Backstage

A theatre made of hay from L’Elisir d’Amore

A production remembered — By Didier Valentian

Didier Valentian - deputy head of the painting studios, Bastille.

“Among the 1950s-style illustrations and country visuals that Chantal Thomas brought us to create the sets for L’Elisir d’amore in 2006, the sketch of a pyramid of hay took pride of place. To bring the idea to life, we began by working with real hay stacks: it was a case of the countryside invading the workshops. From there, we initiated a dialogue with Chantal to respond to two specific needs: this particular set component had to be mobile and easy to dismantle. The pyramid of hay was built in several stages with a metallic frame forming the base. Next a wooden terrace-like structure was added composed of a succession of crates arranged in steps. Finally, the top of the pyramid was not made of wood but sculpted in a laminated, resinated composite material. Obviously, it was impossible to cover such a volume with real, perishable hay—not only is it inflammable and slippery but it can trigger allergies among the actors—so we looked for a durable product capable of giving the visual appearance of hay. The best solution seemed to be sisal, an extremely robust plant, the fibre of which is used to make rope. When the strands of sisal are intertwined, dyed and cut to the right length, they look just like wisps of hay. Even though it is a trompe-l’œil, it is no less natural. We worked the material into different shades and thicknesses, so that each wisp looked different from another and each bale appeared authentic. We used around 400 m2 of the material, and since the studio measures 700m2, it gave the impression of walking into a barn. To reproduce the texture of the hay, we had to cover the angular wooden structure with considerable amounts of foam which also involved a significant amount of modelling work to give each bale a specific roundness. In this haystack there’s no needle but there are fifteen kilos of staples!

Practically all the workshops were mobilised to build this pyramid of hay, and the decorating and painting phase alone, carried out by my team of five, required six weeks’ work. Paradoxically, it is often the sets requiring natural or realistic-looking components that demand a greater inventiveness on our part. In return this type of scenery and the challenges it poses give us a great deal of pleasure because reality and the illusion of reality are at the very heart of our profession. However, on stage, it’s a question of reality reconstituted and redirected to dramatic ends. In Chantal’s mind, this wasn’t just a mundane stack of hay bales but a rural theatre serving the idea of a performance within a performance dear to Laurent Pelly. We are even more delighted when sets are conceived to complement the staging: seeing the singers moving about and having fun in this environment is extremely gratifying.

Each of us grew attached to the set during its conception, but we could never have imagined to what extent it would captivate the public. Its pastoral appearance, the rural charm it exudes won us over from the start and I’m not at all surprised that it has become emblematic of this production. Its very success means that it has travelled extensively, but only we possess the secrets of its fabrication and the know-how to maintain it. As a result, it returns regularly for a "tidy up" and each time we are happy to work on it again since it invariably provides an invitation to have fun.”

Interviewed by Milena McCloskey

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