Master Conversations: Set Design with Tuxqs Rutaquio and Katrina Stuart Santiago

Manila-based set designer Tuxqs Rutaquio shares about his practice and process in set design alongside theatre critic Katrina Stuart Santiago. This session took place on 1 June 2021 as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable at SIFA 2021.

The inaugural Master Conversations series focuses on production and technical theatre. Through four in-depth presentations, led by master technical theatre practitioners from Southeast Asia and around the world, critics will get insights into and knowledge in the often under-discussed aspects of performance-making.

Below is a reflection by AAMR participant Terisha Tan from Singapore, on the session.

Reflection on set design

It’s often easy to overlook the one of the most ubiquitous yet sorely underrated elements of theatrical performances – set design. While it is extremely easy to observe and discuss the more engaging and prominent aspects of theatre like costumes and scripts, sets simply fade into the background and exist, despite their all-too-important role in literally setting the stage.

At the Asian Arts Media Roundtable’s Master Conversation on set design, participants got to hear from Tuxqs Rutaquio, a “multi-hyphenated cultural worker” who is an actor, director and production designer and critic Katrina Stuart Santiago. Tuxqs’ presentation provided insight into the thought process of a set designer and also taught us its particular critical vocabulary and thinking framework, explaining why certain types of visuals evoke certain feelings.

For example, when discussing his play Der Kaufman, which was set in Nazi Germany, Tuxqs’ double-storey set made the play’s hierarchy explicit, with Nazi officers standing on the second floor, looming above the prisoners who were trapped on the first floor. This example highlighted this element of set design and exemplified how levels can have differing effects.

Apart from height, distance also plays a role in creating the atmosphere of a piece. Like a Rubik’s Cube, the stage can be divided into multiple sections – just as set pieces can be high or low, they can also be near or far from an audience. Tuxqs explains that action happening further away from the audience might simply serve as a backdrop, whereas sets nearest to the audience are the most important, bringing the dramatic action straight to the audience.

Tuxqs also described how sets can be “alive”, explaining how a set need not be static in in order to be functional. In Kleptomaniacs, the entrances to the stage shift after an earthquake and in other works, actors can interact and move set pieces.

On a personal level, one of the most enlightening sections of Tuxqs’ talk is when he discussed his method of creating a set around a single, powerful idea from the play. In Tuxqs’ 2014 rap musical, Kleptomaniacs, the set itself is visually arresting and modelled after a monster, manifesting the musical’s central theme of political corruption.

Each entrance and exit resembles the mouth of a monster, embodying the way that the the community is being “devoured” by those meant to protect it. This reminds me of discussions my friends and I had when watching certain productions, from wondering if the set in Pangdemonium’s This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls, a play about sexual assault, is modelled after the female genitalia or if the set in The Fool Theatre’s Because It’s Fun is modelled after a courtroom since an accusation is a central element in the play’s plot.

Ultimately, I’ve learnt that a set contributes as much meaning to a performance as its other elements. A good set provides different ways for the story to be told, whether its Nazi officers standing on the second level and looking down at their prisoners, heightening the sense of dread and claustrophobia or whether it’s a set designed to look like a monster, emphasising the destruction of a community.

Masters Conversations is a programme of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), which ran from 15 May – 12 June 2021 as part of a collaboration with SIFA 2021.

About the author(s)

Terisha Tan is a participant of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable 2021. In another life, Teri was a screenwriter writing for short films and television, These days, she studies English Literature and Art History at NTU while running a magazine dedicated to the arts and cultural scene in Singapore. Teri is a huge theatre nerd and love movies, musicals and theme parks – she aspires to be a Disneyland mascot some day…

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