Designing The Seagull

A note from designers Francis O'Connor and Clíodhna Hallissey about designing The Seagull at Coole Park.

Francis O’Connor
Set and Costume Designer

When Garry talked to me about playing The Seagull at Coole Park, it felt immediately like a great fit and the right play to make after DruidGregory. With DruidGregory, we performed the plays across the entire site at Coole. They worked really well as short plays performed in different places and allowed the audience to both discover the plays and the place. The journey between the different spaces became the essence of the design. As you reached each place, the audience was drawn by the light sculptures that enhanced the natural setting of each play.

Initially we thought of doing something similar with The Seagull but, having worked on some concepts which initially excited us, it became clear that it wouldn’t work. While we wanted to embrace Coole Park, we felt the audience needed to be able to sit and to listen to this play. We felt it was important to acknowledge that we were doing The Seagull outdoors, open to the earth and sky, but we also needed focus.

Given Constantine makes a rudimentary stage for his play-within-a-play, the design for our actual stage takes its cue from the honest simplicity of his stage. The side walls and stage provide focus and simple wing space left and right while the landscape of the walled garden is revealed between these wooden walls.

The lake at Coole isn’t visible but it’s just beyond the stone wall in front of you. The lake is essential to the story and we’ve created an impression of water as a strip of light and glass bisecting the landscape.

Acts 3 and 4 are interiors and we simply fill the gap in the walls to create these spaces. I’m hoping Act 4, which happens at night, will have a haunted beauty about it but you can only imagine these things until they are made real. That making real involves huge effort from everyone in the team: carpenters, painters, props and costume. Druid is blessed with its own brilliant workshop and team of technicians who have built the set and our al fresco auditorium.

The challenge for designing outdoors is mainly about durability, wind and rain resistance - these are the limiting factors. The essential rule of making a great space in which to tell a story remains the same: you hopefully recognise the environment you have, you embrace it, enjoy it then enhance it. I hope that’s what we’ve done for you as you settle in to watch this production of The Seagull.

Clíodhna Hallissey
Associate Costume Designer

For both DruidGregory and The Seagull, Francis’ set designs enhance the natural beauty of Coole, it frames the setting in which we find ourselves. It is then perhaps the task of costume to give us a few more clues, to define the era, to outline differences in status etc., as the actors reveal their characters to us. Costume colours inside the lines of Francis’s structures so to speak and, under his careful guidance, does so gracefully.

For DruidGregory, costume quick change boxes were hidden around the park with some actors having to underdress many layers in order for changes to happen seamlessly. Francis designed beautiful hooded cloaks that we made in wax fabric so the actors would have rain cover that fit the period if needed, although when it came to it, most actors chose to brave the rain.

It was such a treat getting to associate design on a show of this particular period. Many of the quick changes that need to occur have been built into the costumes to make transitions easier as in The Seagull we are dealing with period garments with more complex construction for the women in particular. In terms of the practicalities of designing for outdoors, durability and assisting the ease of changes is important. Other than that though, design still remains character-led, you can’t always be thinking ‘what will we do if it rains?’ or you might scare yourself off the beautiful embossed velvet that speaks so truly of Isobel’s character or shortening her skirts so they don’t drag on the ground. Lily’s costume features some beautiful Irish linen and some embroidery that was inspired by the pattern of a Galway shawl. Peter’s frock coat gives a nod to a life once richly lived and Isobel’s opening ensemble introduces us to her flamboyant artistic flair. It’s the nuances of a character that a costume reveals that I find the most exciting.

As with every show, there will be costume challenges, particularly when it comes to maintaining garments that see a lot of wear and tear throughout the run and even as I write this I am sure there are many challenges that I won’t discover until we begin to tech.

For this show our costume team was spread between Kerry, Galway and Dublin. Something that might have seemed unthinkable pre-pandemic didn’t seem quite as impossible after a year of zoom calls and online buying for live-streamed shows. It was necessary however as the Druid costume store has very little of this era in stock and so almost all of the women’s garments were made from scratch by our incredibly talented makers Marie, Denise and Esther. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing how it all comes together - from choosing fabrics to final garment fittings.

Watch The Seagull on demand

The Seagull played to live audiences at Coole Park, County Galway in August 2021.

As part of Galway International Arts Festival 2021, The Seagull is available to view online on demand, September 5-12.