All Set To Go!

John C. Dinning has designed for the theatre all across Canada – and occasionally in Singapore – over the past four decades. Find out about his design process for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens and more!
Ready, Set, Go! John hand-painting the set for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens!

Tell us about your process as a set designer. How do you begin designing a set like the one in Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens?

I always begin by reading the play through three times. The first time, I’m reading it just to get a feeling of what it is – to understand its sensibility. Does it make me laugh or cry? How does it pique my interest?

The second time around, I start breaking it down into scenes. I highlight any mention of a setting or a prop or a costume or any mention of the weather or time of day. Like, “She went outside at night to find her son in the rain.” So I’m reading all the way through the script, looking out for the clues that will help me when I’m designing, and I note everything down.

Then I read it a third time, by which point it has become like a living thing inside me and it gives me a sense of where I should really go with it.

This is when I usually talk to my director, especially if I’m working with someone new. We don’t design it on the spot – we just talk about it to see if we’re on the same page.

What comes next?

After that, I go off and create a ground plan, because the set needs to actually work. I show this to my director, and then I start doing rough sketches of what everything will look like. If I have time after that, I create a white paper model. Otherwise, I go directly to the drafting stage – which means working out precise measurements and dimensions, so that our production team can start the costing and, eventually, construction process.

Where does your inspiration come from when you’re designing?

It can come from anywhere! I could be walking down the street and spot the wind blowing through a woman’s scarf… and that might inspire me to create drapes against a French door that flutter in the breeze. I could be walking along the river, spot a stretch of pavement and go, “Oh, there’s my floor!” Over the years, I’ve learned to trust my own instincts more, because they’re usually right. Ironically, it takes a lot of experience to be comfortable doing that!

John’s draft sketches for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens

What kind of research do you do before you start designing?

It depends on the play. If it’s set in the Baroque era, for example, I don’t have to look it up because I’ve done many plays set in that time period. I have my own library of design books that I can refer to. I also do some research online – I checked out some other productions of Peter Pan when I first started working on Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens. But I’m careful about doing that because I don’t want an image from someone else’s set design to get buried somewhere in the back of my head. I would never duplicate somebody else’s work; that would be sacrilege. I want the design to be mine!

Was there a particular concept you were going for when designing the set for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens?

I wanted to underscore the timelessness of the Peter Pan story by creating a striking difference between present-day modernism and the past. Harking back to the traditional pantomime style of painted scenery, I hand-painted the stage, as well as several backdrops like the cloud-swept blue sky and the ocean. But I also mixed in some modern aspects – like the aluminium trees framing the stage, which double as poles for actors to slide down.

John gathers inspiration while on a nature walk in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

What research did you do while designing for this show?

Peter Pan is, of course, a well-known story that has been widely published in the form of children’s books. We open the show with a tableau that says ‘Time For A Story’, and I loved that idea. So I decided to go and look at some of the great children’s illustrators of the early 19th century, who told stories through imagery in children’s books at a time before photography really took off. I looked at tremendous illustrators like Maxwell Parish, Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle, all of whom really did their research. If they were sketching a pirate with a chest of gold, for example, they would visit museums or even buy antiques to use as reference when working in their studios.

Were you inspired by anything Singaporean while designing the set?

I visited the mangrove swamp at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. I’d seen mangrove trees in pictures, but never in person. It was an amazing environment – it’s just so alive, but also a little bit unreal. The fact that these huge, tall, massive trees are held up by roots made me think of tunnels and little rooms cut into the mangrove forest: a perfect hideout for the Lost Boys in Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens!

Out to sea! John poses with his meticulously hand-painted ocean backdrop – look out for it during Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens!

How did you get started on your career in the theatre?

I didn’t choose theatre – it chose me! I had dabbled in theatre in my youth. I acted in high school. And because I’ve always been an artist who loves drawing and painting, I designed and painted the scenery for my high-school shows and some children’s theatre groups.

But I still thought I was going to get a normal job. At one point, I got a job as a shoe salesman. I was on my way to becoming a regional manager when I attended a work event and they talked about shoes for five hours. That’s when I thought, “I can’t dump my life on this.”

So I started doing some amateur theatre in Canada, where I learned a lot from professional artists who had retired but were still keen to be involved in the theatre. That’s when I started to wonder if this might actually be my career.

I say theatre chose me because, at this point, I went to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics – I’m not a sports fan, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I was walking around the neighbourhood when I happened upon the National Theatre School of Canada. I didn’t even know it existed! I walked in and asked the receptionist if they taught design in English. They did. And I walked out with an application form!

And you’ve never looked back since?

Never. Once my acceptance letter came, I had to move to Montreal, where I didn’t know anyone. But, as the train entered the city, I could see the entire skyline lit up against the night sky, and I cried. I knew this was where I was supposed to be – I knew I was coming home.

In April next year, I’ll have survived 40 years in this business. Working in the theatre isn’t easy – you’re working nights, you don’t get weekends off, you don’t get paid a lot of money. It’s a huge commitment. But it’s also a vocation. I think of it almost like entering the ministry. When I share what I know and do what I do, I’m a priest of culture.   

John with Ivan – a toast to old friends and to making theatre magic together!

How did you first meet Ivan Heng, who directed Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens?

We met through Michael Dobbin, one of Canada’s top theatre directors. I first worked with Michael on a playwriting festival in Calgary, and went on to do numerous main-stage productions with him. We work well together, and he became a very good friend. Over a decade ago, he phoned me up one day and asked me to do the Singapore production of For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again – I had worked on the original production that toured Canada. Michael knew Ivan from their time together working on M. Butterfly. We all met for drinks when Ivan came to Montreal to promote Emily of Emerald Hill at a convention. And, by the time we were done laughing and joking and drinking, it was a done deal!

You also worked on WILD RICE’s production of Beauty World at the Esplanade. What was that experience like?

I was so honoured that Ivan asked me to design for Beauty World, which I know is an iconic musical here. I had worked on stages as big as the Esplanade Theatre before, which is one reason Ivan thought of me for this production. Working with Ivan and all the other creatives to put this show together was a great experience. It was such a good, tight production. I still remember telling Ivan at dinner one night that Beauty World could easily transfer to Broadway.

That’s one thing I love about working here in Singapore – that element of cultural exchange, where we come together from all over the world to work with and learn from one another, as we put up a distinctly Singaporean show that’s good enough to be staged anywhere in the world.

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