Award-Winning Set Designer ‘Provides World of Imagination’

“Scene design is a funny job – painting a visual landscape for actors to exist on, providing a world of imagination for the play to live in.”

That’s what Rae Smith does, she explained, as a scene designer for theatrical productions all over the world.

And she has received high accolades providing those worlds of imagination – a 2011 Tony Award for Best Scene Design for “War Horse,” for example.

For the London production, Smith won the 2007 Evening Standard Award for Best Design, the 2007 Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards for Best Designer and the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Set Design.

“War Horse,” part of PNC Broadway Across America, will make its Pittsburgh premiere Tuesday through Nov. 18 at the Benedum Center.

Smith became involved in the original London production in 2003, participating in several workshops. The National Theater in London had given money for experimental theater, which gave the creative team time to work on the project.

The creative team met once a week for two to three years to put ideas together, looking at puppets and the script, and at what the puppets should do and what the actors should do, she explained. Then, the team started to work together in two-week bursts for three years.

“By the time we came into rehearsals, we had worked out how to tell a fast-moving story so inspired by the Handspring Puppets,” Smith said. The scenic work had to move as fast as the puppets, she explained.

“The big discovery was that horses don’t live inside Chekov sets. They live in fields. The landscape has to be as huge as we can get it.”

The play is unusual in that horses are at the center of the story, and also unusual to have puppets at the center of the story, she noted.

“By the time I got to the show, I was meeting the horses in their first carnation. They didn’t have legs at first. Then they had legs. The mechanism got more refined … Now they’re ‘super puppets.'”

In the show, one of the characters, Captain Nichols, draws in a sketchbook for his own amusement; those drawings are ripped from his book and projected as background to move the play along, to tell its story. Smith very quickly realized during her design process that his drawings, seeing the war through his eyes, needed to be part of the scene design.

“It was very personal to me,” she said of the project. “My great-grandfather was in the war; his job was to look after horses.”

She said her father told her about her great-grandfather’s experiences. There also is an Imperial War Museum with a catalog of photos and letters from the war, which helped with researching the event central to the play.

Smith explained that the traditional way of scene design is to go off and design and build a set. But she was developing design language alongside the script and alongside the puppets.

“What I love most about my job is the collaboration with others,” she said. She worked with the projection company that took her drawings, then edited them and projected them. She also thought about Paule Constable, the show’s Tony-nominated lighting director, as she worked on the set design.

“I design with her (Constable) in mind to light it. Space is minimal, so lighting is crucial to direct the eye along.”

And not only did she design the set, Smith designed the costumes, as well.

“I didn’t start off thinking it would be such a big thing to do.” … but it was, she admitted.

“As a member of the creative team, you are obsessed with it whether you like it or not.”

She said the two to three years working together “helped to bind us together.”

She said the team worked well under pressure. “We were quite creative as opposed to destructive. It’s really important.” She said in fact, they’re still all friends after all these years.

“At the end of the day it’s about working it out and moving it on.”

Once the original production was up in London, the next project was bringing the show to Canada, then to New York. And, then on tour.

“Bringing the show to a new country … working together … it’s what happens in war, but no killing,” she laughed.

The most difficult part of the life of “War Horse” was redesigning for the tour, she said.

For the touring production, a number of venues have to be examined. The designers have to consider the minimum onstage space and the backstage space in each venue.

“It’s chaotic madness … it’s bonkers back there … with people being changed, horses being hooked up, a cart being turned around and someone looking for their gun …”

The backstage must be well-organized, she noted.

“It was a fantastic challenge, and very thrilling for the ‘War Horse’ team, knowing the show was touring to Philadelphia, Boston, all those wonderful cities. … we had to change elements to make it portable.”

And by changing, she means making it better. “We make sure that anything you touch, it’s a better idea.”

As an example, she said, in all productions up until the touring show, the horses drag around the field gun. For the touring show, there is not enough onstage space to drag the gun, … “so we changed the design so it slides. We discovered a whole new exciting thing.”

“Every time we do it, we try to make it better. Some people like London, some like Canada, some like New York. Some like the touring show. From the creative team, the best is the touring one … because it’s the last one we’ve done.”

Her favorite show she’s designed is “War Horse,” she said, but usually, it’s the “one I’m working on now.”

“If you love your job, you have to love what you’re doing in order to bring life to it.”

She recently finished working on “This House,” which opened in September in London. It’s about the houses of Parliament, she said. “It’s a brilliant show – it’s turned everyone’s head. It’s a fabulous success.”

She’s also working on “Sweet Bird of Youth,” with Maryanne Elliot, one of the directors of “War Horse,” which will be performed at the Old Vic theater in London.

When the show, written by Tennessee Williams, was first produced, Smith wasn’t born yet.

“(Williams) provokes you to come up with something that works in the actual world of realistic detail and at the same time a landscape of poetic beauty.”

That’s her challenge, she said.

“War Horse,” was a challenge in the early days, she pointed out.

“When ‘War Horse’ opened, it was not very good,” she said. “It was very long, a big old monster. Our boss gave us hard notes. By the time we implemented the show, we had a show people could watch.

“It went from an overweight piece to an understandable piece of theater. By the time we were finished, we were also pooped, and the audience seemed to love it. We were most surprised.”

“War Horse” celebrated five years on stage last month. “We’re having a party to celebrate. We’re extraordinarily happy it’s survived so long.”

“And I still cry sometimes,” she said, when she watches the play.