At the theater, our focus as set designers is always on the story and the actors – not the surrounding; the backdrop should enhance rather than take over. With the award-winning set designer Margherita Palli I was able to discuss this balance, how the industry has changed trying to understand how she has managed to bring the background (sets) to the forefront in her over three-decade-long professional trajectory during which time she has created set and costume design for theater, opera, museums, and retail displays.
A trained sculptor, Palli abandoned her professional art career in favor for set design as it was less exclusionary to women. Her entry point into set design was in 1984 when she began collaborating with Luca Ronconi, arguably one of the most prolific theater and opera directors in Italy. She created sets for his shows on both national and international stages. Along the way she has developed a boundary-breaking practice designing for art exhibitions and installations, and regenerates her outlook on design as the Director of the Set Design Triennium at the New Academy of Fine Arts Milan (NABA) and Professor at IUAV University, Venice in the Art and Design. An artist at heart, Palli’s imagination has no bounds. She holds the Guinness World Book of Records for creating the largest wall of screens and has won numerous prizes for her set design.
We sat down with Palli shortly after she had realized a longstanding dream, to create the 1000-word Theatre Dictionary. The guide will help professionals and give audiences an insight into the quirky world of theater.
Virginia Melodia: How would you describe a set designer?
Margherita Palli: A set designer is an architect that builds temporary ephemeral spaces.
VM: How has the field of set design changed over the course of your three-decade-long career?
MP: The biggest change is in technology and materials. Now we use programs such as 3D Max or Auto Cad, when I started working we did everything by hand. Our materials have improved, plastics or polymers facilitate lighter and cheaper builds, previously everything was done in wood. Even before the pandemic, I carried out most of my work at home: making drawings and sharing screens with my colleagues which makes working on multiple projects across geographical regions easier.
VM: How did you come to be interested in set and costume design?
MP: Initially I wanted to be a sculptor and was trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. At the time it was a hard career path for a woman. I went on to design sets for exhibitions and soon found myself working for theaters. My trajectory was traditional, an art school graduate that continued to work, but not as a fine artist, in the cultural world. I tend to do more sets than costumes. Although I have no preference, I have a variation of collaborators who help me pattern costumes as I am better at construction and materials for sets than patterning.
VM: What was the first set you ever created and how do you feel about it now?
MP: The first set design I created was in 1984, “Fedra,” at the Teatro Metastasio in Prato for the show’s director Luca Ronconi. Luca introduced me to the world of theater. Although it was my first project I would not change anything about it. When I am given a brief and a theme, I use it as a starting point. Then I involve the production giving everyone the chance to give me their input. Each process is a discovery and I am never really happy with my work, I always strive toward improvement.
VM: Your projects involve collaborative work. How do you organize, plan, and prioritize your work especially during the pandemic?
MP: I always work collaboratively, whether I am creating a retail window display or a theater set I am never the sole artist. I organize my team similarly to the modes of architecture projects. We have a client and when our project proposals are artistically approved I schedule the moving parts in order to deliver the project. With the pandemic, little has changed; we meet remotely and continue to use the same modes of design to deliver to our national and international clients.
VM: Could you tell us about the most opulent or challenging briefs that you have worked on.
MP: Each project has different kinds of complexities with its own matrixes of problems and solutions. I have created a lot of strange things. With Ronconi, for example, “The Ignorabimus” at the Teatro il Fabbricone in Prato, was a cool project. The cast was made up entirely of women grappling with male roles. The rigorous naturalist setting, with the scenographies of real building materials such as concrete, asphalt, marble, stucco. A piece so imposing that it has created problems not only financially, but also logistically: for a long time the Prato theater was unusable, due to the long and expensive dismantling of the sets.
In 2016, I created the set for “GO.GO.GO” at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza with Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov. Since the inside of the theater was from the 16th century our sets could not touch the building, so, we projected the design onto the theater’s magnificent palladium. Of course, every show has its critics and this was especially controversial.
Another nonconformist project I created was with the chief dancer of the Momix, Daniel Ezralow, in Sicily, for the feast of Rosalia in Palermo in 2006. Every year the celebration is entrusted to a different artist. The year I was involved, I created costumes for a large-scale show featuring a mix of local dancers, a dance group from Harlem, and a number of actors. It was exciting working on this very localized event with such a diverse set of performers, especially in Sicily where they tend to stay more traditional in their local festivities.
Most recently, I created the set for a staging of “The Nutcracker” by George Balanchine, in Milan at the Teatro Alla Scala. The piece is one of New York’s Christmas classics, I did sets and costumes and it was a beautiful and striking show. Balanchine’s stage design is nearly always used in the United States so I decided to reproduce it in Italy. In Italy they would usually have a classical set for The Nutcracker it was quite unique having to make it in a contemporary style.
VM: Theater is all about dramatics, however, it is of preferable that they are intentional. Have you ever had any staging disasters?
MP: In Novara during “The Difficult Man” back in 1990, it was raining heavily and the theater flooded and a part of the roof came down. We had to interrupt right in the middle of the show and evacuate the theater until the firemen came. The show was interrupted for one or two hours, then we resumed from where we left off. The set was not damaged so, it went well.
VM: What might surprise people about your job?
The amount of work that happens during scene changes is incredible, a person would be shocked to see the number of things that tke place in just a few minutes. Sets are like cities, wherein on two square meters, in the complete dark, you will find singers, the chorus, the engineers, the electricians, and the seamstresses, all working together. This is one thing that is underestimated.
VM: Although the theater is referenced in popular culture, and many have visited it, the theater industry has its own idiosyncrasies that vary around the globe. You recently published a humorous and dense book, “Theatre Dictionary,” about the language used in the profession. Over one thousand words are translated into seven languages. What compelled you to write this guide?
MP: There are plenty of theatrical dictionaries, but they are either too large or too small. I wanted to make one that was just right – a guide to working in theaters around the world; one that people can travel with easily and reference often. It is a dictionary with theatrical terms in the most common languages in the theater and opera industry: English, Italian, French, German, Russian, Chinese, and Spanish. Franco Malgrande, director of the fittings at Teatro La Scala in Milan, wrote the introduction, in it he explains that in Italy terminology and language vary from region to region. For non-professionals, the book gives quirky insights into theater practice while professionals can glean vital pointers to help them carry out their work.
Imagine arriving in France, as one of us did, and your agenda reads: “the shuttle to the rehearsal room leaves at noon.” You pick up the dictionary and find out that the rehearsal room is off-site and the shuttle refers to the bus, with an added bonus explaining that the “administration” is the mask and the “nail” refers to the stage. Did you know that in Russia there is a tutu named Degas? It has the same length as the dancers’ skirts in the French impressionist Edgar Degas’ artworks. Our language is unique, at times bizarre, often funny, and steeped in history. Compiling these differences and presenting them in a book allowed me to realize a long-standing dream.
VM: And finally, do you get opening night nerves?
MP: Well, I never see my shows past the dress rehearsal, not on the opening night, nor later. My work is then in the hands of the technicians. I wait till it ends and I think of the next show.
Theatre Dictionary (ed. Margherita Palli) is an Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese word dictionary about the theater and is available for $30.
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Guest Writer, Cultbytes. Virginia Melodia is a Set Design student living in Milan, Italy. She has studied history of art and has a great passion for art and culture. She frequently visits museums, art-related exhibitions and events. Melodia has collaborated with young artists with art direction. l igram l