Monday 23 April 2018

Setting the scene for a life in theatre

Bob Crowley is one of the most celebrated set designers in the world. He tells our reporter about leaving behind his 'full Irish' upbringing, working with Peter O'Toole, and how he now gets to 'control the entire stage picture'

Set designer Bob Cowley at home. Photo: Boris Conte
Set designer Bob Cowley at home. Photo: Boris Conte

Julia Molony

He's not an extraordinarily tall man, but there is something about the theatre designer Bob Crowley that suggests stature. He has a quiet, but compelling presence. I meet him in his studio in EC1, which is perched on the edge of a city garden, in a screamingly hip corner of Islington.

It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the front door opens onto a huge, vaulted, light-filled space. One wall is all books. Another all windows. There are signs of intense creative industry everywhere, sketches and models spread out over several desks.

These are clues to the alternate universe that Crowley is currently immersed in - the twisted, technicolour fairytale world of Disney's Pinocchio. He is working on an adaptation for the Christmas show at London's National Theatre.

We sit on two Wegner-esque chairs, which have been positioned in the centre of the studio facing each other. It feels, appropriately, rather like being in a theatre set. As clouds pass the windows behind Crowley, they cast ever-shifting shadows on the floorboards - almost like a lighting effect.

There is a studied elegance to his work-day uniform. The utility of the denim shirt and trainers he is wearing is lifted by a floral-printed silk cravat. He is expressive in his gestures - his hands perform a little choreography as he speaks, turning a pair of round, tortoiseshell glasses over and over.

A Bob Crowley piece is an artistic masterpiece in 3-D. He is one of the world's most-feted theatre practitioners. His mark is on absolutely everything the audience sees, including the costumes. "I get to control the entire stage picture," he says.

Crowley grew up in Cork city, the eldest of four. His younger brother has also forged an equally glittering career - he is the Oscar-nominated film director John Crowley.

Their father was "in the fire brigade in Cork", he says. "And my mother was, my mother. She didn't have a job, except rearing us, which was enough. For a long time there were just the three of us. I'm the eldest, and I've got two sisters, Marie and Deirdre. And then my brother John came along 17 years later."

Both his parents were "huge lovers of theatre - particularly musical theatre and opera. They loved music. And my father was a very gifted man. He put out fires," he says. "I can't believe you run into burning buildings. People run into burning buildings. That's their life. The courage that takes is beyond me."

Outside the heroic day job, his father was also "very talented. He was very gifted with his hands, and he made things all the time. He made furniture and he restored furniture and he was fascinated with antiques."

Growing up in the 1950s, Bob had what he describes as "a pretty typical, strict Catholic upbringing. Mass on a Sunday; the stations at Easter and the Missions - the full Irish," he says laughing. "It was De Valera's Ireland - very much Church and State, hand-in-hand. And strict schools. I went to the Presentation Brothers in Turner's Cross. And, you know, we got walloped."

He knew, quite suddenly, that he wanted to be a set designer when he saw a production of Oliver in Cork, designed by "another Irishman, Sean Kenny. Who was really an architect." He went to see the show and "I thought it was extraordinary".

He applied to study at the Abbey, but "they turned me away. Which is perfectly fine, because I wasn't really that qualified."

The rejection was a spur. He wrote to the Bristol Old Vic, which was the only theatre school he'd ever heard of at the time.

"They accepted me and gave me a free scholarship. And suddenly doors opened for me." His eye was fixed, even then, firmly on the arts scene in London. "I used to come up to London every weekend, every Saturday, and sometimes I'd see three shows in a day, and then get on a train back to Bristol at midnight - wake up in some West Country rail station."

The force of ambition this experience sparked within him took him rather by surprise.

"My ambition was always to work with amazing people. I had this kind of insatiable curiosity about how you make something, how you make an event happen. Because it's all about putting the right ingredients together. And even then, it can turn out a dud. I wanted to be part of that. That was my ambition. I needed it. I lived for that. That's what got me out of bed in the morning. It still does."

How crushed he must have been then, when his first break - the chance to work with the "amazing people" he'd always dreamed about - turned out to be a disaster.

"Peter O'Toole had seen something I designed in Bristol and rang me up," he remembers. "I thought it was a hoax call, to be honest with you. When this woman rang me and said 'I've got Peter O'Toole on the line for you'. I thought, 'yeah, course you have'."

