Whenever Driving Miss Daisy is mentioned, usually the first thought that springs to mind is “how will they do the car?”
That left set and costume designer Emma Wee with her biggest challenge of the production.
Past productions have represented the vehicle using chairs and a steering wheel, but our production features an actual car – or, at least, half a car – specially constructed for Driving Miss Daisy. The idea of having a ‘real’ car was an early decision, says Emma. “Suzann (Director) was quite keen to have a car and I wanted to see if we could make it work. The 1948 Buick we were looking at was six metres long so there was no way we were going to get it into the theatre. There was also the issue of how do we then see the people inside.
“What you will see is a full car from one side. As it rotates actors get into the car as you would an ordinary car. Then it revolves, comes down stage and you will see the people in it. In the story, different cars are used over the years but the York car will stay the same as that’s where the memories are, where they first met, but use the sound of the engines that would have changed over the years and layer them up on top of one another to create its own soundtrack or the car’s story.”
Driving Miss Daisy spans 25 years from 1948 and is set against the background of prejudice, inequality and the American civil rights movements.
“The idea of the revolve is so we can seamlessly go from one moment in time to another without there being a big song and dance about it, and I wanted something that reflected that moving through time and space quite quickly. It’s almost like when you remember something, you remember it in its entirety in terms of the senses. That’s how the brain lays down memories – what you saw, heard and felt. It was important to get little snapshots of that in all of the time periods.”
Equal attention has been paid to colour in the set and costume designs. She points to the floor covering on the model of the set –1940s Atomic Wang wallpaper from America.
Projections on to the top of the set will signal the passing years with newspaper headlines, advertisements for household products and news footage.
“Hoke, the chauffeur, can’t read at the start so the headlines start out a little blurry and as he becomes able to read they become clearer,” says Emma. “When we get into the Sixties a TV comes on and we start to get footage rather than print media so we can show how media changes over the time. The speed in the change of media and music from the mid 50s onwards provides a nice counterpoint to the fact the three characters are slowing down as they get older, yet the world continues to speed up around them.
“With costumes, you have to tell the audience the story has skipped forward a few years. Luckily for Daisy, women’s fashion did see some quite dramatic changes in the 40s, 50s and 60s. There are some lovely shapes you can play with.”
Emma also challenges perceptions about key colours.
“You think of the 1950s and everyone thinks of a quite Technicolor palette. It might not have looked like that. Everyone thinks of the 1940s as being quite dull but again, that was a time dyes were being brought back on to the market so it probably wasn’t as dull as you think. I wanted to play with the audience’s perception of what those eras might be.”
She knows from past experience how past times can be conjured up through the senses. When she was designing Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Absent Friends at Watford Palace Theatre she recalls how one audience member told her: ‘When I heard the scrape of the coffee cup on the saucer I was taken right back to my grandmother’s front room’.
“That sort of thing is really important. If you choose objects specifically you can get some really profound things happening subconsciously for the audience,” she adds.
“I think a lot of design work around in the last ten years has been clean, computer-based, very sleek surfaces – and that’s not really me. I’m a much more a tactile, sensory based designer so it’s really lovely to come back and do something that calls for that. Hopefully the play will resonate with people in ways they aren’t expecting.”
Driving Miss Daisy opens at York Theatre Royal on Friday 7th June and runs until Saturday 29th June.