When set designer Rob Howell is asked whether or not he is good at Scrabble, he replies with a laugh. “I can be but only if it’s at the Shubert Theatre and I have 5,000 tiles to play with.”
Indeed, Howell played that “board” very well, winning a Tony Award for his wildly inventive and original sets for Matilda, the story of a intelligent young girl puzzling her way through a world of parental abuse and magisterial injustice.
Upon entering the Shubert Theatre, audiences are greeted with a jumble of wooden tiles of varying sizes and color, signaling the anarchy that is to come in the form of the loud and brash Wormwoods, Matilda’s zany family, and the pathological craziness of her nemesis, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall. While there is a certain ominous threat in the air, Howell immediately cuts through it even before the show begins. The set designer has puckishly hidden various words in the tiles that spill out from the proscenium arch, including his favorite: B-U-R-P. It’s a high-scoring one with the children in the audience.
“It was rather hidden in the West End,” says Howell of the Royal Shakespeare production, which transferred from their home in Stratford to the West End before bowing on Broadway. “I made the word burp easier to find on Broadway. I just take pleasure in kids pointing it out and saying it loudly.”
This playful spirit is of a piece with Howell’s whole conception of the design of Matilda, under the tutelage of director Matthew Warchus and inspired by his other collaborators, including writer Dennis Kelly, composer Tim Minchin, choreographer Peter Darling and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone. The “messiness” immediately apparent in the set was key to the entire creative endeavor. “Children’s playbooks are invariable messy and they should be,” says Howell. “There’s something terrifying in accuracy and perfection. If you achieve it, it’s dull. There’s no place to go. So every time any form of accuracy raised its ugly head, we’d quash it. If you can keep the messiness in the air, it creates a sense of hope and journey.”
The designer says that at first he was stymied when first tasked with providing the touchstones of Matilda’s journey. He spent years going down the wrong path in attempting to construct that world out of desks and blackboards. “When I added color to them, they lost their potency as objects,” he said. In growing frustration, he chanced upon the brilliant idea of alphabet tiles which not only had the warmth of familiarity but also retained their power when tinted with color and sized proportionately. The crucial three-dimensional depth was in no small measure enhanced by Vanstone’s lighting.
“It was very liberating, everything opened up, ” says Howell of his “eureka” moment with the tiles. “Now I knew how to break up the world physically. I knew how to build walls and doors, how to work [the set] like a puzzle that anybody could do.” Furthermore, he adds, Roald Dahl, who wrote the novel on which the musical is based, “was constantly scratching away at the common ground that adults and children share. And in a literal way, if I have a Scrabble tile in my hand and it’s the letter ‘A,’ it has the same possibilities for me as an adult as it has as a six-year-old child.”
While that parity might have been inherent in the tools that eventually accrue at Matilda’s disposal in her battle against injustice, the imbalance of power between adults and children is keenly felt through an exaggerated sense of scale and a very specific placement of the tiles. A child standing next to a large tile underlines the fact they are existing in a world of menace that is too big for them. So too with the contrast between Matilda quietly sitting on a small pile of books in the Wormwood’s living room while the rest of the surroundings clash with vulgar and ridiculous accoutrements. Says Howell “So that when Matilda and the children choose to fight back it is all the more surprising. It’s a bigger, more emotional story.”
As someone who went to a number of schools, most notably in Surrey, England, Howell says that he was personally familiar with the fear that children feel as they approach the gates of a school, not knowing what is on the other side of them. When Darling, the choreographer, saw Howell’s design for the gates of Crunchem Hall, he suggested that the alphabet blocks might be useful to scale those gates. “We both understood well the language of approaching a door with a certain trepidation,” says Howell, “especially when what’s waiting for you is someone like Agatha Trunchbull.”
Designing the lair for this gorgon was fun for the set designer. Since Trunchbull had once been a hammer-throwing Olympic champ, he knew that gleaming trophies would take up some shelves in her office but that alone would not give anybody a clue of who the character might be outside of her sports prowess. So he built a “hodge-podge of craziness for a demonic control freak”: banks of chaotically wired closed-circuit TVs and crazy bizarre gadgets resembling a starship for a Big Brother. “You can imagine Trunchbull following the activities of every corridor and classroom from there,” he says. “You can imagine her at night somewhere with a hammer and nail banging stuff together to stop disorder from taking flight.”
