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Creating a visual world from the theatre stage up

If you had never heard of Drew Facey before reading through the nominations for this year's Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards, his name would have quickly become familiar.

The set and costume designer received seven nominations for the Vancouver awards, including four of five in the large theatre category for outstanding set design (for Gateway Theatre's Art, Pacific Theatre's The Seafarer, Théâtre la Seizième's Des fraises en janvier and Touchstone Theatre's The Romeo Initiative); a nomination for outstanding set design for Rumble Theatre's Penelope in the small theatre category; and two for outstanding costume design in the small theatre category – for Penelope and Solo Collective's Cool Beans.

Ahead of Monday's awards event, The Globe and Mail met with Mr. Facey at Vancouver Opera, where he is designing the set for the highly anticipated opera Stickboy, adapted by Vancouver Olympic opening ceremonies poet Shane Koyczan from his autobiographical novel-in-verse, and set to premiere this fall.

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What brought you to this line of work?

I grew up with it. My dad ran a theatre company in Kelowna called Viva Musica for years, which was producing semi-professional opera. They did a show every summer, and I worked on the shows every year from when I was 10 until I moved to Montreal when I was 18. So I sort of had it in my blood. Then for quite a while I was convinced that I wanted nothing to do with theatre and wanted to be a visual artist. And then I came back to it. When I found myself in art school at Emily Carr, I kept trying to make really big work. I basically was trying to create theatre work as an artist.

How do you approach a project?

I always start with the script. And then working really closely with a director, we kind of jam and just start to conceptualize. I'm hugely image-based, so even the first time I read a script, usually I've got my laptop beside me and I'm pulling images. Often for shows I'll have hundreds and hundreds of images collected. I'll print them all off and that starts to guide the direction visually for the show. If it's a period play, I like to look at what was happening then in art and fashion and architecture, design. I'm influenced by anything in the visual world; I'm a bit greedy with it.

Were there any particular challenges associated with these six shows for which you're nominated?

I think one of the most challenging pieces that I did was Penelope. It takes place in an emptied-out, abandoned swimming pool that has for the last 10 years been filled with suitors for Penelope. It's this kind of disgusting mess of a place that we had to create in The Cultch. One of the first things that excited me about that was the point-of-view that we could have, so half of your audience [on theatre's main level] is kind of down in the pit in the pool with the guys, and then the half in the balcony kind of has the point-of-view that Penelope would have, up on the pool deck above them. And then there were pyrotechnics – there was a giant burning barbecue. All four of the guys were in Speedos for the whole show. There were a lot of really ridiculous things, but the production was gorgeous; it was a really fun piece.

What can you tell us about your plans for Stickboy?

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It's exciting. It's a huge show. I think there's a lot of ambition in the project and there's a lot of forward thinking with where it will go, and future versions of it. And it's so complex in terms of how the story is being told. I've never worked on a project quite like this in terms of the scope of it and in terms of the integration of technology into it, in a way that is also, I think, unique. I haven't seen animations used to this extent ever. The challenge for me, I think, and for the director and for the whole team is to create this sort of seamless world where all of these things can co-exist and nothing feels out of place. Sometimes I've seen projections used in a way that feels separate somehow from the world of the play. It's so important in this [production] that the animations come out of the central character, the Shane Koyczan character. This is his imagination and the struggle that he's going through. So figuring out a way to pull all of that out of this beautiful and kind of scary world is our challenge right now.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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