Conjuring the Potterverse: Christine Jones Imagines the World of Harry Potter for the Stage

by Howard Sherman
The Broadway cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
The Broadway cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

When it began in England two years ago, set designer Christine Jones was charged by director and co-conciever John Tiffany to create a visual world for the eighth Harry Potter tale, the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A smash in London, it arrived on Broadway last month as the most expensive play in Broadway history. During previews it has already set Broadway box office records. Plans are already well underway for it to reach Australia next year. Having done undergraduate work at Concordia University in Montreal, after which she received her MFA from New York University, Jones made her professional debut in 1992 with a production of Tartuffe at Hartford Stage, and has gone on to numerous credits in regional theater, Off-Broadway, opera and Broadway, including the musicals Hands on a Hardbody, Spring Awakening and American Idiot. She sat down to talk about the world of Harry Potter and her design career in mid-April, just ahead of the American opening of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

 Howard Sherman: How well did you know the Harry Potter material before you got involved in this project?

Christine Jones: I knew it fairly well because I have two children who are currently 10 and 13. My younger son, even before he had ever read the books with me, was obsessed with Harry Potter, having not seen the movies but just having absorbed him as a mythological character. He would not leave the house without my drawing a lightning bolt on his forehead when he was about six. There was some love for the Harry Potter world in my house.

So, with something that lots of people have in their imaginations from the books, and a certain visual concept of because of the movies, how did you approach creating the stage world for the show?
One of the things that we knew going into it was that we were going to adhere solely to the books. The movies were their own entity and we were not going to refer to them or use them as visual reference. We were going to create our own world. One of the things I did do is go back and re-read the books, and what was astonishing to me was that if you look specifically for descriptions of the visual world, there are almost none. The books describe very few visual details about the world, which is shocking at first because we do have such a visual knowledge of the world through the movies and Universal Studios. 

Was there a general approach that you started from? Was there a particular concept? 
From the beginning, John Tiffany said ‘I think we begin in King’s Cross Station.’ So, I took that as my ready, set, go card. I found this beautiful quote by Thomas Wolfe from a book called You Can’t Go Home Again. It talks about the grandeur of a train station as the place of our beginnings and endings of journeys and about time sort of hovering above us in this mythical way. It was the perfect poetic jumping off point for our world. 

So, I began to immerse myself in train stations. I was in London for the workshops. I was traveling throughout the city, so I would look at Paddington and Victoria and St. Pancras and King’s Cross. Then with my associate, Brett Banakis, and the other people in our studio, we began researching train stations all over Europe and began to pull different elements together to make our own train station.

I did know that to actually set the whole play—there are something like 94 scenes and we go to many different locations—that to be in an actual train station platform with that big opening out into the world and a big window, to sustain our world with that specific an image would be challenging. So, we also started looking at rooms attached to platforms and looking deeper into the train station—not just the train platform itself. Asking, ‘what do the offices look like? What are the adjoining rooms?’ 

We basically collaged many different elements from many different train stations and then found that the train station is its own kind of cathedral and that it lent itself to becoming Hogwarts, to becoming a church, which is also one of our locations. Then from within that, we started looking at, ‘Okay. Well what are all the other things that populate a train station?’ Suitcases, trolley carts, and pulling that whole visual world together. 
Jones’ Potter set in the Lyric Theatre

What has J.K. Rowling’s input been along the way in terms of the visual creation of her world?
When she first put it into John and Jack’s [Thorne, the playwright] hands, I think she did so with an immense amount of trust. She really gave us what felt like freedom and leeway to do our work. Then once we had created the set, done some of the staging, she came to see one of our first workshops. So, I shared the model with her, and she was incredibly generous and accepting of it and open to this interpretation. 

I went to London during the creation process with my associate, Brett, and lived there for six months. Unlike most other productions, every single designer was in the rehearsal room for every single rehearsal. It felt like we had all gone back to graduate school and we were devising theater the way that you always dreamed you would and in the way that you got excited about theater when you first started making it. 

