Scene is set for Simon's return to painting
Simon Pell trained in fine art at the Slade, in London, becoming a scene painter at the National Theatre and working on West End musicals including Cats, Les Miserables, and Starlight Express. In 1987 he came to work for Durham Theatre Company and never made it back to London. He became heavily involved in the fledgling Castle Players, creating its artistic policy of performing outdoor Shakespeare at The Bowes Museum and enjoyed a spell as resident designer at the Gala Theatre, Durham, and the Georgian Theatre Royal.
When you were training, was it always your intention to go into the theatre?
No. But I came to working in the theatre via a circuitous route. In 1974, when I was 16 years old and had just finished my O levels, I got a minor acting role in the Leicestershire County Youth Theatre’s inaugural production The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which toured to Berlin – then, of course, East Germany.
It was due to this amazing life-changing experience that I determined to be an actor.
However, at this time my best subject at school was art (both my parents were art teachers) so that seemed the obvious next step for me.
So, after my A levels, I took a degree in Fine Art at the local Loughborough College of Art, after which I got my first professional theatre job as an assistant scene painter at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester.
After working there for there for a year or so – and chatting to multiple professional actors about their desperately insecure lives – and my own transparent lack of acting talent – I determined to pursue a career as a scenic artist.
As a result I moved to London in 1981 without any employment. Within a short time I, luckily, got a full-time job at the National Theatre as a scenic artist for two years.
It was at this juncture I decided that I wanted to become a set designer, and studied for an MA at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London.
During the two summer holidays I was at the Slade I worked as stage company manager for Theatre Set-Up, who were one of the first professional theatre companies in the country to perform outdoor Shakespeare in National Trust and similar properties.
This was a hectic schedule and we travelled the depth and breadth of Britain.
I suddenly discovered that I liked Shakespeare when “performed”, not just “taught” in a boring classroom (a small seed was, thus, planted in my head).
When I graduated from the Slade I was nearly destitute.
Luckily I found a job with Durham Theatre Company, based at the much missed/ lamented Darlington Arts Centre on a six-month contact. After the six months had ended I, kind of, forgot to return to London.
Art is often seen as a solitary occupation – what is it like working as part of a team producing set designs?
That question hits the proverbial-nail-on-the head for me – I couldn’t (until the recent Covid-19 lockdown) bear the loneliness of the proverbial “artist’s garret” with all its impoverishment and head-banging creative uncertainty and pressure.
The great thing about working in the theatre is that it is totally about creative teamwork – it means working and socialising with people from all walks, and ages, of life. There is nothing remotely sociable about being a lone artist. But when lockdown started – there was no theatre work available for me, and I was furloughed from Middlesbrough College, where I teach stage crafts part-time – I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time in my studio at home painting pictures again.
Having moved north initially for six months, what kept you here?
In two simple words – Barnard Castle.
I had never lived in a picture postcard before, and I was gobsmacked by the beauty and charm of the town and the friendliness of the natives (northerners are much friendlier than southerners, I find) when I was first introduced to it.
The great thing for me, amongst many things, about Barney is that is at the heart of some of the best (and most highly paintable), largely (thankfully) undiscovered landscapes in the country.
What are the differences working in set design in provincial theatres compared to the West End?
The simple answer to that question is easy – money.
You can (or could before Covid-19 struck) earn far more money working in the West End than in the provinces. When I left the National Theatre to become a freelance scene painter I worked on several big musicals that were springing up in the early 80s. The biggest of them all was Les Miserables; but I also worked on Cats, Starlight Express, Phantom Of The Opera and others – all earning (by my humble reckoning) big bucks.
The most memorable and financially rewarding, moment was a day’s repainting of the set for Tell Me On A Sunday, an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical with great lyrics by Don Black.
As I was painting away, Sir Andrew was on stage plonking away on his piano with his (then) wife Sarah Brightman singing her heart out. I will never forget that experience.
These few Sunday hours paid me the princely sum of £850 (which is more than I currently earn – 40 years later – in an entire month).
How did you get involved with the Castle Players?
Via Helen Brown. When I came to work for Durham Theatre Company, Helen was their administrator; and had recently formed the CP during an legendary power cut, followed by an impromptu game of charades, at The Old Well in Barney. It was Helen who first introduced me to The Bowes Museum, which, when I first saw it, veritably, blew-my-socks-off.
At the time, the instantaneous question in my mind was (given my recent Shakespeare summer tour experience) “wouldn’t this be the perfect location for an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
This ambitious promenade production was realised and performed during the mid-summer week of June 1989 – 20 summer and 15 winter productions followed.
Why the return to paintings after such a long gap?
Covid-19 lockdown was the perfect opportunity (with nothing else to do for the last six months) to start painting pictures again after a fallow period of ten years.
Has it been a smooth transition or have you had to work quite hard at it?
I have found it surprisingly easy and working from home (and not spending two hours every day in a car) has had some pleasant benefits.
How would you describe your style?
To say my paintings are colourful is something of an understatement. I call them my Marmite paintings – some people love them and some hate them – there are no half-measures.
Given the events of 2020 are you able to say with any certainty what the future might hold?
I will be returning to Middlesbrough College next month at some point. I am the college’s theatre technician, and I also teach set design and painting through working on actual student productions.
The future of the professional theatre is very bleak, particularly for freelancers like me.
Where can people find out more about your paintings?
I am having a solo exhibition at The Witham in February next year, and I have recently joined Teesdale Artist’s Network (TAN).
I am also in the process of putting photos of my new work on my Facebook page.