Art of theatre: Set designer Cleo Pettitt is ready for the opening night of South Pacific. *Photo by Nicola Muirhead
Art of theatre: Set designer Cleo Pettitt is ready for the opening night of South Pacific. *Photo by Nicola Muirhead

For over a decade, Cleo Pettitt has wowed local audiences with her magnificent and often complex set designs.

You may have seen her adventurous set from last year’s Gilbert and Sullivan show The Producers where revolving floors and lavish backdrops wowed the audience. You may also have seen her work in Bermuda productions Jesus Christ Superstar, Oliver!, Dream Girls, Cabaret, Beauty and the Beast, Full Monty and Fiddler on the Roof. Petitt has worked on countless sets around the world including The Looking Glass Theatre off Broadway, the Liverpool Playhouse and Oval Theatre in the UK, and in theatres as far flung Alaska and Dubai. This year she is back for G&S’s South Pacific. We asked her what goes into the process of set design from idea to opening night. 

What is the first step in the process of set design once you have accepted a project?

Read the script. Then read it again with the set in mind and what is practically required. Talk to the director about how they see the production and which angle they were thinking of taking, how they envisage staging it. Do extensive research into every aspect — the period, the architecture — get the whole picture and then go further and think about the abstract feel of the play and the story it is trying to tell. 

What tools do you need?

The most important work takes place in the model box at the desk. A scale model of the theatre is made and a fully accurate and painted model of the entire show created inside it. This really helps the creative process as you can experiment in cardboard and be free to accommodate input of the team. Once complete, technical drawings are produced and from then on, the majority of a designers work is overseeing all the departments that make the show a reality. 

Describe the rest of the process.

Here in Bermuda we all really knuckle down and work hard for weeks to get the show on. I will be sweating away in the workshop, happily receiving any help that comes my way and glad to be able to pass on scenic art and design tips. The building happens in the same way with excellent help from some seasoned G&S crew. At some point we will make a few precarious journeys from the workshop to City Hall, usually booking the truck for a day a storm hits… We fit the set up over a few days, ready for the technical rehearsals and crew and cast to practice with. And light…. and then dress rehearsal, finishing touches….

What’s the most complicated set you have designed? 

Two shows nearly killed me here in Bermuda. Oliver! was montorously big, as was The Producers. This was largely due to the basics of what the production requires. If the script says you’re in New York on a roof with Nazi pigeons then that is what you have to design and build. 

What is your favourite part of the upcoming set for South Pacific?

The movement of the palm trees is something which came from an accident when I knocked the model box and shifted all the model trees giving an entirely different look to the Bali H’ai scenes which we kept so now our trees are on wheels  and it seems like theatre magic to change location so simply.

Why should creative Bermudians get involved?

I had amazing opportunities when I was growing up in England to get involved with theatre and work with great artists that showed me there is a way to make a living with applied arts. I feel very lucky to do a job I love and really enjoy being able to pass this on to others. So they should come on down! 

How can they get involved in working with you (contact G&S)?

They can contact G&S through the website 

South Pacific opens at City Hall tomorrow evening at 8pm. Visit