Wandering onto the set of The Great Fire is like visiting an old friend’s childhood home. There is plenty that is warm and familiar on this Belvoir stage, from the 1970s tiled kitchen with the worn tea towels slung over the oven door, to the generous, well-loved coffee table strewn with gardening books and CDs.

The feelings of comfort and nostalgia are deliberate. Designer Michael Hankin has successfully created atmospheric sets for many productions at Belvoir and other companies, including the award-winning Of Mice and Men (Sport For Jove) and Jumpy (Sydney Theatre Company).

Hankin is one of our most prolific set and costume designers, but you won’t see his name up in lights. The “dark art” of design, as Hankin laughingly refers to it, is a finely honed craft. It should give the audience members just enough visual cues to stimulate their imaginations, without letting the physical setting take over.

“It’s often the job of a set designer to try to recede into the background to support the language and the performances,” the NIDA graduate says.

The Great Fire is a new play written by Adelaide writer Kit Brookman (A Rabbit for King Jong-il); an epic, generous production that meanders between “a family, 10 actors, a great deal of conversation about politics, theatre and life, Christmas, large hopes and five tonnes of life”. It is set in a rambling homestead in the Adelaide Hills, the house itself very much a character.

For a new play like this, Hankin begins six months earlier with a near-obsessive read-through of the script. He takes copious notes then chats with the director, in this case Belvoir’s artistic director and Hankin’s regular collaborator, Eamon Flack.

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Hankin has always found model making a useful tool, faithfully recreating in 3D 25-scale dioramas of the set with handmade chairs and tables, even clothes hanging on tiny hangers.

The next step is to actually build the set. Much of it is sourced, but the set-construction team often builds various pieces of furniture – in the case of The Great Fire, the kitchen; bookcase; and rattan and recycled-timber coffee table.

“You beg, borrow and steal, depending on the aesthetic,” Hankin says. “The red stool was my aunty’s; I’m about to put out a call for beach towels because we can’t find any we like; and Eamon’s brought in a bag of things from his home.”

Then comes the most important step: disappearing. “You add a layer of detail, then remove your signature, remove your fingerprints. My hope is that the audience doesn’t realise there’s a set designer at all,” Hankin says.

Hankin often designs both sets and costumes, but in this case is sharing the design with acclaimed theatre and dance designer Jennifer Irwin.

Hankin is in demand around the country, working on around 12 shows a year between theatre, opera and dance. He is currently designing sets and costumes for The Peasant Prince, Monkey Baa’s adaptation of Li Cun-Xin’s acclaimed book, Mao’s Last Dancer, for children; a new work by Lachlan Philpott and Luke Mullins at Carriageworks, Lake Disappointment; and an upcoming production of Moliere’s Tartuffe for State Theatre Company of South Australia. Then he’s tweaking his Belvoir production of The Glass Menagerie to fit theatres in Melbourne, Canberra and Geelong, where it tours next.

He enjoys shifting between dance and theatre, between text-heavy Shakespeare or Moliere and the sparse language of movement; balancing it all with lecturing at NIDA.

He says part of what makes a set speak to an audience is keeping abreast of current productions of theatre, film, even music videos.

“I think it’s important to connect with pop culture, then stand on its shoulders,” he says. To that end he tries to make the show feel tactile and handmade for a richer theatre-going experience. The Glass Menagerie set had four or five coats of paint, for example. Angels in America was completely tiled over. Jasper Jones had a totally handmade exterior to give the feel of a fibro cottage circa 1960s Western Australia.

“It’s important not to make design pretentious, for audiences to be able to connect with it and go, ‘I want to sit on that lounge and curl up with a book’. That’s the task at hand.”

The Great Fire is playing at Belvoir until May 8. Lake Disappointment runs at Carriageworks April 20–23. Monkey Baa’s production of The Peasant Prince runs at April 9–20.

The Great Fire, Belvoir Theatre
Lake Disappointment, Carriageworks
The Peasant Prince, Monkey Baa Theatre