#673 Catalyst of creative fantasy
Susan Benson: Art, Design and Craft on Stage
by Patricia Flood
Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2019
$35.00 / 9780228101772
Reviewed by Celia Duthie
Susan Benson has had a charmed career. For over forty years, as a theatre designer and costumer for stage productions in England and North America, she has been a mistress of enchantment, making the magic of live theatre come alive. She has designed sets and costumes for almost 100 productions including opera, ballet, and theatre — from Shakespeare to Gilbert & Sullivan and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. She worked at the Stratford Festival for 25 years as well as the Vancouver Playhouse, the Canadian Opera Company, and the Royal Birmingham Ballet. Benson came by all this quite naturally. Her grandmother trod the boards in English rep theatre with the likes of Noel Coward. Her mother coached and adjudicated aspiring actors in England, and then came to Canada to teach in the National Theatre School. Benson went through art college in England, and worked at the Royal Shakespearean Company and BBC before coming to Canada.
I must disclose here that I am honoured to know Susan Benson, the subject of this highly readable book, beautifully designed by Scott McKowen. Benson and her husband, Michael Whitfield, a master lighting designer, retired to Salt Spring Island eight years ago — though retirement is not a word to apply to either of them. Benson has a studio in Ganges and is there most days painting and teaching, showing no diminishment of her artistic imperative; Whitfield still teaches in the theatre department at the University of Victoria. Benson has now returned to her first passion, painting, and with her usual gusto has produced several shows (three at the Duthie Gallery near Ganges) and completed a massive project of painting over 150 individual portraits of islanders, which have been collected in a handsome catalogue, Portrait of an Island (2018).
Benson’s illustrious career in the theatre is well known on-island, but until I read Patricia Flood’s Susan Benson: Art, Design and Craft on Stage, and saw the vivid images of her fantastic lavish productions, I hadn’t really grasped the magnitude of her extraordinary accomplishments. As an “artist of the moving painting” she worked collaboratively with directors, actors, cutters, seamstresses, set painters, props makers, and armourers, among the many necessary players who bring the productions to life. Benson sets the stage. She provides the environment in which the director and actors create their theatrical simulacrum.
The illustrations in Susan Benson show how her drawings translated into fully realized stage productions. They created the mood, colours, and textures, and often she provided the director with the necessary visuals to begin his work. Nowadays it is unusual for the designer to do both the set and costumes, but Benson was fortunate to combine both processes, which made for fully integrated productions. When she designed Romeo & Juliet for the National Ballet of Canada, she wanted the sets and costumes to reflect the dark and dangerous times — a radical interpretation in 1995 and one for which she received some criticism. Her Gilbert & Sullivan designs, by contrast, light and fantastical, dazzling the audiences.
Benson credits her brilliant cutters with taking her drawings and making the costumes, which were not only comfortable for the actors but instrumental in helping them create their characters. She reveals that a very good practice for dressing actors is to make even their undergarments in keeping with their characters. Her costumes are visually compelling for the audience with heavy texturing of fabrics and colour harmonization. Her remit also included the design of all the props to make sure they read from a distance and were easy for the actors to use or wield. Her combination of eye, discipline, and craft ensured the quality of the final production. Her attention to detail was total: good enough was not good enough!
Author Patricia Flood is a theatre, film, and television designer, and now an associate professor at the University of Guelph. She worked with Susan Benson at Stratford in the eighties. With her intimate knowledge of the theatre world, and of Benson’s life, she is the perfect chronicler of an extraordinary life of talent and artistry, drive and achievement. Flood’s biography spans not just Benson’s prodigious career but also the burgeoning of Canadian theatrical development, with companies opening across the country, becoming more professional and undertaking increasingly challenging productions. As this book amply demonstrates, both Pat Flood and Susan Benson have contributed enormously to Canadian theatre and their work will continue to inspire budding thespians. Susan Benson: Art, Design and Craft on Stage shares with readers the deep creative instinct that allowed her to thrill and enchant so many audiences.
Celia Duthie had the great good fortune to grow up in a bookstore, Duthie Books in Vancouver. At UBC she studied English, French, and Philosophy before settling on a most unlikely subject, Arabic, and then graduate studies in Comparative Literature. She travelled widely and lived for a year in Haida Gwaii, and then in Egypt, before taking up the reins of Duthie Books in 1977. She and her husband Nicholas Hunt expanded to ten stores and 200 employees, a magazine (The Reader), the promotion of BC books on the BC ferries, the formation of a library wholesale company, and the world’s first graphical interface on-line bookstore two years before Amazon appeared. Under severe pressure from Chapters/Indigo, Amazon, and Jimmy Pattison’s News Group, in 1999 Duthie’s was drastically restructured to one store on 4th Ave, which was closed finally in 2010. Celia and her family moved to Salt Spring in 2004 where they opened a gallery of fine art and studio furniture, a sculpture park, and a B&B. In 1999, Celia Duthie received an Honorary Doctorate from Simon Fraser University.
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