A young designer creates an intriguing design for the new production of Constellations at the Stephen Joseph Theater
TK Hay points to another dimension of the cognitive dissonance of being a theater designer that is particularly relevant to him.
“I had to apologize when I received an award recently because I fumbled a lot – I’m not used to being in front of people,” he says.
“Designers aren’t used to being in the spotlight.”
But their work certainly is. The award Hay received was The Stage Debut Award earlier this year for his work on An Adventure at the Bolton Octagon.
His somewhat endearing memory of dabbling in the limelight comes as a surprise, as one would expect him to be used to collecting awards by now. He was also awarded the coveted Linbury Prize for Stage Design in 2019 and before that, a National Arts Council Fellowship in his native Singapore.
Not bad at all considering he didn’t really intend to be a theater designer.
“I did my GCSEs and A Levels with the idea that I was going to study architecture. In fact, I studied architecture for a few years and then I gave up – because I was terrible. I hated it,” he says.
The loss of architecture has been the gain of theatre.
“I think because I came here to study in Singapore, I have a different background than most designers. For me, when I work with a director on a production, I am always interested and questioned about the context of the play. That’s the thing that interests me the most, what is the context of the piece and how can a design work with that,” he says.
“It has to serve the story, I always respect the material. If I was interested in my work to hold the audience and be the thing that people are there to see, then I would go and be a visual artist.
This dedication to history and creating a design that best suits him nearly caused Hay to lose his job when he was approached by Stephen Joseph Theater Artistic Director Paul Robinson.
The director is at the helm of a new production of the extraordinary play Constellations. In 2012, he won playwright Nick Payne Best New Play at the Evening Standard Awards, making him the youngest recipient of the award. It has also been nominated for several Olivier Awards, including the musical score by SJT Associate Artist Simon Slater, which will be used in the SJT production.
“When I first talked to Paul about it, I asked ‘why do you need a design for this?’ what can a designer add to it?” says Hay.
Fortunately Robinson convinced the reluctant designer that a design was indeed needed for production.
“I tried to make sure I had a good emotional barometer. With my design, I had to find a way to never get in the way of what’s happening on stage, to never get in the way of the story.
The reason TK Hay is so adamant about not getting in the way of the story is because it’s a complex and sweeping epic and intimate tale. It tells the story of beekeeper Roland and scientist Marianne, the roles are played by Emilio Iannucci and Carla Harrison-Hodge in the SJT production and it examines their relationship through the prism of parallel universes, in a way which will remind audiences of the hit 1998 film Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah or Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life, which was recently adapted for television.
“It’s a story about endless possibilities. I’m sure my design is pretty literal, but I wanted to see how you react to the idea of endless possibilities. The piece also asks “what if?” it’s the idea of a ‘what if’ that haunts us all the time, so I tried to find a way to represent that in the design,” says Hay.
What he imagined is virtually impossible to photograph and quite difficult to describe. “I’m very nervous. We’re playing with a very unusual material, it’s the first time I’ve worked with this type of material and the first time I’ve used a space in this way. So I’m nervous about what the public will think, but I also think I’m relatively hopeful.
For the modest designer who shuns the spotlight, admitting that means the public needs to be prepared for something very special.
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from 28 October to 12 November. sjt.uk.com