John Harding has created sets, costumes and worked on special effects for some of the biggest blockbusters in movie history, including James Cameron's Avatar and Sir Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong.

But when the renowned production designer heard his old drama club was taking a big financial and creative gamble by staging a "non-replica" production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, he did not need much convincing to agree to bring his considerable artistic talents to the production.

As specified in the contract with the holders of the rights to the show, everything not in the script or score, such as set and costuming, has to be unique to the Waipawa M&D society's production next month.

It's a challenge Harding has been relishing. Quite different to working on mega-budget films, the fiscal constraints of the show's $90,000 budget has forced him to get creative to ensure some iconic scenes - such as the Phantom's boat ride across the underground lake to his lair amid a sea of candles - actually make it to the relatively small stage at the CHB Municipal Theatre.

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"It's one of the things that the audience expects, but it's hard to have the Phantom sail across a misty lake that doesn't exist," Harding said,

"Because it's the theatre's stage, not our stage, we can't cut it up. So one of our solutions has been to build this enormous thrust stage that goes out it into the auditorium. We lose 20 seats a night, but we can have trap doors for magic tricks, tombstones rising out of the smoke and for the boat ride, candles coming out the stage."

Likewise, the space constraints will mean the show's orchestra will have a far more visible presence than other productions.

"The orchestra isn't going to be hidden in a pit, they will be in tiers up the sides of the stage, so the action goes out from the stage virtually out to the back of the auditorium."

"I think people will travel from all around the country to see this [Phantom], not because I did it, but because everyone wants to do it on a small stage but no one has a clear idea how to," said Harding.

Similar to how the physical size of the CHB sets will differ to the "great, lumbering" consortium productions of Phantom, Harding said the Waipawa production under director Lisa Jane Easter would serve up a fresh version of the classic.

"Our Phantom of the Opera is nothing like that rather dated old one they have been doing in London. Ours is younger and sexier and more gothic.

"I keep saying it, but it's about a young tortured artist who happens to have some facial scarring who creates a masterpiece that no one understands or likes, so he steals his girlfriend - well, it's not even his girlfriend - and locks her in the basement. So it's actually quite contemporary: it's Hannibal Lecter, it's Christian Grey [Fifty Shades of Grey]," he said.

Dark and gothic
The dark tone had filtered through to the colour motif and design of the costumes and even the Phantom's iconic mask.

"What we are embracing is a bit dark and gothic, and a bit art nouveau. Everything is black and silver but high gloss, so it's sleek and elegant," he said.

To take part in the production, Harding has been regularly travelling to CHB from Akaroa in the South Island, where he lives with his wife and costume designer Lesley Burkes-Harding.

Harding's visits are being sponsored by helloworld Waipukurau and on his most recent trip at the end of last month, he delivered a workshop to teach 30 cast and crew and their families to make the fantasy masks for the show.

Harding lived in CHB from the age of 6 until his university days.

Even though he "can't sing", he performed in shows with the Waipawa M&D club and directed a 'few things' for Waipukurau Little Theatre before leaving to work as a production designer at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland and then went on to commercials, TV shows and eventually blockbuster films.

He said it had been a lot of fun returning his old stamping ground, where his imagination ran wild.

"Most of what I do is inventing things. And when I drive over the Tukituki Bridge I look down to where I used to raid beehives and catch trout without a licence. Growing up in the countryside and climbing trees and damming rivers, I think it was quite formative for me," he said.

Director Lisa Jane Easter said she was enjoying the massively collaborative process of working with Harding, and the other cast and crew.

"The great thing about Waipawa M&D is they are quite small but they are quite brave.
They are into taking risks.

"The fact that it's a non-replica production means that all the things people love about the Phantom, we have to come at it with different eyes. That's why I wanted to direct it."

Waipawa M&D club president Vicky Mavin said putting on Phantom was a massive undertaking, and Harding's skills and expertise would help the club achieve its goal of delivering a world-class show.

"We've estimated that this show will incorporate around 15,000 volunteer hours. Approximately 80 people are involved and there is a budget of around $90,000.

"We have committed to bring a theatrical experience to CHB that will be comparable to any seen on a professional theatre stage anywhere.

"We want this show to be an experience, an event and something that the CHB community will talk about for years to come."

• Tickets are available online from eventfinda, or from the Municipal Theatre. Show dates are June 13-23.