We had a series of challenges: The script says this scene happens on the roof of a train. The script says this person turns into that person. The script says we enter the Enchanted Forbidden Forest. The script says this person disappears and reappears. As collaborators, we all got into a room together and started trying to figure out how we were going to make this happen. We’d get some suitcases and get some cloaks and get some powder and just start playing. I think you’ll find when you see the show that multiple moments are a deep collaboration between every department. Sound and lighting and costume and magic and props and scenic design are all coming together moment by moment to create the different effects. 

How much did you find you’d anticipated by the time you got to rehearsal, because surely you’d begun designing? How much emerged through the process?
We did three workshops before we began a rehearsal. We had addressed some of the key moments, the ones that John very wisely thought, ‘Okay, let’s start with some of the hardest things to figure out and try to crack those because that will give us clues about the kind of language.’ He was very clear from the beginning as well that in another way we wanted to have our own identity from the films.

Having done it in London, and had such success, how much was the process here in NY just fitting it into this space? Was there an opportunity or a desire to reexamine things differently?
Both. There were a couple of moments that we wanted to reexamine. There was one moment that we hadn’t quite been able to achieve to its fullest effect in London because of the size of the theater. We were able to magnify a gesture that we do do in London but that we do more effectively here. Then there were some elements that we had felt like we hadn’t quite found the most poetic version of, so we tried a few different things. I do think that there’s some improvements to the show here that make me very excited about the design. 

Then of course fitting it into this theater was its own huge design task and reconfiguring the theater with the central intent being to maximize the relationship, the intimacy between the audience and the actors. That that is a passion of mine always.
Interior Sconce in the Lyric Theatre

[Jones’ along with fellow designer Brett J. Banakis also handled the interior design for the renovation of the Lyric Theatre and the design of the custom theatre marquee. Read about that part of the project here.]

Is there something you’re particularly proud of?
I suppose the thing that I’m the most proud of is the collaboration with the other artists and the ability to have one environment take you to multiple places and solve multiple moments. Some of them are quite intimate and some of them are quite grand. 

In the books, there’s a tent and when you look at the tent from the outside, it seems like it’s one size, but when you go in the tent, of course it’s a magic tent and so it has many rooms and it becomes many things. I would like to think that is what the set does. You walk in and it feels like one room but by the end of the evening it’s been both an intimate space for truly meaningful scenes between two individuals or it’s been a larger more epic space that can house the larger more spectacular moments of the show. 

Most of the shows that you’ve been involved in on Broadway have been musicals and Cursed Child seems like a play on the scale of a musical. Is there a difference to approaching this, a play admittedly of a scale that few plays ever approach, and what your other work on Broadway has been?
I feel like I approach every piece whether it’s an opera or a musical or a play as if it’s a play. I mean I always start with the text. I always start with the story, with the dramaturgy, even if that’s something like American Idiot, which is all lyrics. But lyrics are words and lyrics tell stories. So that’s always the place of departure. The fact that it has music is a bonus because you get additional information from that. 

John and [choreographer] Steven Hoggett work with music in an extremely cinematic way. Harry Potter is not a musical, yet it is musical because there is a beautiful score by Imogen Heap that was part of our process all along. How can you use sound and music as an equal partner in taking the audience on a journey? I think it’s used incredibly effectively. One of my favorite moments is actually something that we call the stair ballet, which is set to a beautiful piece of music and Steven has choreographed a sublime dance of these staircases that are moved by actors. It’s not machinery. I think that’s definitely one of my favorite moments. 
Christine Jones in the scene shop

Is there a Christine Jones style?
I think people would say that I do probably err towards the unit set that has transformations. I definitely lean towards creating some kind of initial room or environment that is a vessel for the play. I think with Spring Awakening and American Idiot and certainly with this piece, you might identify that as something that I’m more likely to do. 