The relief from the menace of Crunchem Hall for both Matilda and the audience comes in the form of Howell’s simple designs for the home of Miss Honey, the teacher who comes to her rescue, and the library where Matilda’s finds solace in books and in the sympathy of the librarian, Mrs. Phelps. Originally designed for the thrust stage of the RSC’s Stratford theatre, Miss Honey’s home could have no walls instead settling for an impressionistic design that conveyed a warm haven from the chaos. When the production transferred to the proscenium stages of the West End and Broadway, Howell eschewed the opportunity for a re-design. “We stumbled upon it for technical reasons but it seemed right for the simple laidback esthetic for Miss Honey,” he says. Likewise for the library. The designer says that he wanted it to be a refuge of “spiritual calm and tranquility” for Matilda. Given the frenetic and brassy world of the Wormwoods, “it was like being out in Times Square and coming into a chapel,” says Howell.
Since Howell designed the costumes for Matilda as well as the sets, he delighted in having the opportunity to carry on the trashy taste of the Wormwoods in their dress and hair as well as their house. “You’ve got complete license to go as far as you dare,” he says with a laugh. “The hair can be higher, the green plaid can be brighter, the dresses tight and florid. These are the sort of Dahl-ian creations that invite you to take your imagination as far as you can.”
That outre invitation extended, of course, to Trunchbull whose outrageous totalitarian outfit of brown coat and britches was taken in part from the original illustrations that accompanied Dahl’s novel. The costume, in fact, was based on a real one worn by a close friend of the writer’s, a certain horticulturalist who went by the name of Beatrix Havergal. Trunchbull’s other costume, one which invariably elicits howls of delight from the audience, is what the designer describes as her “gym kit.” In a hilarious scene, Miss Agatha doffs her gym jacket to reveal two large misshapen breasts jutting from what appears to be a sports bra combined with a weightlifting unitard. Howell said that he left it intentionally ambiguous. “It would be a shame not to recognize it as something we might have seen before and yet not be able to exactly place it,” says Howell. Indeed, that seemed true of all of his designs for the show: familiarity mixed with a totally original iconoclasm.
There was, however, one part of Trunchbull’s gym costume which was entirely familiar and daintily feminine. “I couldn’t resist giving her a pleated skirt, “ says Howell. “Who could?”
Photos by Joan Marcus.
Last updated and effective as of January 14, 2019
Introduction and Your Acceptance of These Terms
Information We Collect
Information we collect directly from you: Your provision of your personal information to Us is completely voluntary; it is not a statutory or contractual requirement. Personally Identifiable Information (“PII”) is information that is uniquely identifiable to you, such as your name, address, email address, phone number, credit card number and other personal information that is not otherwise publicly available. Certain features of Our website may require that you provide Us with your personal information, including:
Mobile Alert Sign-Up (SMS)
Contact Us (email)
Public forums (e.g. message boards)
E-commerce (ticket purchases)
Your use of any of the features above;
New content on Our website;
News that We think may interest you about Us;
Responses to your questions/comments to us; and
Information relating to a ticket purchase.
We may use your demographic information for in house statistics, advertising and marketing target information. Our processing of your personal information is necessary for the performance and fulfillment of the contract between us and to provide you with Our services. We will also process, transfer, disclose and preserve personal information when We have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary, to resolve disputes, enforce our agreements and otherwise required by law. You can always opt-out of receiving future promotional communications from Us; see the Choice/Opt-out section below.Information We Collect Automatically: Even if you don’t use any of the features above, when you visit Our website, We may collect certain information about you.
From your Browser. For example, Our servers keep an activity log that tracks all visitors to the website. The information in the activity log does not identify you individually. The information collected may include among other data: your IP address, your registered domain or home server, time of access, date of access, web page(s) visited, number of clicks, software crash reports, type of browser used, session identification number, search terms, search results, access times and referring website’s address. We use your IP address to help diagnose problems with Our server and to administer Our website. Your IP address is also used to gather broad demographic information, such as country of origin and geographic location. We use such data in the aggregate to run internal analyses to improve upon your experience on Our website.
Tracking Tags (also known as “web beacons,” “action tags” or “single-pixel gifs”). Our website may also use tracking tags. Tracking tags are invisible graphics embedded in the pages of Our website that are programmed to collect non-personal information about your use of Our website. Like cookies, tracking tags provide overall usage patterns for Our website that We use for analysis and to provide personalized services and advertising content.
We comply with the Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising set forth by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA). You can opt-out of targeted advertising from certain providers at www.aboutads.info/consumers.
