By Emily Bowers
Camellia Koo sits on a ferry floating through a river in the basement of St. Anne’s Anglican Church. Koo drifts by candles and an altar surrounded by Chinese lanterns. Spread across a 23.5-metre basement floor, the river is constructed of fencing ties and Chinatown straw mats. It is Koo’s own creation. She is the set designer for the Equity Showcase Theatre’s newest production, titled The Bundle.
Koo, 23, graduated last June at the top of her class from Ryerson’s theatre technical production program/ She is now making her way in the world of set design.
The Mississauga native’s work had gained attention from people in all levels of the theatre community. She started in high school, doing behind-the-scenes work for a performance of The Music Man. From thee, she got involved in community theatre, and decided she wanted to focus her efforts on set design. While she graduated with a double major in administration and costuming, she says set design is what she wants to do. “I think I always had a passion,” she says. “I just didn’t realize what it was.”
Before she starts designing the set for a production, Koo says she liked to sit down with the director and discuss his or her ideas for the set. “[The director] gives me themes he thinks are important,” she says. Koo then goes through the script on her own and does research on the play and the playwright. “Do any research that will give you more insight into who the characters are, what the playwright’s about,” she says.
Koo says she decided to keep the set for this production minimal for two reasons. One was because of the small budget. Equity Showcase Theatre charged admission on a pay-what-you-can basis. And the other is because she likes to keep things simple.
“If the set becomes overpowering, it takes so much away from what the actors are doing,” she says.
“There’s so much energy from the actors, and from that they make the set look better.”
This works out well for Dean Gabourie, The Bundle’s director. Gabourie, 34, graduated from Ryerson’s theatre program in 1989.
“Cammie is an immensely talented person,” he says. Her set is “incredibly functional, but also incredibly visual.”
Gabourie first worked with Koo during the summer at the Soulpepper Training Company, where he was directing and she was designing the set.
Koo’s talents were also noticed this summer by Michael Levine, and internationally renowned set designer based in New York. “He’s an amazing designer,” Koo says. “Every second week he’s off doing an opera in Vienna.” Levine was so impressed with Koo’s work that he offered her the opportunity to work with his group of set designers in New York. But she couldn’t afford the cost of moving and living in New York. Although she tried to get a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, they told her she needed two years of experience outside school to be eligible. Levine’s invitation is open, and Koo is currently using a letter of reference from Levine to open doors in the theatre world in Toronto. “If I win the lottery, I’m going,” she says.
The Bundle examines issues of ignorance and control stemming from the experiences of the main character Basho, a Japanese poet and creator of today’s Haiku style of poetry. The actors are costumed in robes and the basement of the church is transformed to look like a temple. Blue silk is waved over actors crouched into the position of river banks to show flooding. Despite the simple set, Gabourie describes the play as “kabuki on acid.” Kabuki is a form a traditional Japanese theatre that features a long, narrow stage, as orrosed to the square format used in Western theatre. Koo credits Gabourie with making the stage work. “The director has done an amazing job of using the entire space,” she says.
Koo makes a point of being at as many rehearsals as possible to see what works and what needs improvement. Otherwise, “you don’t find out until the very last minute that something didn’t work,” she says. Gabourie says he noticed this dedication in Koo from the beginning or rehearsals in September.
Koo says her passion for set design didn’t develop until she attended Ryerson. She credits her teachers and a well-rounded program for giving her a good base. “We can all come out different,” she says. “We can specialize in a specific area rather than just as a techie.” Koo took courses ranging from set painting to managerial and leadership skills.
Koo also designed the props for The Bundle and often finder herself doing more than just designing sets. “I’m designing, I’m also the production manager and I’m also the technical director sometimes,” she says. “It’s a bit stressful.”