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‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ Set Designer Makes Theater Magic

When set designer Christine Jones won a Tony for her work on “American Idiot,” she felt “there couldn’t be anything better career-wise.” Then along came “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two,” the biggest franchise title and most expensive play ever produced on Broadway, fresh from its enormously successful run in London.

And when Jones, who’s now Tony-nominated again, describes the show as “a huge undertaking,” she’s not exaggerating. Together, the two parts are more than five hours long, “with tons of locations and lots of spectacular magical moments and transformations,” she says. “But [there are] also many more personal and smaller scenes, so we needed it to be epic and also incredibly intimate. It was a very tall order.”

Other challenges included staging the monster production in the newly renovated Lyric Theatre, which reduced its massive seating capacity from 1,900 to about 1,500. “The material is so beloved by fans, and we had to do right by them,” says Jones. “We had the chance to use a different language from the films and engage the audience’s imagination in a way that’s more similar to the book experience. This is a play, not a film or musical.”

Jones and the other key creatives, including director John Tiffany, lighting designer Neil Austin and magic designer Jamie Harrison, studied the storyboards, then came up with 96 scenes and multiple locations that the team had to devise, she reports. “But we also knew early on that we didn’t want to have a new set for every location. The trick was to create an environment that could house all the different locations, and then, with various additions or subtractions, make that work for all the scenes equally well. It also had to allow for a kind of minimalism, so that a few objects could evoke a particular location.”

Ultimately Jones and the team settled on one simple but potent environment — the train station that’s the terminus for the Hogwarts Express. “It’s based on King’s Cross, but I researched and studied all the other famous London stations and came up with our own version for the show,” she notes. The action begins and ends at the station, and all the shifts and changes in the story are contained within that set, so it never full disappears. “We use suitcases and stairways and things that come apart and then come back together again for all the different locations,” Jones says. “But in some sense, they’re always in this magical hallway.”

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