How We Use Your Personal Information
The personal information We collect allows Us to keep you posted on updates to Broadway Direct. It also helps Us to improve Our services, content, and advertising. If you don’t want to be on Our email list, you can opt out anytime by clicking the “unsubscribe” button or sending an unsubscribe email to [email protected]. From time to time, We may use your personal information to send transactional emails, such as communications about purchases and changes to Our terms, conditions, and policies. Because this information is important to your interaction with Broadway Direct, you may not opt out of receiving these communications. We may also use personal information for internal purposes such as auditing, data analysis, and research to improve Broadway Direct’s services, and customer communications. If you enter into a sweepstakes, contest, or similar promotion We may use the information you provide to administer those programs.
Information Collected By/Shared With Third Parties
Third Parties Doing Work for Us. Third parties have no rights to use any data We have collected on your behalf. However, We may employ other companies or individuals to perform functions on Our behalf, such as sending postal mail, email, and text messages, conducting sweepstakes/contests, prize fulfillment and promotional activities, analyzing data, providing marketing assistance, processing credit card payments and providing customer service. These outside suppliers, agents and vendors have access to your personal information only as needed to perform their functions.
Third Parties with Links from Our Website. From our website, you may be able to click on links to third party sites to buy tickets and merchandise and for other purposes. These third party sites may collect information, including personal information. We are not responsible for, nor do we have access to the information they collect. The collection of this information is governed by the privacy policies on the applicable third party sites.
Social Networking Services. Our website may integrate with social networking services. We do not control such services and are not liable for the manner in which they operate. While we may provide you with the ability to use such services in connection with our website, we are doing so merely as an accommodation and, like you, are relying upon those third party services to operate properly and fairly.
When necessary. We may also release personal information when we believe, in good faith, that such release is reasonably necessary to protect the rights, property or safety of Ourselves, Our clients, Our users, or others. We may disclose personal information about you to law enforcement, other government officials, or other third parties, as We, in our sole discretion, believe necessary or appropriate, in connection with an investigation of fraud, intellectual property infringement, or other activity that is illegal or may expose Us to legal liability.
Transactions With Third Party E-commerce Partners, Vendors and Advertisers
Delivery of Advertising and Other Content
In addition to ads and content that We may serve you directly, We use third-party advertising companies and marketing services companies to serve ads and other content when you visit Broadway Direct and elsewhere on the internet and in other media. Both We and these companies may use information about your visits to Broadway Direct and elsewhere to serve ads and other content to you. In the course of doing so, a unique third-party cookie may be placed or recognized on your browser by such companies. In addition, We and these companies may use Web beacons to help manage Our online advertising and content. These Web beacons enable Us and the third-party companies to recognize a browser’s cookie when a browser visits this Site and to learn which banner ads bring users to our website and to serve you ads that you may find of interest elsewhere on the internet and in other media. Both Broadway Direct and these companies may use information obtained from your visits to Broadway Direct or other websites, and information received from you offline in order to provide advertisements about goods and services and other content of interest to you across the internet and in other media. If you would like more information about this practice and to know your choices about not having this information used in this manner by Our third party advertising companies, please visit http://www.networkadvertising.org/optout_nonppii.asp and/or www.aboutads.info/choices. European users may opt out of receiving targeted advertising by visiting http://www.youronlinechoices.eu/. In addition, we may provide PII and Anonymous Information to marketing services companies. This may include information we received from you offline or online. These companies may combine information we provide (including PII and Anonymous Information) with personal and anonymous information they may have about you, using cookies they place or that We place on their behalf, as described in the section regarding “Cookies and Tracking Tags”. We require these companies to delete the PII we provide them. These companies may use the resulting non-personal information and such cookies for their own marketing purposes, and they may provide the same to their customers for their customer’s marketing purposes. Some of Our emails may contain tags that allow Us and Our advertisers and other partners to determine the types of content that may be of interest to you. Those tags may contain PII and may be shared with others to the same extent indicated in the section regarding “Cookies and Tracking Tags”. Those tags may not be deleted but you can opt out of receiving the emails.
Use of This Site by Children
The Site is not directed to individuals under the age of thirteen (13), and We request that such individuals do not provide personal information through the Site. If a parent or guardian becomes aware that his or her child has provided Us with PII without the parent or guardian’s consent by, for example, misrepresenting his or her age, that parent or guardian should contact us at [email protected]. If Broadway Direct determines that it has collected personal information of children under the age of 13, Broadway Direct will immediately delete such information and any accounts believed to be held by children under 13. In addition, we may not collect or process information from a citizen of an EU member state under the age of sixteen (16) without such person’s parental consent. If you are a citizen of an EU member state under the age of 16, please tell your parents that you are using the Site and have your parents email Us at [email protected] so that We may delete any information We may have collected about you.
