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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Designers to the Bard: Pam Johnson & Marshall McMahen on designing under the iconic red and white tents

Pam Johnson has been designing for the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival for eighteen seasons. Marshall McMahen for two. Yet both find themselves dealing with similar challenges as they work on two productions each under the tents in Vancouver’s Vanier Park.

The Veteran

Now into her eighteenth season with Bard on the Beach, Pam Johnson is back designing for this year’s two mainstage shows, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale.

“I’ve done four Much Ado’s and every one of them has been different,” says Johnson with a laugh. “It is one of the fun things about what I do, and why I continue do it.”

But while variety keeps Johnson excited about coming back to the festival’s largest tent, it is also about the people.

“The team that comes back every year is what I really look forward to,” she continues. “What I call my ‘prop-tologiests’, my painters and carpenters, we have all been together for years.”

Veteran Bard on the Beach designer Pam Johnson is responsible for the design of this year's two mainstage shows, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale.
Veteran Bard on the Beach designer Pam Johnson is responsible for the design of this year’s two mainstage shows, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale.

While working with a common crew year-after-year may help in her process, it doesn’t mean each season is without challenges.

“Some directors come in a real strong concept and visualization of what they want and some don’t,” says Johnson. “Sometimes it can be a really creative process and sometimes it is simply ‘this is just what I want’. The neat thing though is every season is completely different with every show, and every director.”

Beginning her process by looking for a common link between the two shows she is designing, this year created a unique challenge for Johnson.

“The play effects how you design,” says Johnson. “You go into it looking at each individual piece and try to find a metaphor or architectural something that will marry them together. This year is one of the first where there wasn’t a metaphor or something that connected the two pieces.”

Beyond a common stage floor though, this season Johnson found herself designing for two very different plays.

Much Ado takes place in Italy at a film studio in 1959 and Winter’s Tale takes place in Bohemia, and although it takes place in Sicily it is set in the Roman Greco period with togas and has nothing that goes with 1959,” she explains.

Admitting to being unsuccessful in finding a common thread, Johnson eventually reached an unavoidable conclusion.

“I have to say I kind of struggled and beat myself up because I couldn’t find the metaphor or architecturally common point to bring the two together,” she says. “So I gave up.”

But with inevitability also comes opportunity, and no better example is in how Johnson incorporates the water and city vista through the opening at the back of the mainstage tent.

“It’s a beautiful view, but I also think about the actors who work so hard to create the emotionality of Shakespeare’s plays, and they end up fighting with the kites and party boats,” she says. “It is a little like sitting in a bar with the television on all the time. As much as it is beautiful and grand, it can offer challenges for the performers.”

Still, Johnson remains pragmatic in her approach to incorporating a view which has become almost as synonymous with Bard on the Beach as its iconic red and white tents.

“I understand Bard’s point of view and support it, we just hope good theatre is the main attraction,” she says. “That beautiful view is stunning and absolutely I want to show it off the best I can. Over the years I must admit I have minimized the view a bit to put a little more focus on the stage, but we’re still finding ways to make the audience’s view a happy experience.”

The Novice

To refer to Marshall McMahen as a novice is a bit misleading as his professional credits are impressive. Compared to Johnson though, he has a few years to catch-up with her at Bard on the Beach.

In his second season with the venerable summer institution, McMahen is designing for two shows – The Two Gentlemen of Verona & Merchant of Venice – in the smaller of the two venues at the Bard on the Beach village.

In his second year with Bard on the Beach, Marshall McMahen is designer for The Two Gentlemen of Verona & Merchant of Venice
In his second year with Bard on the Beach, Marshall McMahen is designer for The Two Gentlemen of Verona & Merchant of Venice

The biggest test for Marshall came in serving two masters on a stage with limitations.

“We can only have so many changes between the two shows on the Howard Family Stage because there is no backstage at all,” he says. “It is definitely a challenge.”

Fortunately, McMahen is working with two directors – Nigel Shawn Williams & Scott Bellis – who understand what he is up against.

“It has been really great because they were talking to each other before they were even talking to me,” he says. “They are both on the same page with some of their core goals and the aesthetic they were both interested in achieving.”

Not of course that the two directors were looking to make the shows look the same, McMahen says it is more about awareness. In knowing what is happening with the other play on the same stage, he can create designs which can work for both.

“Both directors have a very clear vision and are actor-centric,” he says. “Since they are very much focused on story we can strip away the unnecessary fluff and get to the core.”

Like Johnson, Mahen also looks for a unifying foundation, but his design process begins by separately examining what is required for each play.

“I like to start by looking at each piece individually and what each production wants to be,” he says. “I start from a place where we can do anything and dream big. From there it helps to create a clear picture and general feeling and atmosphere as to the world the stories want to live in. It is then I start looking at them together for commonality, whether in materials or a feeling.”

Helping to inform some of his design decisions this year is in knowing The Two Gentlemen of Verona will feature a four-legged actor.

“We’ve opted this year for both plays to be performed on the floor of the tent so there are no raised platforms,” he says. “It is not just for the dog, but it also creates a sense of immediacy, and allows the audience to be in the moment.”

Helping to distinguish between the two plays further, McMahen is incorporating a design element not previously seen on the smaller Bard on the Beach stage.

“One thing new this year that I am really excited about is using projections in Merchant of Venice, which as far as I know haven’t done on the studio stage before,” he says.

Also weighing on McMahen’s design for Merchant of Venice is the anti-Semitic underpinnings of Shakespeare’s text.

“It is something Nigel [director Nigel Shawn Williams] and I talked about,” says McMahen. “Through the design we have tried to strip away any romance or sentimentality and face the issues head-on”.

Vancouver audiences will have an opportunity to see the final designs from Johnson and McMahen as the 2017 Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival opens on June 1, running through September 23.

Visit for tickets and information on this year’s offerings.

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