But it was indeed Peter O'Toole. "It couldn't be anyone else when I heard the voice. He invited me to London - invited me to do a production of Macbeth."

O'Toole had recruited the famous British film director Brian Forbes to helm the production and he wanted Crowley to design the sets.

"I was nobody. I was this young guy from Bristol. And suddenly I'm sitting in Peter O'Toole's house in Hampstead and Brian Forbes's house in Sevenoaks."

But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. "Because Brian Forbes had never directed theatre before. He kept asking me for terrible ideas, that didn't gel with me. And Peter was coming up with even more crazy ideas."

Crowley was aghast as the project unravelled in front of his eyes. "These guys were my heroes," he says. Eventually he jumped before he was pushed. "I think I knew I was going to get fired. So I resigned," he says. "I would never have survived it. It was a big crisis." As it turns out, it was the right move. The production was "a famous catastrophe. It got onto the 10 o'clock news and everything. The audience laughed all the way through it."

It was the first of only twice in his whole career that he's walked off a project half-way through. It happened a second time last year.

"I'm not winding down," he says. "I'm still working obviously, a lot. But I am doing less. There's no question. And that's a deliberate choice. About a year ago I was working a very big project and it wasn't gelling. And there came a point, and this is very, very rare - in fact I think I couldn't remember an experience quite like it when I thought, this is just not working. I just knew the chemistry wasn't right."

The lesson, he says was that "you have to depend on your instincts, but for some reason we don't. Life beats it out of you somehow. Whereas, I think what I have to do is almost keep the child in me alive. That little thing. That kind of spark.

"The producers were saying, 'you should carry on because you'll make it work'. But in the end the voice in my head said, 'I could make this work, but will it make me happy?' No. Will it make me richer? I don't know. Who knows?"

He didn't care, in any case. He quit the show.

In between these two calamities, his career has mostly been a steady run of hit after hit. Early on, he worked on a production of the Duchess of Malfi which attracted huge critical success, and led to him being invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. Glance over his CV and it appears as if almost everything he turns his hand to ends up being nominated for an award. He has won seven Tonys - most recently scooping Best Scenic Design for Musical for An American in Paris, and has been nominated for an Olivier countless times, taking home the gong for Designer of the Year in 1990.

He is single, and it sounds as if his commitment to work thus far has been absolute. With perhaps one exception. About 10 years ago, he started growing weary of all the travel and so bought a little cottage in West Cork. He's spent years renovating it - an undertaking as ambitious as one of his set designs. It's been a labour of love and was almost scuppered by inclement weather and invasive damp - he nearly caught pneumonia once while staying there.

"I think it's finally done. I absolutely adore it. I grew up in Cork. Both my parents are dead and the family home was sold a long time ago - so I lost my physical connection to the place. And I just felt that I needed somewhere there that I can go to."

He was very close to his parents when they were alive. His mother, he says, "died very young" and he regrets that she didn't get to share more of his life in theatre - though says that "she knew I was going to be fine. She realised that I was on my way. My dad saw more, obviously, which was great. I wish they'd been around to see a lot more though. Because they would have loved it."

It's a world that he can share instead with his brother John, who started his career in theatre before moving into film. They didn't really grow up together, because of the 17-year age gap, but got to know each other later. "I left home when he was four. But my parents used to send him over on the plane with a little Aer Lingus tag around his neck.

"When he was growing up, in his early teens, I was in Stratford with the RSC. He hung around with me during summer holidays. And he'd play with the other actors' kids. He sat in on rehearsals.

"He had very late nights, and his mother and father had no idea. I didn't have a babysitter. I could have found a babysitter, but I just dragged him everywhere, and he was up for anything. He'd be in the local restaurant after a show."

Now, they see each other as much as they can. "John lives in London as well now. We're very close," he says. But they don't talk about work. "I mean, we gossip. But I don't go into any great detail about what I'm doing. I never inquire about what he's going to do, I never ask him his approach to the piece. I think it's quite healthy really. Though I do ask him to come and see an early performance or a preview of the show. If I feel it needs another eye. And I trust him."

Bob Crowley will be taking part in City of Ideas with Cork Midsummer Festival. The festival runs until June 25. He will speak at the Glucksman Gallery on Thursday, June 22 at 3pm. The event is free but ticketed. Tickets are at corkmidsummer.com

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