An Interview with Heidi Wilkinson – Bird Brain Set Designer

January 12th, 2011

Our friend Heidi has been a props, mask, and puppetry designer/builder for the last 15 years. She’s currently teaching theatre at Capilano University and is about to start her 13th season with Bard on the Beach as head of props. Selected previous shows with Carousel include: Munsch Alley, Love You Forever, and A Year With Frog and Toad, (all set designs…F&T and LYF won her a Jessie award last year), and props/puppets for Seussical, Robin Hood and The Hobbit.

We asked her a few questions about her upcoming project,  the set design for our production of Bird Brain!

Heidi Wilkinson


What is the job of the Set Designer?

The job of the set designer is to collaborate with the director and come up with a set that supports the action that the director envisions for her/his actors.  The designer then uses his/her imagination and does a lot of research to come up with some design ideas…once the director has approved the designs, the designer makes a model, does colour swatches (for the costume designer/lighting designer/scenic painter), creates working drawings (for the carpenters to build the set), and designs the props, sending the whole production process into action. The designer will also do a design presentation for the actors/stage management to show them what they will be performing on, attend weekly production meetings and rehearsals, and sit in the theatre during tech week to ensure that the installation and completion of the set is as per the artistic vision.


What is the general concept for the Bird Brain set? How did you come up with this concept?

When Carole Higgins, the director for Bird Brain, first hired me to design the show, she told me that she wanted to create an atmosphere that felt a bit ‘Brothers Grimm’ and a bit European fairytale in flavour. It was also very important to her to have as simple a set and as much open space as possible. Taking these concepts and requests into consideration, I went off and read the script and pulled out the needed locations and the overall feel of the story…it’s a bit dark and cold for much of the play (both seasonally and emotionally through some of the characters). The set is very simple in design and a bit stark, but there are some magical elements that warm up the environment as Bird Brain goes on his personal journey.

Heidi's Set Model for Bird Brain featuring a wintery forest and the sign for Hat Street (the lamp is made out of a glass bead!).

The play takes place in many different locations – how is that worked into your set design?

Because we wanted to keep the set as open as possible, locations are suggested rather than completely transformed into. For example, we go from the forest into Bird Brain’s house – his house is suggested by a firepit unit with a pot of soup on it and a small bench that he sits on. Hat Street is just an old-fashioned street lamp and a sign. The palace is implied by a throne and a partial turreted castle tower that looks a bit like a bird house. All of these elements are supported by specific lighting effects, costumes, and sound effects that, when put together, create the desired location without taking up too much space on the stage.


What sorts of coulours can we expect to see on stage?

I love colour and in many of my set designs, I use a lot of it! However, Bird Brain is one of the darker shows that we’ve done at Carousel and we needed to reflect that in the colour palette. The play takes place in winter so the forest is in cool dark browns and crisp blues so that it feels a bit chilly. Those similar colours are brought in to Bird Brain’s house – while that particular scene takes place indoor, his wife’s reception to his personal changes are also very chilly. The scenes with the queen are warmed up with golds and reds and then I got to have fun with some hints of bright colour for the Festival of Fools.


Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the set?

I found a lot of inspirations from many different sources for this show – that made it fun. I have 2 children so we looked through a lot of old fairytale books together. My kids are always a huge inspiration because it gives me the previewed opportunity to see how children will respond to design ideas that I have. The flowers and fruit inspirations in the Festival of Fools came from 2 sources: a fabric sample that Yulia showed us as well as a crazy carpet that I saw in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas of all places! And the moon…I love the sun/moon. I’ve had the image that inspired that on my computer for about 3 years and love how whimsical it is.

Every design is a collabration with everyone involved – the director, the other designers – and this one was (and continues to be) especially fun. Carole, whom I always love to work with, has put together a great design team. In a lot of ways, the set will act as a showcase for Yulia’s gorgeous costumes…I can’t wait to see them! John, the lighting designer, has been a close friend of mine for years and this is the first show that we’ve worked on together where we’re both designing aspects of the same production…we’ve had fun scheming about all the magical places we can light up! And Jeff inspires all of us with his amazing soundscapes – he takes everyone on such a journey. I’m so excited to see it all come together and hope our audiences love it.


Heidi Wilkinson accepts her Jessie Award at the 28th Annual Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards- Hooray!

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