Given how many shows you’ve done, I’m wondering if there are two or three shows that you think were significant turning points for you, not necessarily because they were the biggest or got the best reviews but creatively that were the major stepping stones.
Certainly, Spring Awakening was both. It was one of the most satisfying creative experiences as well as one of the first shows that I did that transferred to Broadway. Pretty much all of the first Broadway shows that I did began as an off-Broadway production in some sense. Even The Green Bird, which was the first Broadway show I ever did; we started at The New Victory.

Then I didn’t do another Broadway show for quite a few years after that. Spring Awakening began at The Atlantic Theater Company. American Idiot began at Berkeley Rep. I never set out to be a Broadway designer. That has happened somewhat accidentally along the way, but both Spring Awakening and American Idiot were incredibly satisfying artistically and then happened to be successful commercially. 

When I first left Montreal, the shows that excited me were the ones that we were seeing in the French theater. Robert Lepage and Ex Machina were making these pieces that were devised, that were physical, that took scenic elements and had dancers throwing themselves under and over them. When I came to New York, that was what I was on fire to be a part of and it wasn’t really until I met Steven Hoggett on American Idiot that I found that kind of collaboration. Whether it was the scaffolding in American Idiot or the staircases in Harry Potter, when you see actors engaging with your set in a really physical way, that’s one of the things that excites me most. 

Then of course Steven introduced me to John Tiffany, and then with John, I worked on a piece at BAM, a Gabriel Kahane song cycle. Then we did Let the Right One In, which was also incredibly satisfying artistically. I’ve been very, very fortunate.

And is Theatre For One something you continue to pursue? That’s been multiple years and iterations, so where is that now?
Right now, we’re doing it at the University of Arkansas. The next week or two, we have a residency there. We continue to look for opportunities to present it as public art and maybe more and more to take it to universities. I think it’s an incredibly useful, rich project with which to engage playwrights and directors and actors because it does sort of look at all aspects of theater in microcosm.

It began from an idea about the relationship between the actor and the audience. The design is only about supporting that. That is always at the heart of every single project I work on. So, whether it’s a theater for one, or a theater for 100, or a theater for 1,000; everything you’re doing is about trying to create a reciprocal energy loop between the actors and the audience. That’s the thing that you do over and over and over again that doesn’t change from project to project or from opera to musical to theater. It’s always about what is that relationship and what is that engagement.

Is there an element of the Harry Potter set that the audience reacts to, where you like seeing them respond?
There’s a couple. I wish now that I could see the show with no idea of what I was about to see. There is something about working in the Harry Potter world that’s so unlike anything else. I’ve talked about this in terms of Theatre For One. What makes Theatre For One so resonant is that the engagement between the actor and the audience is equalized. The investment is mutual in terms of the energy that both people are bringing to that moment. This in many ways is like the closest thing to Theatre For One on an epic scale, because the audience comes for the most part with such a love and knowledge of these characters and this world that the resonance between what the actors are giving and what the audience is giving is extremely unique and you feel it. You feel that energy in the room. 

They might know the Potter world very well, but they have not read the script and so they come ready to discover the story along the way. So, you hear gasps and oohs and aahs and people crying. It’s incredibly moving. My students from NYU who have seen the show have talked about how much these stories meant to them when they were growing up. So, there’s something about seeing these characters in the living flesh that’s different from the movies that I think people are experiencing. I’m moved by that and I’m grateful for that, and sometimes I’m kind of jealous that I don’t get to come and see it without knowing what’s going to happen. 
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child nest on the Lyric Theatre flyhouse tower. Photo: Howard Sherman

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is produced by Sonia Friedman Productions, Colin Callender and Harry Potter Theatrical Productions. The production features set design by Christine Jones, costume design by Katrina Lindsay, music & arrangements by Imogen Heap, lighting design by Neil Austin, sound design by Gareth Fry, with illusions & magic by Jamie Harrison.