four small costume prototypes displayed on the table

Building a Garden of Earthly Delights with Shadowland Theatre

Canadian Stage interviews Shadowland Theare

We’re finally back presenting another Shakespearean classic at High Park, with the beloved romantic comedy, As You Like It, as part of the Dream in High Park summer program! 

This year, Canadian Stage is delighted to work with Shadowland Theatre, who are bringing their bold design sensibility to High Park with their set, costume and prop designs for As You Like It. 

Before the final unveiling at the High Park Amphitheatre, we interviewed the Co-Artistic Directors, Anne Barber and Brad Harley of Shadowland Theatre for an inside scoop on the design work going into this hilarious and adventurous show.   

Who is Shadowland Theatre?

Shadowland Theatre was started in 1984 by a group of Toronto Islanders in reaction to the pressure from the city to evict the Island Community. Over the last 38 years, Shadowland has grown to be a theatre company that works on a large scale in communities across Toronto, Ontario, and Canada. We’re renowned for our work as parade artists and animators of public spaces.  


What inspired the look and feel of what we will see on stage?   
The initial inspiration came from the director, Anand Rajaram, who prompted us to look at The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted by Hieronymous Bosch. For us, the play is very much about earthly delights. As You Like It is known as a pastoral comedy and as such, we took the idea of plant life, and the different status between a cultivated garden and the wilds of the woods.  
This story moves from a very manicured place to a wild place, and the characters evolve through their journey to have an appreciation of what the natural world can offer. Working with Anand, the idea evolved to animate the characters through a sense of them as plants and plant life. To really celebrate natural world and how we are often led to appreciate a very cultivated and manufactured garden but don’t realize the impact of the natural world on us.  
We want the audience, even before the play has started, to feel like they’re entering a world that is growing out of the ground, and the plant life that is going to be animated onstage draws them into this wonderful, natural universe.  


Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, oil on oak panels,
205.5 cm × 384.9 cm (81 in × 152 in), Museo del Prado, Madrid


How do you start dressing the stage from concept to realization?    
First is the analysis of the source material and looking at other artists who have worked with plants as characters or characters as plants. We then extrapolate that this is the underside of the garden, or this is the underside of the forest, and then we look at how we create something visually that communicates that to the audience. We looked at a lot of plant life and veered towards the ones that had interesting shapes and colours and drew those out to form this strange garden. Then we placed them into photographs of the stage and the core set and then evolved those into a scale model. Those then had to be translated into digital files which we’re having CNC cut, which will then be painted and become the set. The 2-D idea is to make the audience feel like they’re entering a picture book. The images are big, bold and a bit fanciful.

The 2-D idea is to make the audience feel like they’re entering a picture book. The images are big, bold and a bit fanciful.

What are the main materials used to create the designs and why were they chosen?   
The set pieces are mostly plywood that is cut and painted and attached to the core set. The costumes will be very sculptural and created using more malleable forms and then covered in fabrics that reflect the colours and textures of each of the plants. We also have ‘compost’ base costumes that create an ensemble feel for the cast and invoke the thought that the cast is the soil from which their plants grow.  


What are the challenges of designing for an outdoor show?  
The elements. Wind, rain, humidity, bugs. The sound of barking dogs and traffic, airplane noise. You have to make sure that your design and what you’re presenting can be durable enough, rugged enough and loud enough to compete with all the stuff that’s in the natural environment. We’re working in an exaggerated scale so that the audience are drawn into a strongly visual world that works with, as well as standing out from, the environment.

Of course, practically there are a lot of considerations. Waterproofing, wind proofing, things have to be attached very strongly. They have to be able to stay there for the entire duration of the run and we hope that people who visit the park even when the show isn’t on get to enjoy the visuals that we install in the theatre.  


Can you share your inspiration behind the floral and nature references?  
Aside from the Bosch, a lot of our inspiration comes from the plants themselves and artists that have taken the time to explore and depict plants in their work. Interestingly enough sometimes botanical drawings have been even more useful than the plant photographs because they have a particular interpretation. We wanted to create a noble and comfortable fantasy world of plant-like creatures, on the edge of reality.


Each costume design is distinct to each characters’ personality and style. How do you go about highlighting their individualities while making sure that all the costumes have an overall consistent look/feel?    
It all comes from the script. Shakespeare is very specific about the roles that each of these characters play, and we go through our lexicon of plant imagery and decide what a grumpy plant is, what a happy plant is, what a frivolous plant is and match them to the characters. All with the knowledge that this takes place in that moment in the spring when the forest comes alive, and every living thing is out there in the garden discotheque just really shaking their booties.  

We wanted to create a noble and comfortable fantasy world of plant-like creatures, on the edge of reality.  

Some of these costumes and set are quite bold. How do you make sure they play an equal role and not overshadow the actors when performing?    
What we try and do in completing the designs is putting each costume design into our scale model and look at them in the context of the world. The other thing that’s important for the context of the play is that each of the family groupings has their own colour coding. Duke Senior and his family are in the pink realm, Duke Frederick and his family are in the blue realm, and the Rowland de Bois’ family are in the red/yellow camp. Our job is to accentuate the characters and the world, to help draw focus and clarify the messages and meaning that the performers and the words articulate.  



How do you make sure the design is eye-catching, yet functional at the same time?   
A lot of the stage design is stationary, it has to remain there throughout the run without being removed each night. There are also elements that will be animated by the actors throughout. We’re using flags to create transitions between scenes. There will be some transformative aspects to the set that the actors will manipulate to reveal or change different things. Especially in the transition from the cultivated garden to the Forest of Arden. The add-on nature of the costumes will allow actors to change as needed as many of them are playing multiple roles. The goal is to create a big bang with minimal complication, especially with the costume changes.  


How long did it take to create the design from brainstorming to putting full feast of work on stage?   
It’s been quite rigorous over the last four months honing the design in conversation with Anand and our design team, we started having design meetings in January. We sent the set designs to the scenic shop this week. The costume build starts on Monday, which will be 8 weeks before opening. So all-in-all the process will have taken about 6 months from first meeting to opening night.  


How was working with Canadian Stage for As You Like It?   
Honestly, they’ve been amazingly supportive and excited in our collaboration. We work in a much more freeform structure than they generally do, and they have been nothing but kind, patient and open during this process. They’re working very hard to allow us to be creative and we really appreciate that.   


Be there when As You Like It comes alive this summer at High Park!


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