dossier: Claire Hill of Safeword Theatre for DONORS

Well, it’s been a while. 

The flurry of the end of summer festivals and the prospect of a new space in the city has left me wondering when I’d get time again to devote to this  dossier project. I knew it would naturally come up, and I never had any intentions of letting it fall into obscurity, but sometimes time management kicks in and forces my hand in the direction of those things that require a bit more of my physical presence. What with hub14’s Community Chest residency with Adriana Disman’s LINK & PIN starting up, the hub14 Halloween Party and my theatre band’s first show at Theatre Caravel’s Sea Change (as well as that aforementioned “new space”) I’ve had very little time to search for those exciting new shows cropping up all over the city.

Funny then that the first dossier back is of an artist who’s been quite engrained in the very reasons this project has been on hold. 

I met Claire Hill this past summer at the Fringe Tent in Honest Ed’s Alley. Mutual friend Brandon Crone introduced me to her as basically the second half of Safeword Theatre. Safeword has a history of working with hub14, producing their first play TURTLENECK there, and I’m happy to know they are coming back for their sophomore production DONORS this week! (EDIT: although after reading her answers, it seems I was at the same edition of Monday Night of New Works as she was, because I remember her saying that and remember hearing Brandon’s script…)

I recently had the pleasure of working with Claire directly: ON AND ON (my theatre band) engaged her to design our costumes for our initial performance at the last SEA CHANGE (pictures and more info coming soon!). 

So, without further ado, I am very proud to bring you our first scenographer on the site, dossier #24:

Claire Hill, photo by Chris Cater
Photo by Chris Cater

Who are we talking to?

Claire Hill. Set Designer, scenographer, carpenter, techie, admin monkey.

What gets you going in the morning?

Literally? Coffee and my mother yelling at me to get out of bed. I don’t really believe in mornings and will do anything to avoid being awake for them. In the grander sense of what gets me going, I’d say it’s the desire to work with the people I love. I feel very lucky to be in a community with people who are not only easy to work with but fun to work with.

What is your earliest memory of realizing, yep, this is what I’m going to do with my life?

It comes and goes at different phases of my career. I realized I should be in theatre (just in general) half way through second year of University, while writing an essay about something I hated, probably Wittgenstein, and staring off into the room for about twenty minutes and realizing I needed to switch majors before I died of boredom.

I’ve always been a firm believer that you should try many other things before you commit to a life in theatre, and that it needs to be the thing you must do.

Have there been times you seriously question why you pursue this lifestyle/art form? If so, what was it that keeps you in it, or has brought you back?

Constantly. Design is a difficult career. I started as a technician and learned scenic carpentry so I would know HOW things are built and could interact with technical staff. I had a great time in theatre school but when I graduated and worked professionally I was very frustrated, and I encountered problems I never could have prepared for. After my first year working as a technician I’d had enough, and was very discouraged about the arts in general, so I went back to school and completely relocated and changed everything in my life. Whenever I’ve been discouraged it usually had something to do with the scene of the city I was in, so I’ve moved around a lot and tried different places. I’ve tried a lot of different paths in theatre from techie to admin to design to academic. After I lived out west and only designed a few tiny projects, I came back to Toronto and found a community I really connect with. I love the variety and freedom I have here. This is the first time I feel like I’ve worked with like-minded folk. A professor of mine told me you need to find your tribe, and I think that is a very important element in making a design career work.


The obvious answer is that it’s Brandon Crone, who I would pretty much walk over hot coals for. The rest of it is that I love this script, I love the freedom he gives me as a scenographer to create what is best for the play. The trust is really there between us now that we’ve worked together and there’s a strong give and take between us. Very few directors give you absolute freedom to essentially design anything that comes to your mind, but he gives me that.

What kind of atmosphere do you wish to create with DONORS?

