Times Staff Writer

Though his claims are urban and his heritage working-class London, John Napier has the lean, craggy look of a Welsh coal miner. Only the dark eyes--wide and deep, with a look of perpetual slight surprise--reveal a sensitive intelligence under pressure.

Otherwise, there is nothing of the aesthete in Napier's casual manner or his informal dress.

"I am a non-aesthetic designer," he asserted, letting his English tea get cold and edgily lighting up another in a chain of cigarettes.

"My aesthetics come out of the rational," he said, on a break from supervising the installation of his spectacular environmental setting for "Cats," opening at the Shubert Friday. "They come from the solutions. I tend to work from the inside out. I have the reputation for making colossi, but I can only say in my own defense that for everything I've ever done there's been a series of reasons.

"Everything (I put on stage) is utilized--and not to make pictorial statements. 'Cats' is fairly monumental, but 'Cats' is whimsy. It's full of detail. And the interest for me is in creating that world.

"In the very early stages, there was no book," Napier said about the super hit based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and direction by Trevor Nunn. "Just Eliot's poems in a random order. Andrew'd worked on them as an idea for a small children's production. Trevor was asked to become involved, then I was asked, because we'd worked together.

"It sounded ludicrous. We were talking about putting cats on stage. We knew everyone in London would think 'they're crazy!' Especially after just having done 'Nicholas Nickleby.' And I'd just done 'The Greeks' and a season of Shakespeare. So we started talking and Trevor said, 'Look, you've got to come up with something that's fun. Not cliche. Not proscenium."

Napier took Nunn at his word, providing a scaled-up garbage dump where all the objects are proportionately as large as they would seem to cats. That wasn't just a good idea; it had the virtue of reawakening playfulness in adult audiences to whom these objects look like oversized toys.

"To limit oneself to a performance area that represented naturalistically a rooftop at midnight, or an alley, would not have had enough possibilities," he said. "And then we came to the general conclusion that it should be a place where human detritus had been littered. Just making giant objects pulls the rug out from anyone taking it all too seriously."

In two decades of professional life, Napier has designed such landmark productions as "Equus," "Nickleby" and the current London hit "Starlight Express." And in spite of beginnings as a fine arts student and early pretensions to becoming a sculptor, he's known less for his sculpture than his sheer razzmatazz. This is one scenic designer who's made it on seat-of-the-pants imagination far more than methodology, despite his own assertion that "you don't start in a vacuum. The most successful theater designers have been architects or painters or sculptors.

"I took a course in set design," he confessed, "but that was after five years of being a sculptor.

"What (theater design) requires is a practical application of ideas and a pragmatic view of what is possible to do in a certain space. One has to be sure the ideas will work, but then there's a backup of engineers and people who'll work out weight-loading and systems.

"A lot of people say about the work that I do that it's kind of high-risk. A bit over the top. That it has tendencies toward engineering peculiarities. But I have confidence in what I do, primarily because, as a sculptor, I learned a lot about matter--wood, stone, materials. Tactile things. I work with a model in a tactile way. Then I confer with engineers and say 'How practical do you think this is? How can we achieve that effect?'

"In the main, I rely on a series of people I know and trust, who understand what I'm trying to achieve. My main obsession is to keep things absolutely fail-safe. You want to stretch boundaries, but be aware of vulnerabilities."

As for making the transition from sculptor to set designer, "There's a working-class ethic that's in me," he said. "I can't help it. Sometimes I felt that to be in a studio, on my own, in isolation, was a bit dilettantish. At the same time, when I was a sculpture student in the early '60s, things were becoming very radical. There were things coming along like happenings, conceptual things, rooms . . . All the pieces I'd ever done always had some kind of bizarre theatrical intention behind them. They'd always been slightly off the wall."

Then Napier saw a couple of shows designed by Ralph Kolti (who did the Royal Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Cyrano," featured at the Olympic Arts Festival) and was struck by their originality. It changed him.

"Sculpture and theater just started to tie up. I began working as an assistant to various people, partly to make money, partly because of interest. I also now had an inkling of what I wanted to achieve. The first major thing I did in London was 'The Ruling Class.' I used sculpture techniques and very grotesque, papier-mache figures all over the place. Not traditional."

It got him noticed.

"Particular challenges don't actually come with things you do with a pen or a pencil on a piece of paper," he elaborated. "With me it's having a dialogue with someone, or convincing someone of a particular idea that they cannot rationalize in their own head.

"Take 'Equus.' Everyone was very unclear about how to stage that production. When I had some ideas about how to do the horses, it wasn't the heads so much--I'd kind of worked out the heads--but I felt the horses needed a statuesque way of being that was non-human. So I worked on the shoes.

"All they were was a metal horseshoe with metal bands coming off of that on to a footbase--a sort of elevated platform. The balance was on the ball of the foot. There was no way that you could put your weight back, so it meant that you had to lean forward."

He proposed this to the choreographer, who rejected the idea. Determined, Napier attached cans of baked beans to the sole of his shoes with tape, ran up the stairs to the rehearsal hall, kicked in the door, walked twice around the room and walked out. His point was made.

Not only is his work unconventional, but so is his manner of going about it, made possible by the intimacy and mutual trust that comes of working with the same people over long stretches of time.

"In the case of Trevor (Nunn), we'll get together and discuss intentions," he said. "He'll then go away and I'll try to come up with something that'll meet his needs, the practical needs and what I, myself, want to put in.

"In the case of 'Nickleby' and 'Cats,' I provided a starting point from which to experiment--the environment. It's a peculiar way to work. The traditional way is to have a book and follow stage directions. I tend not to get asked to do those kinds of plays."

But if this enfant terrible of design flaunts a feline waywardness, he almost had his come-uppance designing the makeup and costumes (almost 100) for "Cats."

"It drove me crazy," he conceded. "First, you've got to turn people into cats. Second, they have to be able to dance for 2 1/2 hours, sing and do acrobatics. Those are strong limitations.

"I feel very insecure working with costumes. I know that there are people around who have the history of costumes at their fingertips. So most of the costumes I do--like 'Cats'--are caricatures, or out of my imagination. I always get my costume ideas at 4 o'clock in the morning. I look like sin, sitting there with 18 packs of cigarettes, endless cups of coffee and rubbed out, scrubbed out bits of paper. It's a slow, grinding process. I loathe it.

"Only about two-thirds of the way through, when I see where I'm going, does it start to be fun."

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