LD Hugh Vanstone is no stranger to transferring his designs from London to New York; in fact last year he received a Tony Award nomination for his design on Ghost. This year he returns to Broadway with Matilda The Musical, which is winning rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. Directed by Matthew Warchus, the theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of how an exceptional schoolgirl changes her destiny, features stunning design work by the entire creative team, including costumes and sets by Rob Howell, sound design by Simon Baker, illusions by Paul Kieve, along with the dynamic lighting of Vanstone. Live Design recently spoke with the Trans-Atlantic designer about his work.

Live Design: How did you start your design for Matilda?

Hugh Vanstone: I always like to get started with the director and other designers at a very early stage. In this case, I attended all the workshops while it was being written, so by the time I got to the theatre, I felt the lighting design had already evolved. Like everyone else on the production, I’m there to enhance and tell the story. Therefore I never consciously go in with a “design style.” It’s just an organic process that develops between the design and rehearsal of each production. The show that you see in New York is a production that started on a thrust stage in Stratford-on-Avon, the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was our first go at it. Subsequently that production moved into a proscenium in London, and we had a second go at it there. The version you see in NY is pretty much the same as London; the average audience member wouldn’t see any difference. 

LD: How did moving the show from a thrust to a proscenium change the design?

HV: I’ve done it a number of times before, and I find that it’s less of a challenge than going in the other direction. Coming from a thrust onto a proscenium stage, it’s generally easier to make the choices about how you’re going to stage a scene, and it’s easier lighting-wise; you only have to make it work from one viewing angle. One of the things that I do a fair bit of in Matilda is help make the geography of scenes clear by defining areas with light, including sometimes journeys between those areas in corridors of light. This language came out of necessity on the thrust stage; without it, the audience would have been struggling to understand what was going on in certain places. When we moved to proscenium we thought, "Let’s hang onto that. It’s useful."

[Check out Vanstone's list of gear for Matilda The Musical.]

LD: How do you define those areas through lighting?

HV: Mainly with a lot of template work on the floor. Rob Howell [set and costume designer] had a eureka moment when he hit upon basing the scenic design on tessellating squares of different sizes. Nearly everything is made from tiles, a little like Scrabble tiles. Once he arrived at that, I thought, "Well great, because whenever I’m doing anything in light, I can take the same approach." I do a lot of corridors of light going between various rooms in the Wormwood’s house, and they all have jagged square edges, picking up that tile motif. That’s something I worked in a good deal to the design: for example, a window in the headmistress’s office that’s made with tessellated tile mullions.

LD: Talk a little about the use of color or cueing to support the storytelling.

HV: I think the most obvious color choice to point out is the "circus story." The writers have added a back-story about an acrobat and an escapologist. This story is told by Matilda to the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, and the world of that story is very distinctive in light, all intensely saturated color—blue and red. Matilda is, in fact, making up this story in her head, and eventually reality and her invented story converge. The lighting clearly signals when you’re in Matilda’s invented story, although it’s made obvious in other ways, through dialog and underscore as well. Additionally, I use a fairly standard “color-coding” throughout the play: the world of the school is all blues and grays—very dowdy; the world of Matilda’s parents, the Wormwoods, has a distinctive motif. Here I thought, "How can I make their home look most tasteless? Orange and green should do it!"

Read part 2 of our discussion with Hugh Vanstone.