Dirty and uneasy. This script makes my skin crawl, and when I first finished reading it I kind of wanted to take a mental bath. I’m a very clean person, very organized and meticulous, so this set is my way of throwing that away and embracing a bit of chaos and a lot of mess. The challenge in design is to create an atmosphere that illustrates the mood of the show but doesn’t foreshadow the events of the play, so it’s a delicate balancing act. Then there’s just the fact that I want to do something people haven’t seen.

donors maquette
DONORS set maquette by Claire Hill

One of my major goals as a designer is to prove that Indie design can be scenographic, affordable, fresh and of the same caliber as professional design. I am so bored with black stages and ugly risers and flats. I encounter so many people who think that as soon as they make cuts to the budget the first thing that goes is set design- and of course if you’re working with realism the set is going to be the first thing you cut. But if the team is willing to do away with realism there is so much freedom. I have a long list of cheap materials I want to use and am slowly going through it. This time it was twigs and sticks and chicken wire, last time it was clear shower curtains. Fortunately I build what I design, I even have a garage at my parent’s house and a very willing recently retired father who drives me around to get materials. I essentially got this set for free because we sourced it all through people who were throwing things away. Then we built it at home.

turtleneck set
the set of TURTLENECK

How did you and Brandon Crone meet?

I met Brandon through his roommate, Alex Dault (of Single Thread Theatre Company). Three weeks after moving here my good friend took me out to Monday Night of New Works, and we were going around the circle introducing ourselves and I started by saying, “I can build things” and before I knew it Alex literally leaped across the room at me, business card in hand, insisting I get in touch with him. Brandon wasn’t at that edition of Monday Night but Alex was sent with a script from one of Brandon’s plays and when we read it, I was floored. I knew I had to track Brandon down, so I went to another reading the following week at Canadian Stage and basically walked up to him and was like, “I’m Claire. I’m bored. I want to design your sets.” I think that may be the oddest introduction I’ve ever made, but Brandon is the kind of person who rolls with that, so we met a while later about Turtleneck and his warmth and excitement made me really want to be a part of what he does.

Do you have a favourite story so far in regards to working together in the past?

Last winter, while working on Turtleneck, we opened during a snow storm. I had to run to Midoco at Bloor and Bathurst and get some big white sheets of foamcore to cover the windows adequately, so I did that. Of course when I got on the streetcar with two big pieces of foamcore as tall as me and the width of my armspan no one was happy. When I finally fought my way off at Queen I walked down this little alley way to Hub14, and tried to approach the building but was literally blown away. The foamcore was like a sail, and I just started wailing for help. Everyone inside thought I’d slipped on the steps up to the building and broken something, so they were pretty amused when they opened the door and found me struggling against the wind, being blown back about five feet, with these huge pieces of foamcore.

I also made the (slightly regrettable) decision to use the real doors of hub14 to the outside and make Brandon stage things on the fire escape in the middle of February. Basically, I didn’t feel like building a false wall with fake doors, and I’d been living in Victoria for two years and forgotten what a Toronto winter is like. The actors were so amazing about that though, and all of them had to sit in a tiny shed with just a space heater during snow storms and bitterly cold nights. Brandon stood outside for the opening scene of every play and assured people on the street that when our actors were screaming at each other it was just for a play, and not real domestic violence. I think it worked out though, since that was an element of the staging audiences really responded to.

Describe DONORS in three adjectives, a phrase, or with sound.

Donors is a rat in your walls. It chews a hole inside, nests its way through your insulation and your things and your food and keeps you up at night as it crawls around. It makes you angry and grosses you out and sends you off on a murderous rampage, but when you finally encounter the little bastard in the walls, there’s a sad humanity in its eyes that you can’t deny, and you almost feel bad for what you have to do.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share? Photos, videos, links, posters, stories, wishes?

This, obviously.!productions/cezk

And this, because I think more Scenographers and designers should model themselves off of the fearless Honey Badger.

DONORS Trailer #2:

donors image

Published by

A. Gaboury

Although his training is in devised theatre, playwriting and physical performance, Andrew spends most of his time dreaming beneath those beautiful willows.

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