Better By Design

Designing An Epic – Building HOTEL from Ground Zero – By Tiara Yap
Every piece on stage is part of Chee Wai’s grand design

Find out what it takes to design and build the HOTEL you’ll be checking into during the Singapore Theatre Festival!

Ready, Set, Go!

The stories in HOTEL unfold in a room that sees its guests check in and out over the course of a hundred years. Every single piece of furniture, right down to the bedspreads and light fixtures, is carefully curated to reflect the architectural styles of each decade.

“It’s the little things you don’t usually notice. Light fixtures change, and telephones were different at different points in time,” remarks set designer Wong Chee Wai.

But practicality takes priority over aesthetic concerns. “As much as I’d like to have more decorative pieces for the set, that would mean having longer scene transitions,” he explains. “That could disrupt the momentum of the show.”

As a result, props and set pieces are changed only if they help to further the story. “We have to ask ourselves questions like: ‘Does this really need to be on stage? Is it being used, or is it purely for dressing?’” Chee Wai explains.

Sounding Out

HOTEL’s evocative opening number sets the tone for what’s to come

The music composed by sound designer Paul Searles was partly inspired by the creative team’s research. “There was an amazing collection of historical writing – letters, articles and poems from different time periods,” he enthuses. “We uncovered lots of beautiful rhythms in the language.” These all served as “great primers” for HOTEL’s score.

Paul found the most joy in playing with time and rhythm. As the play requires many different styles of music production, he first worked with rehearsal videos to experiment with crazier ideas. “It was really fun to help stretch and pull a very large story together in my own little way, messing with nostalgia, old and new,” he adds.

Let There Be Light

Woan Wen’s lighting tells a story through light and shadow

Lighting is an indispensable component of every show. It influences everything from the mood of a scene, to how a character is viewed by the audience.

For lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, the historical arc of the show has greatly informed her lighting choices. She must keep in mind, for instance, how artificial light has changed in quality and intensity over the years.

Woan Wen is also acutely aware of how important it is to design lighting that helps tie HOTEL’s 10 different scenes together. She says, “We have to make sure that these playlets flow in and out of transitions smoothly, without being all over the place.”

The Big Picture

Brian’s projections usher us into the 1970s: an era of drugs, sex and fast living

To depict the grand march of time across a century of Singapore’s history, HOTEL relies heavily on multimedia projections. These help to ground each scene in the iconic events of the corresponding decade.

Multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan spent hours poring over history books at the library and having long talks with the directors and scriptwriters to better understand the world of the play. “I had to make sure the images I found resonated with and supported the narrative,” he explained.

Brian’s favourite part of his designs? The wallpaper of the room, which changes from scene to scene. “They look really simple and unobtrusive, but a lot of research went into making sure that they were from that era and reflected the aesthetics of that period.”

Tailor Swift

Theresa’s costumes allow both actors and audiences to go back in time

Costumes play a huge part in getting an actor into character. “We first decided to go with a more naturalistic style,” reveals Theresa Chan, HOTEL’s costume designer and wardrobe manager.

The next step was to decide on the colour palette of each decade. “Apart from finding out which colours were more fashionable at that time, we also had to make sure it didn’t clash with the lighting,” Theresa explains.

It’s no easy task to accurately capture the style of each decade. “It can get very confusing because fashion trends can change within a few years, and each scene represents a decade in Singapore’s history,” Theresa laughs. “So there was a lot of reading up to do: not just about the clothing people wore, but also the materials used.”

For HOTEL’s first run last year, Theresa prides herself on creating a hundred years’ worth of costumes in just four weeks. “I think that was my greatest achievement for 2015!” she exclaims.

Quick as a Flash

13 actors + almost 100 characters = too many quick changes!

Imagine a cast of 13 playing close to a hundred characters over ten scenes. That’s a lot of quick changes, requiring everyone in the wardrobe, hair and make-up departments to work at a feverish pace.

In HOTEL, actors emerge on stage in staggeringly different hairstyles from scene to scene. It was a conundrum for hair designer Ashley Lim, who had to figure out ways to pull off the transformations in record time.

“I used wigs and buns with all the accessories already stuck on, so it’s one entire headpiece,” he reveals. “When the actors come backstage, we shove it onto their real hair, and they go back on stage.”

Make-up artist Bobbie Ng, from the Make-Up Room, encountered the same problem. “The roles the actors play are so diverse!” she exclaims, noting that an actor could go from playing a drag queen in one scene to a bridegroom in the next.

Race Against the Clock

One challenge shared by the entire team was the remarkably short timeframe in which they had to design miracles.

“Glen asked for two more backdrops for one of the scenes an hour before opening!” Brian recalls. “But it was so fun and worth it, because that scene got the loudest laughs and applause that night.”

“As a stage lighting designer, I am fairly used to working with tight schedules and time constraints, but HOTEL was seriously crazy,” adds Woan Wen, something she attributes to the length of the show.

“I had very little time at rehearsal, so the biggest challenge was for the poor actors who got my cues way too late!” Paul chimes in.

The do-or-die mentality fuelling everyone in HOTEL is something anyone who has worked backstage in the theatre would recognise.

“I learned to chiong,” laughs Theresa. “To chiong first, and then pray and hope that everything will work out.”

HOTEL runs throughout the Singapore Theatre Festival from 30 June to 24 July 2016! Visit for more information!

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