Discovery and Development of the Collection

by Gerry Grace, NAC Archivist

In this article NAC archivist Gerry Grace details the maquette collection’s discovery, development and endurance. In the process he explains the historical and cultural significance of these works of art.

Discovering the Collection

One of my most memorable experiences as NAC archivist happened soon after starting the job in 1989. On a visit to the NAC warehouse, I uncovered a collection of mysterious black boxes containing maquettes, three-dimensional scale models of sets. They were created by designers for NAC-produced plays and operas going back almost to the very first production in our performance history. For a newly-appointed theatre archivist, this collection was a revelation.

<em>A History of the American Film (1979), designed by John Ferguson</em>

A History of the American Film (1979), designed by John Ferguson

Stored along with the stage scenery, props, and racks full of costumes from past NAC productions, the boxes were stacked in a small room at the back of the warehouse. Written on each box was the name of an NAC theatrical production from programming seasons gone by.

The maquettes were very fragile, and someone had taken great care to preserve them, protect them in solid storage boxes, and fully identify each one. Some of the greatest names in Canadian and international design for the stage were represented: Josef Svoboda, Michael Eagan, Guy Neveu, John Ferguson, Robert Prévost, Brian Jackson, Susan Benson, and more.

As I settled into my new job I began an ongoing research project into the NAC’s institutional and performance history. I discovered that the NAC’s first archivist, Anthony Ibbotson, and NAC production manager Rae Ackerman had been primarily responsible for the preservation of these fascinating set maquettes.

<em>Designer Brian Jackson with his maquette for Oh! What a Lovely War</em>

Designer Brian Jackson with his maquette for Oh! What a Lovely War

Tony Ibbotson had been appointed the NAC’s first archivist in 1979. But due to a series of NAC budget cuts the NAC Archive was closed in 1984.

Thankfully, the maquettes that Tony and Rae had worked so hard to preserve and document were saved, put into storage at the NAC warehouse and mostly forgotten until the day when the Archive was revived in 1989 and I discovered them.

I learned from Tony and Rae’s preservation work and I began to build the collection again. Today, the NAC has one of the largest and most important collections of its kind and maquettes are added every year as they are created for new NAC productions. 

Expanding the Collection

When the NAC hires a designer for a production (almost always a play or opera; with just one exception ballet sets have never been constructed in-house at the NAC), he or she usually works closely with the director. The designer is almost always required to submit a maquette to the director and the NAC Production department, and may also be responsible for costume design. 

Designers are sometimes given a “scenography” credit, which encompasses design in a much wider sense. But, historically at the NAC, with just a few exceptions, set and costume design have been credited separately. Refer to Michael Eagan’s essay on Scenography for more on this theme.

<em>Woyzeck (1976), designed by Michael Eagan</em>

Woyzeck (1976), designed by Michael Eagan

Once the production is ready for the stage, designers (who are not NAC employees and are contracted specifically for a show) leave for their next contract elsewhere. Their profession is nomadic. The maquette remains the property of the designer, but because a maquette is difficult to handle and store, most designers are happy to have the NAC Archive become custodian of it. We then photograph the maquette and carefully store it in our archive.

The Importance of Maquettes

Maquettes play an extremely important role in the creation of a theatrical production, and you will be able to learn about this as you explore the features and essays of this website.

As archival records of set design, maquettes are unrivaled. Their preservation is an important function because the actual set is almost always disposed of – often immediately after a production closes – primarily due to space and cost constraints of keeping it. While photographs and video recordings of NAC theatrical productions exist, they do not capture the same sense of three-dimensional production design that a maquette does. Maquettes can reveal colour, texture, perspective, as well as the more pragmatic but equally important elements such as entrance and exit positions.

Constructing Maquettes

Maquettes are typically fabricated with the humblest of materials:  balsa wood, paper, foamcore, glue, tape, wire, and sometimes whatever is readily at hand. They were not created to endure, but to serve as an aid in interpreting and communicating a designer’s visual and spatial concept of a stage production in the deadline-and-budget-driven atmosphere of the performing arts. They are among the most ephemeral of documentary theatre records—a true artifact of the theatre—to be valued all the more when they endure beyond their fleeting “working” life.  

<em>Les &Eacute;migr&eacute;s (1979), designed by Robert Pr&eacute;vost</em>

Les Émigrés (1979), designed by Robert Prévost

Some maquettes in our collection, like Robert Prévost’s maquettes for Les Émigrés or Le Cid (both from 1979), are masterfully crafted and deserve great admiration. But it is important for an archivist not to judge them solely on this basis. All maquettes in the NAC collection have the same documentary value in relation to the production they were part of. A beautifully crafted maquette has no direct correlation to a successful set design, and as a historical record it is no more valuable than a simply-rendered maquette. Prévost himself once said that if an audience applauds the set when the curtain goes up for the first time on a production, the set designer has failed. Perhaps in a similar fashion we may say that the maquette was created to serve the production, not to be admired as a creative work unto itself

Exploring this Website

In this website we have included complementary archival records documenting set design:

  • an archival photograph of the actual set—the finished product—can be compared to the concept of the maquette;
  • production photos show how the set was seen by the audience;
  • included are selected designers’ plans and drawings, which can often go into great architectural, material and structural detail and are used extensively by the NAC Scenic Shop during “the build”;
  • biographical notes on the designers which tell you who these incredibly talented and dedicated, but all too often unheralded, people are;
  • house programs of the plays and operas and links to related aspects such as costume design which will begin to put the NAC stage productions back together for you, and place set design within the wider context of the art of the stage.

<em>Maquette for Rashomon (1976), designed by Guy Neveu</em>

Maquette for Rashomon (1976), designed by Guy Neveu

Many of the maquettes and related archival records of set design in this web feature are now truly accessible for the first time. This is very exciting for those of us who have worked so faithfully to preserve the collections, as well as for the creative people in the NAC New Media department who have brought them to you online.   

Learn More About… 

The Foundation of the NAC Maquette Collection

Other Articles by this Author:

Resident Theatre Companies at the NAC
History of the NAC Costume Collection
About the National Arts Centre Poster Collection