Pam Johnson in front of one of her favourite As You Like It set pieces: the VW van. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Delta set designer brings the ’60s to Shakespeare stage

Pam Johnson is the set designer for the two mainstage plays at this year’s Bard on the Beach

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players. Except for Pam Johnson.

She was born to design it.

“I don’t have kids,” Johnson explained. “Some people were born to procreate, and I think I was born to just create.”

Johnson is a set designer, and has been for nearly 40 years. The 64-year-old Delta resident has worked for theatre companies from Vancouver to Montreal, and with Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach for nearly two decades.

“Every show is a unique experience. You’re working with a different director, a different actor,” she said, sitting under a marquee in the Bard on the Beach pavilion.

“And yet … there’s a core group of us that have been coming back as artisans and designers,” she continued. “You go out and you do your freelance stuff during the winter … You don’t see each other from one month to the next, but you come back as a family almost, and put these shows on.”

This year, Johnson was the set designer for the festival’s signature Shakespearean plays: Macbeth and As You Like It. (Each will be running June through September at the festival in Vancouver’s Vanier Park.) Johnson worked on the designs for about a year, thinking about the plays and working with the directors to come up with ideas that would fit the tone. The two were strikingly different.

Chris Abraham, the director for Macbeth, “wanted it fairly traditional,” Johnson said. “He wanted the costume drama, he wanted the tragedy of Macbeth, he wanted the psychological thriller of Macbeth. He wanted it dark.”

Daryl Cloran, the director for As You Like It, went a different route. He opted to turn Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity into a 1960s musical set in Vancouver, complete with Beatles’ songs and a professional wrestling opener.

Each production had its challenges, Johnson said, and for Macbeth, it was the moodiness of the piece.

“Part of what the appeal of Bard is, is our view and being able to see outside,” Johnson explained. “And that’s difficult for a tragedy, to have kites flying and people sunbathing and boats going by, and to keep the tent as intimate and dark as it needs to be.”

(The festival’s mainstage tent is open behind the stage, allowing the audience a view of the park and False Creek.)

For As You Like It, the challenges were quite different. Take the opening scene, which begins in a professional wrestling ring in Vancouver.

“They wanted to be able to slam against the ropes and spring back, and they wanted to climb on the ropes and jump off the ropes, and they wanted to slam down on the floor like wrestling in that period,” she explained.

On top of that, the set needed come apart in less than two minutes so it could be transformed into an Okanagan orchard right before the audience’s eyes.

“You always sort of hope that happens at intermission, and that you’ve got 15 minutes,” she said. “This doesn’t — it happens right in front of the audience.

“And I think that’s thrilling. If it’s done well, and done right, the audience loves it.”

There was also the need to come up with iconic symbols for the various locations in British Columbia, as well as the 1960s. For Johnson, who grew up in Kamloops during the ’60s, this was the relatively simple part of her job.

“I learned to drive in a hippy Volkswagen van, so I really pushed to have a Volkswagen van on stage,” she said. “I don’t think you need much else. It sort of says it [all].”

Macbeth opened June 17 on the festival’s mainstage. Two days later, the set had to change from the gloomy Scottish heath to the neon Vancouver landscape.

Although the two plays never show on the same night, there is often less than an hour available for four people to change over the set. To make it work, there is a lot of collaboration, Johnson said, as well as planning that happens long before the festival opens.

“The challenge to go from Macbeth to [As You Like It] is always something, as a designer, you have to really consider as well,” Johnson explained. “It can’t just be pretty pictures, it’s got to be the practicality of it as well.”

Time moves fast in the theatre world, and Johnson is already thinking about next season’s plays for Bard on the Beach. But she can still enjoy her favourite part of the set design experience.

“What I do is just part of the puzzle, part of the jigsaw, part of the final picture,” she explained. “To me, the real art, the real theatre magic is the sound, the lights, the actors, the costumes, the props, the set — and then an audience sitting there.

“Because that’s why we do it, right,” she continued. “It’s really boring to do it to an empty house, to empty seats. So that’s the best part.”

Macbeth and As You Like It are on now and run through to Sept. 13 and 22, respectively, on the festival’s BMO Mainstage. Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens runs June 26 through Sept. 9 on the festival’s smaller stage, as well as the classical Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which runs July 6 to Sept. 13.

Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens runs June 26 through Sept. 9 on the festival’s smaller stage, as well as the classical Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which runs July 6 to Sept. 13.

For exact show dates and times and to purchase tickets, visit bardonthebeach.org.



grace.kennedy@northdeltareporter.com

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Pam Johnson, set designer for Bard on the Beach’s Macbeth and As You Like It. (Grace Kennedy photo)

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