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Set designer Christine Jones on the day of the first public performance in Canada of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playing at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto on May 31.CARLOS OSORIO/The Globe and Mail

As soon as you enter Toronto’s CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, you’re already in an immersive visual world imagined by the show’s Canadian-American set designer, Christine Jones.

The two-time Tony Award winning scenographer and her team have had a hand in everything from the deep blue of the lobby walls to the bespoke light fixtures, which represent different houses of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Head to your seat and Jones has been involved in creating not just the ever-changing railway station on stage, in which the play’s performance takes place, but the redesigned auditorium of the Ed Mirvish, what she calls “a theatre within a theatre.”

“We’ve reduced the amount of space in the house so that the trajectory of the energy between the actors and the audience is more contained,” Jones says, in an interview in the theatre’s lobby ahead of the Canadian premiere of this stage sequel to J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster series of novels.

The integration of design into the total theatrical experience of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a function of the collaborative way producer Sonia Friedman developed the play for its West End debut in 2016.

It also happens to be how Jones – who has been in-demand on Broadway since she designed the set for the hit musical Spring Awakening (which just celebrated its 15th anniversary) – originally learned to create theatre and sets when she studied at Concordia University in her hometown of Montreal. This was in the 1980s, when an exciting new style of Quebecois theatre was emerging that focused as much on stage images as words. (Think Robert Lepage and his contemporaries.)

“I was trained in this type of devised collaborative methodology there,” says Jones, who grew up on the West Island of Montreal and first studied dance with Les Grand Ballets Canadiens before discovering her true calling in scenography in university.

“What I have found over the years in New York and in America is that it’s not set up the same way – and that often the designs are complete by the time the first rehearsal begins.”

With Harry Potter, by contrast, there were several workshops involving the designers while British playwright Jack Thorne’s script – about the grown-up Potter and his son, Albus, which he came up with in collaboration with Rowling and director John Tiffany – was still in development.

The acclaimed British choreographer Steven Hoggett (Once, Peter and the Starcatcher) was also involved in those workshops; many of the most visually exciting moments in the play, such as the Hogwarts “staircase dance” – one of Jones’s favourite parts, involving actors running up and down the school’s moving staircases – came out of this process, which allowed for a true marriage of movement and design and storytelling.

“With every design event that you’ll see in the show, it’s really a collaboration between sets and lights and costumes and choreography and direction and props and magic,” notes Jones.

Jones has, in fact, been collaborating with Hoggett for more than a decade now – since they first met working on the Green Day jukebox musical American Idiot, for which Jones won her first Tony Award for best scenic design. (Her second was in 2018 for Harry Potter.)

In rehearsal for that rock-n-roll production, Jones started talking about a scene she had seen years before, involving actors diving over and under spinning metal beds, in a show called Le Dortoir, created by Quebec director Gilles Maheu with his multidisciplinary company Carbone 14. That 1989 production, which toured the world, turned out to also have been just as influential on Hoggett, who co-founded his own world-famous physical theatre company, Frantic Assembly, in Wales in 1994.

“We immediately knew that we shared this desire for bodies and space to interact in dynamic and sometimes seemingly dangerous ways,” says Jones, a dual citizen who may have left Montreal for New York in 1989 to pursue an MFA at New York University, but still seems a product of where she grew up in her aesthetic, both professional and personal. (She’s dressed in a muumuu with an intermittent rainbow-like print and a brimmed hat she bought at Kmart, when I interview her.)

It was Hoggett who introduced Jones to Harry Potter director Tiffany. The three of them worked together on a couple of other shows before Tiffany inquired if she’d design the set for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Jones started by re-reading the original seven books – which she had first tackled with her sons Pilot and Ever, who are now teenagers – and, underlining passages about physical environments, she was astonished to discover how few there really were.

“[Rowling] doesn’t describe space as much physically as she does emotionally,” says Jones, whose work has ranged from the very big (working with the Metropolitan Opera) to the very small (her own Theatre for One, a portable performing arts space made for one actor to perform to one audience member at a time).

The imagery of the Potter film franchise was off-limits, she notes, “partially because we don’t have the rights to use any of that material, but also because we were deeply committed from the beginning to creating magic with stagecraft.”

That is to say, Harry Potter on stage is meant to be the opposite of CGI; you complete the pictures that Jones and her fellow design wizards put in front of you with your own mind, like you do when you turn words into pictures in your head when reading a book. The audience, as always, is her final collaborator.

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