Letting loose with Set Designer Heidi Wilkinson

April 14th, 2010

One of our very good friends, Heidi Wilkinson, is back to design the set and props for A Year with Frog and Toad. Heidi has worked on the Carousel stage, either as a designer or a builder, for a number of years- and we’re so glad to have her back.

Set Designer Heidi Wilkinson

Heidi has been a props, mask, and puppetry designer/builder for the last 14 years. She’s currently teaching in the theatre department at Capilano University and is about to start her 12th season with Bard on the Beach as Head of Props. Some of Heidi’s previous work with Carousel Theatre includes Seussical, The Hobbit, Silverwing, The Secret World of Og as well as Munsch Alley and Love You Forever (both of which she did set design for). Heidi is a 4-time Jessie Richardson Theatre Award nominee.  She is also proud mom to Hannah and Slater.

Can you tell us about the job of a 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.

The set model for A Year with Frog and Toad

How do you come up with a design for a show?

The process for me starts with a meeting with the director…Carole Higgins, in this case, had an idea about what elements she wanted (like the houses, etc…). I then get a copy of the script, read it through several times and make a list of set requirements, props, special effects, etc… and then I allow my imagination to run wild! I make some rough sketches to show the director in our next meeting..we look over them together and then after talking it all through, we come up with a design that we are both happy with. I will go home and make a “white model” which is a rough, non-painted, 3D representation of what the design will be – after that is done I’ll meet with the director again to fine tune the last few details and I will usually meet with the costume designer and lighting designer about colour (to make sure that we are all using colours that off-set each other’s designs). Then I go home to make the finished, painted model. That’s my favorite part because I love getting creative with painted finishes! My young daughter is my “design assistant” and usually has many ideas to contribute !

A collection of props for the show. A box of leaves, a bowl of 'cookie dough', oversized snowballs, oversized seed packets and a lovely picnic basket!

A Year with Frog and Toad goes through all 4 seasons.  How does the set change to reflect each season?

One of the things I did was make sure that the paint in the big floral backdrop was transparent enough so that our lighting designer, Ereca Hassell, could play with a variety of lighting effects and colours to change the look of the set. We also have little effects like flowers growing on the set, leaves dropping, snow fluttering, a fire in the fireplace, etc… to show the change of seasons.  There are little details in the set dressing, like the changing calendar in Toad’s house and the large potted flower in Frog’s yard, that will help guide us through the year as well.

You also designed the props for the show.  There is a lot of fake food.  How did you make it look so real?

I have a lot of experience as a props builder – it’s been my job for 15 years! – so I have learned a lot in that time about different

Actors Allan Zinyk (Toad) and Todd Talbot (Frog) have a taste of some 'cookies' in a preview photo shoot. Photo by Tim Matheson

materials and how to work with them to create realistic props. In the case of Toad’s sandwiches, for example, I needed them to look realistic because Frog and Toad are sitting quite close to the audience in that scene and they handle the sandwiches in a realistic way. I needed a material for the buns that would squish a bit in someone’s hands and could be shaped easily. I chose a soft upholstery foam as the main material, carved it with a sharp Xacto knife to make it look like a bun, applied a few layers of a rubber-based glue over the whole thing to smooth it out, and then painted it. The ‘swiss cheese’ in the sandwich was made with strips of leather that I cut holes into and painted, as was the ‘ham’ that peeks out the edges. An important part of making a prop look real is to research it…that was particularly fun when I “researched” the cookies for I needed to make for Toad’s baking scene!

What are you most excited about in this show?

I’m excited about so many things! I’m excited to see the actors play on the set and bring it to life…I’m excited to see all of the special effects come in and the magic that it will instill in the children who come to see the show…I’m very excited to bring my own kids to the show, especially my 2 year old son who will experience a live theatrical show for the first time!

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