo of a woodland setting. The camera focuses on a fallen log and out of focus in the background an audience watch a theatre show

The Challenges

We are only a small company so for this outdoor theatre production I have overseen many elements; the designing, the making, the venue booking and the finances. It has been difficult to get a full tour this summer for a number of reasons, budget cuts,being the main one. The arts landscape has changed and it will continue to be in flux as we navigate through the cost of living crisis and with the prospect that the UK economy is unlikely to grow.

We already had our team in place for the summer show, with Phil as Director and Tara and myself as Designers and Makers. Phil and I were also the performers in our production Wagon Of Wonder. We managed to secure bookings through our networks and existing contacts. Marketing the shows is primarily Tara’s responsibility, but as a small company, we all share the load on all aspects of the business.

Two actors dressed in tones of blue against a wooden yellow cart. The one on the right operates a firebird puppet

Designing for the Elements

I trained in design at Rose Bruford a long time ago, I actually think the best training is by doing and after 23 years of practice things are starting to make sense. The design for Wagon Of Wonder came about because we had a story we wanted to tell and we wanted to be creative. This led to raiding our store and reworking an old trolley we had. It fitted well with the story and so I got to work on thinking about what was needed to help tell the story. 

My job as the designer is to support the story in every way I can, from music to lights to the costumes to props. When designing a touring production I know it needs to be easy to transport, set up, pack away and withstand the elements! For this production, I knew that the set would be used in a variety of locations, so, I created a design that was lightweight, modular, and easy to assemble and disassemble.

I used durable materials that could withstand the elements, and I designed the set in such a way that it could be easily adapted to suit the different performance spaces. The result was a set that was both functional and visually appealing, and that looked great in a variety of settings.

A yellow and blue wooden cart sits amongst the trees in a sparse pine forest.

The Magic of Outdoor Theatre

When I design for an outdoor theatre production, I’m excited by all the natural elements we already have: trees, grassy areas, massive skies (cloudy or blue!), and even the noise! From traffic noise to kids playing to birds singing to the wind blowing through the trees, it’s all part of the magic.

Since it doesn’t make sense to compete with nature, it’s important to consider all these factors when designing. It’s always a good idea to have something to stand in front of, just in case there’s a dog walker passing by or a road behind you. But what if you’re performing on the moors, with nothing but the landscape behind you? Why compete with such a stunning backdrop?

The key is to position the show so that the audience is facing the best way. If there’s a particularly beautiful vista in one direction, I make sure the stage is facing that way, equally if there’s a distraction, such as a car park, I try to position the stage so that the audience’s backs are to it. One of the key questions I always ask myself is how can we enhance the magic of the venue, rather than compete with it?

I’ve designed and produced outdoor shows for many years, there’s something magical about a natural space. Perhaps it’s the shared experience with both audience, actors and landscape, but whatever the reason, there’s definitely a magic to telling stories to an audience in a natural setting.

A theatrical performance is being held on the lawns of a grand house. The audience look on at the performance.

Blog Contributor: Mark Hornsey

How We Design Our Christmas Show

Our Set Design Process

The Babbling Vagabonds design process starts with the story we want to tell and a big sketchbook. We talk about the story and the scenes within it, the characters and the locations. Ideas are important at this stage and we try not to limit our creativity. It’s very much a collaborative process between the three of us. We are not afraid of being wrong when we voice ideas and to be honest I think the three of us have a very special relationship. We don’t censor our creativity, anything is up for discussion.

Sketchbook from The Dinosaur that came for Christmas
Getting ideas and thoughts on a page

Pinterest is a good source of inspiration for us and we have a shared board for the story. We look at characters types, environments, costume and Pin anything we think is relevant to our story.

Storyboarding Ideas

A storyboard of the essential action is drafted. We find creative ways in which to make the locations and where scenes can take place. There is usually only four actors in our Christmas show and whatever is designed has to take that into account.

Design sketchbook for The Dinosaur that came for Christmas
Mark sketches a storyboard for The Dinosaur That Came For Christmas

Making the Model – The World of the Story

This will be our 6th production at The Guildhall Theatre in Derby, we know space well and how to get the best from it. We don’t have to worry about touring the production and making the set fit in different venues, this means we can design a set that is bespoke to the venue. We have a scale model of the theatre and its within this miniature space that we start to realise the ideas from our sketchbooks.

Model Making for The Dinosaur That Came For Christmas
Starting To Make A Model

Making the model is all about playing. It is about seeing design ideas in a three-dimensional form and within this part of the process that you can see if an idea is going to work. We never see things as a problem, always as a challenge, and through design we find solutions. The model helps to see the theatre space as a whole and its often at this stage where you start to understand how certain scenes within the story will play out.

Working model for the Dinosaur that came for Christmas
The Beginnings of a Model for The Dinosaur That Came For Christmas

The model box changes all the time as we search for the ultimate design. Pieces are thrown away to make way for more exciting ideas and solutions. It is a vital part of the design process and an amazing way of sharing our vision. Colour becomes an integral element of the modelling stage and brings together all the elements of the design. The colour palette really helps when we venture into the next stage of building the set. Working as we do means we are flexible and have the ability to adapt throughout the whole process as things may change…again, and again and again.