California Civil Code § 1798.83 permits California residents to request information about whether we have disclosed personal information to any third parties for the third parties’ direct marketing purposes. California residents have the right to request in writing: (a) a list of the categories of Personal Information, such as name, email address and mailing address and the type of services provided to the customer that a business has disclosed to third parties (including affiliates that are separate legal entities) during the immediately preceding calendar year for the third parties’ direct marketing purposes and (b) the names and addresses of all such third parties. To make a request, please contact Us at the following email address: [email protected].
Rights of EU Data Subjects
If you are a resident of the European Union, under the GDPR, European Union residents, as data subjects, have the following rights:
Right to access – This right allows individuals to obtain confirmation as to whether or not personal information concerning him or her is being processed and provide access to such personal information. It also allows individuals to request details of the processing of his or her personal information, including, without limitation, categories of recipients to whom the personal information have been or will be disclosed and purposes of processing.
Right to rectify – This right allows individuals to rectify any inaccurate personal information about him or her.
Right to restrict processing – This right allows individuals to block or suppress processing of personal data under certain circumstances.
Right to be forgotten – This right is also known as the “right to erasure”. It is an individual’s right to have personal data erased or to prevent processing in specific circumstances.
Right of data portability – This right allows individuals to move, copy or transfer personal data from one place to another in a secure manner without interrupting the integrity and usability of the information.
Right to object to processing – This right allows individuals to object to certain types of processing, including direct marketing, profiling and providing for purposes of scientific or historical research and statistics.
An EU resident has the right to access his or her personal data that We hold and to ask that their personal data be corrected or erased and to port their data. An EU resident may also have the right to object to, or request that We restrict certain processing or to withdraw consent previously provided. If you would like to exercise your rights under the GDPR, please contact us at [email protected]. If you are an EU resident and have a concern about our processing of your personal data that we are not able to resolve, you have the right to lodge a complaint with the Data Protection Authority where you reside. For contact details of your relevant local Data Protection Authority, please see http://ec.europa.eu/newsroom/article29/item-detail.cfm?item_id=612080
Security of Your Personal Information
Broadway Direct employs reasonable security measures consistent with standard industry practice, for personal information collected through this Site, including physical, electronic and operational measures to maintain security and prevent unauthorized access. While Broadway Direct takes all appropriate steps to safeguard personal information under Our control, unfortunately, no data transmission over the Internet or method of storing data can be guaranteed to be 100% secure. As such, We cannot guarantee that personal information supplied by users will not be accessed on Our servers, or intercepted while being transmitted to Us over the Internet. We assume no liability for any damages you may suffer as a result of interception, alteration or misuse of information during such transfers.
We will retain your information for as long as your account or inquiry is active and for a reasonable time thereafter in accordance with Our standard procedures or as necessary to comply with Our legal obligations, to resolve disputes, and to enforce Our agreements. Even if We delete some or all of your Personal Information, We may continue to retain and use aggregate or anonymous data previously collected and/or anonymize or aggregate your Personal Information. Please note that We will not be liable for disclosures of your data due to errors or unauthorized acts of third parties.
This Site provides users the opportunity to opt-out of receiving communications from Us, at any time, by email at [email protected], or by clicking the unsubscribe link in any email communication. The Site gives users the following options for removing their information from our database, to not receive future communications or to no longer receive our service, at any time.
Users can send mail to the following postal address: Broadway Direct 1501 Broadway 14th floor New York, NY 10036
Users can call the following telephone number: (800) 223-6715.
Users can opt-out of receiving future newsletter emails from Us by selecting the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of our email. However, We are not responsible for removing your information from the lists of any third party who has previously been provided with your information or is collecting your information through their cookies. You have the right to withdraw your consent for Our processing for your personal information by contacting us at [email protected].
This website gives users the following options for changing and modifying information previously provided, at any time.
Users can send mail to the following postal address: Broadway Direct 1501 Broadway 14th floor New York, NY 10036
Users can call the following telephone number: (800) 223-6715
In the event that We are, or any component of our operations is, merged with, or is acquired by, another entity, then any such successor or acquiring entity may become the successor to Our obligations with respect to the personal information that you have provided to Us, which would be necessary for the entity to effectively continue our business. By using this website, you consent to any transfer and use of such personal information by an entity assuming control of Our operations as a result of a merger, purchase of assets, or liquidation in bankruptcy or insolvency.