Coming of age, teenaged boys have been known to help themselves to a parent's car and head off in search of adventure. How telling, then, that when young Peter Hartwell found the keys to his mother's 1967 Ford Anglia one day in 1969 in Dundas, Ont., he promptly aimed the car in the direction of the Stratford Festival - determined to see Volpone starring William Hutt.
An afternoon listening to 17th-century dialogue is not the sort of lark for which most adolescents would risk their parents' wrath. But looking back, the day constituted a marker for Hartwell: Without even knowing it, he was making a choice about what he wanted to do with his life.
He's recalling all of this over lunch - cheeseburger and fries - in Stratford, where this year he's been spending a lot of time.
Hartwell, now 56, is the set and costume designer for Fuente Ovejuna, Lope de Vega's 16th-century tragicomedy directed here by Britain's Laurence Boswell. In this, the second instalment in the Globe and Mail's six-part series on the production, we look at how Hartwell and Boswell came together and conceived the visual look and feel of the play. Previews begin at the Tom Patterson Theatre on June 19.
Hartwell came on board relatively late, in part because of prior commitments in Winnipeg and Montreal. But he also thinks Boswell, who has staged more than a dozen Spanish Golden Age plays, was understandably hoping to corral his long-time design associate, Jeremy Herbert. When that didn't work out, Hartwell got a call at his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake (where he also designed J. B. Priestley's The Inspector Calls for the Shaw Festival).
Was he interested in Fuente? He most definitely was.
Of course, Hartwell wasn't a completely unknown commodity to Boswell. Also drawn like a magnet to the theatre in his teens, Boswell remembers going to London's Royal Court Theatre in 1979 and seeing the Hartwell-designed production of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, a play that deals with themes of sexual liberation. "I was 19 and didn't understand that such things went on in the theatre," Boswell recalls. Later he saw other shows that Hartwell designed, including Churchill's Serious Money. So when Stratford suggested that Hartwell would be available, Boswell was more than willing.
For any stage designer, of course, the first consideration is always the raw material of the stage itself. Here, that meant the Patterson, named in honour of the Festival's founder. The Patterson features a thrust stage surrounded on three sides by tiered seating. Its size (480 seats) and shape (long and narrow) confer a certain intimacy, but they also impose clear constraints: Attempts to overdress the venue work against its inherent minimalist ethos.
Hartwell and Boswell have fit their design ambitions to the given realities, but they are aiming to dress up the simplicity with colourful costumes that reflect the class divisions of Spanish society at the time. "We both share a belief in simplicity of design," says Boswell. "And the Patterson enforces it. You just have to enjoy it and spin it a little bit. It has its own aesthetic."
With Boswell in London and Hartwell in Niagara, their first collaborative gulf was vast - the Atlantic Ocean. "The distance forced me to take a different kind of process," he recalls. "Back home, I'd say to Jeremy [Herbert] 'pop around,' and we'd sit in my kitchen and drink tea and talk. That was impossible with Peter, so as I was doing the script [Boswell wrote a new version of a Fuente Ovejuna translation] at the end of each act I would write Peter a guide to the themes of the play, the characters and their relationships. Basically the feel of each scene. That's how I like to work. I'll throw a million ideas at something."
The problem was not resolved by the magic of e-mail, because Hartwell has stubbornly resisted modern technology. However, his partner, Jane Dagg, read e-mail messages to him and typed his responses. Says Boswell, with a laugh: "Peter is working toward computer literacy."
Later, Boswell would fly over on a Sunday, and spend two days in Hartwell's basement studio before going on to Stratford. "He's a great smoker and I'm an occasional smoker, so we called it the smoking room," In that basement, and later, on long walks in Niagara-on-the-Lake and in Stratford, the design vision for Fuente Ovejuna was conceived, articulated, elaborated and massaged. "The creative process is exciting," says Boswell, "but there's a lot of anxiety."
Their main difficulties, no surprise, concerned money. At Stratford, budgets reflect what a show can likely earn, and shows at the Patterson inevitably earn less than shows at the larger Avon or Festival theatres. But with a cast of 29 actors, several in multiple roles, the costume budget was in danger of serious overruns. They scaled it back, but they are still wrestling with how many pigs and capons to use in a scene in which the village commander returns from a military triumph and the peasants greet him with a living, oinking tribute.
The son of a chartered accountant, Hartwell says his parents loved the theatre and made annual trips to Stratford, returning with stories of the plays they'd seen. "One of my great regrets," he says, "is that my father didn't live long enough to see my work here or at Shaw."
In school, Hartwell came to Stratford on class outings, an experience, he says, that made him realize how nice it would be to come without them. Hence, perhaps, the subsequent excursion with his mother's car.
He acted in high-school plays and, after two years at Queen's University reading history, went to London in 1973 to study theatre design in a trainee program offered by the Sadler's Wells Opera. He meant to stay a year; he stayed 17.
After working with Guy Sprung at the Half Moon Theatre in Aldgate and with another Sadler's Wells designer, Hayden Griffin, Hartwell won his first job as lead designer with Epsom Downs, a Howard Bretton comedy - inherited after others withdrew.
Hartwell's production faucet has rarely been turned off since. Abroad, his work has graced the West End, the English National Opera, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. He's also worked in Germany, Australia and the United States. Since his return to Canada in 1992, Hartwell has designed for Stratford, Shaw, Soulpepper and a dozen other theatres.
It says something about the evolution of Canadian society that a young man from Dundas has been able to make a stable, if not financially spectacular, living in the theatre for 35 years. His father, he notes, initially took a dim view of that career decision.
"But there was another side to him," Hartwell says. "He'd been a navigator with the RCAF in the Second World War and he and his buddies had come back to Dundas, a mill town that before the war had been run by about three families. Well, that changed when those boys came back. Now they had the opportunity to go to university and become professionals and to live a life that included such a thing as art. And so my going into this world was not so much a sign of success for me as it was for him, and for his generation - having kids who could do things that, when he was growing up, only the kids of powerful families could do."
Hartwell's father did live long enough to see his work in London, and it made him proud to see him mixing with luminaries of the British stage. "Maybe then," laughs Hartwell, "he thought this whole theatre thing might be viable."
Next: An actor prepares. How Sara Topham approaches her lead role in Fuente Ovejuna.