Set designer Jamie Vartan is responsible for the elaborate backdrops of two of the most impressive productions at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival: Woyzeck in Winter (at the Gaiety Theatre 3-8 Oct) and The Second Violinist (at the O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College, 2,4 & 6, 8 Oct) - here, he writes for Culture about the challenges of simultaneously designing two dramatically different productions.

This summer I found myself designing two shows opening back to back in the Black Box Theatre, Galway, both shows in need of expansive, challenging sets - Woyzeck in Winter, a meeting of the world of Buchner's Woyzeck & the world of Schubert's Winterreise, set in a landscape of broken pianos, and The Second Violinist, also with a landscape, of a broken interior world - both environments feeling more like states of mind rather than anything more literal. Both productions are now being staged at the Dublin Theatre Festival.

I've always loved premiering shows at the Black Box - the seating bank itself is 17 metres wide, with another 4 metres either side of that, and once you start considering action taking place directly in front of, or at least near to, the ends of the rows on both sides, you immediately have, along with both designs almost reaching the maximum possible 7m height, an incredibly powerful dynamic.

The incredible set for Woyzeck in Winter. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy

With both these shows I've tried to create environments that reflect this dynamic; in the case of Woyzeck in Winter, by creating a mountain of pianos that feels like it's collapsed and slid towards the extreme edges of the space, and with The Second Violinist an orchestra pit as a major element of the set, that stretches likewise to the extreme ends, with a narrow raised walkway between it & the audience.

Working with director Conall Morrison from the outset, we were immediately looking at how a landscape of pianos could evoke Woyzeck's consciousness, and how it could feel equally colossal & fragile.

I spent a long time making a huge number of tiny scale pianos and threw them into various piles to see how they'd sit, create shapes, playing levels etc; very quickly it became clear that the pianos would actually need to be stacked far more efficiently, as most of the playing space had become a no-go area, with protruding piano legs, lids and hidden angled crevices.

We came up with the idea that the majority that formed our mountain could actually be stacked as though in a 'broken piano storage warehouse', and that only those at the very top or on the peripheries, mainly grand pianos, needed to look like they'd collapsed or fallen down the mountain into random positions. The curved lids and bodies of these grands also helped bring the mountain to life, & became crucial in the way they contrasted against the simpler building block feel of the uprights.

My first meetings with Enda on The Second Violinist were all about how to create an environment that felt like a clean, ordered, modern suburban world that has then been jolted and pulled out of shape, and how to make the orchestra, the world that the second violinist tears himself away from, feel like a major collective character.

The second violinist himself also needed to feel like he could detach completely from his world and be able to observe from a distance ; we created a second level above his apartment interior, a forest of regularly spaced pine trees - that's partly a place of escape in his mind & partly a literal space in the storytelling.

The Second Violinist - 'a clean, ordered, modern suburban world that
has then been jolted and pulled out of shape'

Once we'd worked out the main proportions of the playing areas a lot of time was then spent balancing out how much chaos in the environment there should be in relation to the more ordered feel - the end result was that the second violinist's apartment seems to have its areas randomly placed, with deliberately no logic to the placing of furniture or the geography of the apartment layout, so it's portraying far more about his broken state of mind. Then the forest, rather than being a tangled web of trees, balances out the chaos below, in a way more disturbing through its regular 'tree plantation' layout.

As the story involves the second violinist obsessively using his mobile phone, another crucial element has been how to show what's seen on the phone into the set design - so the idea developed into incorporating a 14m LED screen, with the proportions of the screen echoing both the proportions of the orchestra pit and of the forest above.  Then cutting across the trees, a ceiling of LED light, to contain and put pressure down onto the exterior world. All in all the feeling is of a 'machine' of the mind, with the orchestra as the 'engine'.

So two shows creating two very different environments in the same space – all to be put up & taken down again this time for Dublin Theatre Festival by an incredibly dedicated, hard working and skilled team.

Woyzeck in Winter is at the Gaiety Theatre 3-8 Oct, and The Second Violinist is at the O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College, 2,4 & 6, 8 Oct - find out more about this year's Dublin Theatre Festival programme here.