British scenic and costume designer Delia Peel prefers to start her research in libraries and second hand bookstores rather than online, because, she says, “You can find something that you didn't expect on the next page. You have more happy accidents.” When Peel does go online, she uses google.com more often than google.co.uk (she finds the US version better for picture research), and Corbis, Bill Gates' online image collection.
Peel likes the Barbican Library for its music collection and her alma mater Goldsmith's College library for video tapes and art books. She also says Westminster Library near Leicester Square has a “brilliant” selection of art books and an extensive collection of National Geographic magazines that she says are, “Really useful for real people and real clothes rather than fashion stuff.”
On a recent production of Vassily Sigarev's Black Milk Upstairs at the Royal Court, the design team was stymied trying to find images of a Soviet-era train station on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until director Simon Usher happened upon a National Geographic with everything they needed. “It was literally a little shack painted shiny dark green,” says the designer, who is particularly proud of the team's accomplishments on this production. “We couldn't afford a wooden set of the hut so the fantastic scenic painter Richard Nutbourne at the Royal Court made one out of plaster.”
For her work on Tirso de Molina's Tama's Revenge with the Royal Shakes-peare Company, Peel was not limited to a literal interpretation of a time and place. She discovered that when the play was originally performed, the 17th century actors would have worn their everyday clothes with some biblical robes thrown over the top. Peel says, “We decided to stay with the layered look but make it more modern.” The play deals with a tragically incestuous relationship between two of King David's many children. The director and design team decided that one of the themes was how abnormality becomes normal once it is institutionalized and, couped up in the palace together, King David's children had become institutionalized. To evoke this atmosphere Peel clothed the boys in Airtex (soccer-style) shirts and flannels, and the girls in kilts as a “youth uniform.”
She also spent time at the Institut Cervantes watching Carlos Sauro and Luis Bunuel movies. In search of 3D inspiration, Peel visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and became fascinated by the 17th century Spanish filigree work; she describes it as “metal lace.” Peel used silver bowls, plates, and a crown decorated with filigree work and — in one of the designer's “happy accidents” — the filigree crown worked like a little gobo. She says, “We had very strong lighting and it created a beautiful shadow.” [Note to industry: Not only do British theatre designers routinely create sets and costumes, but they sometimes appreciate lighting designers too.]
While researching Tamar's Revenge, Peel looked at a lot of paintings by Goya, Velasquez, and Zurburon to get a feel for the color palette of the era, but her ideas are often influenced by more contemporary artists. For a staged concert of Gyorgy Ligeti's Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures, the percussionist was called upon to play dozens of instruments, including a paper bag. Influenced by the British artist Cornelia Parker, who blew up a shed and then hung all the pieces back in a shed shape, Peel hung the instruments in a cloud above the stage. “At times it looked like it was raining instruments,” she says. For this production, she wanted to make the stage far removed from the working world and painted it a very intense blue, after the work of French conceptual artist Yves Klein. Her quest for Magritte-style clouds for the garden scene of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest led her to the discovery that sofa stuffing is not only flame-retardant but also made for the spotlight. She says, “It lit really well, in the same way that clouds are lit by the sun.”
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