Production shot of Stranger Things: The First Shadow in London, with Louis McCartney as Henry Creel, Calum Ross as Walter Henderson and Maisie Norma Seaton as Claudia Yount.

Behind the scenes on 'Stranger Things: The First Shadow'

How do you bring the fantastic world of Stranger Things to life? Co-director Justin Martin and designer Miriam Buether talk about building Hawkins on stage.

Bev Hislop
Bev Hislop

"We may or may not know about the final season," laughs Justin Martin, co-director of Stranger Things: The First Shadow, which transforms the hugely successful world of the Netflix series into a much-anticipated theatrical prequel. "The first chats with the Duffer Brothers (creators of the TV series) were when they were working on season two, then the really in-depth conversations happened when they were writing season four, so there are a number of episodes in season four that really set us up and were done deliberately, and we set up a number of things that happen in season five. So, it’s really exciting to be part of the canon."

To call sci-fi series Stranger Things a phenomenon is an understatement. Since the first season brought Hawkins, Indiana to our screens in 2016, the series has garnered 12 Primetime Emmy Awards and a fanatical fan base. The fifth and final season is scheduled for 2025, so the 1959-set The First Shadow – which Justin describes as "an origin story" – offers potential pointers to some of the show’s unanswered questions.

The initial idea came from co-director Stephen Daldry, who had worked with Justin on The Crown and was interested in exploring the idea of giving a Netflix series a theatrical makeover. "There were a number of titles we talked about, but Stranger Things was the one we all kept coming back to – partly because it’s got heart and is about a group of outsiders who come together," says Justin. "The world of it means you can viscerally create something that would get the varied audience response we’ve been getting."

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Once the idea was green-lit, the Duffer Brothers worked with Jack Thorne (whose writing credits include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) to come up with a story and Kate Trefry was given the job of writing the script. As part of the writers’ room on the TV series, Kate was already steeped in the mythology of the Stranger Things universe and having her in the room throughout the workshopping process was invaluable. "She’s a proper genius," says Justin, "and there’s something about the style of her writing that straddles the now, the Eighties and also the Fifties, so that helped all of us."

Tasked with translating the look of the series for the theatrical stage was set designer Miriam Buether, who recently worked on the multi-award-winning Prima Facie with Justin. Dubbed "the best in the world" by her director, Miriam admits that marrying a 1950s aesthetic with the colourful Eighties look of the show was challenging. "We looked at a lot of photography from the time and different films – lots and lots of pictures. The way you design it is to go through every single scene then create the mood board according to all these different locations. Kate wrote about 40 locations, so we had a lot of research. We had to create that world of the Fifties, yet still give the joy of the Eighties in the environment and clothes. And ultimately, it’s always more exciting for a designer to have someone write: ‘This scene is set on the moon.'"

In charge of bringing that aesthetic to the costumes was Brigitte Reiffenstuel, the Costume Designer. "My brief from Stephen was to create a world that’s definitely American late 1950s," she says. "However the clothes needed to be vibrant and not dusty, meaning a contemporary edge so that the audience could relate to the cast and not feel excluded. I watched quite a few movies like Rebel Without a Cause and looked at vintage US 1950s clothes to get the cut correct."

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To give her designs that 1980s overtone, Brigitte says she "studied the Netflix series and learned that the costumes were stylised, and that the actual characters were enhanced, helping their personality shine through. I approached the play the same way."

Justin says they were also determined to capture the fast-editing style of the series. "The intercutting on the show gives it such energy and propulsion. Kate essentially wrote two episodes of a series, so we had to find a theatre language for intercutting, which was tricky. Kate would be writing these amazing stage directions and we’d all be going: 'my God, how are we going to do that?' But rather than restrict her, we had to go into our own imaginations and find a way to do it. I think the end of act one is masterful – it feels like we’re going 'Cut! Cut! Cut!'"

As effects play a big part in the show, Team Illusion and the video crew were brought in early to contribute to the set design. "We’d have these really big meetings in my studio where literally 10 or 12 brilliantly creative people would be putting forward their ideas," recalls Miriam. And does the infamous Upside Down – the TV show’s alternate dimension – make an appearance in the play? "That is a very complicated question!" laughs Justin. "The question is what is the Upside Down? And I think to some extent we address that. There’s definitely another world – another dimension – within the play. But the specificity of the Upside Down will be addressed in season five more and we hit on it a bit in our show too."

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So, was there anything they wanted but couldn’t include in the set? "I think we drew the line at a car!" says Justin. "You can have a car on stage, but it obviously takes up a lot of space." Miriam agrees. "The theatre is actually a bit too small for all the scenery and everything – backstage is like a giant Tetris and our crew and stage management work their way around it brilliantly." So, could the play be headed for an arena at some point? Justin says he likes the intimacy of the Phoenix Theatre. "The effect of the show – and I always feel this with Miriam’s design – is that it’s allowed to burst out into the audience!"

Could there be more theatrical Stranger Things experiences further down the line? "Who knows!" says Justin. "It’s a very rich world. But the play does stand on its own, so I’m hoping it’ll have a long run beyond the next season coming out. We’re also hoping it starts the conversation where Netflix, or companies like Netflix, want to engage with and invest in theatre – because there’s a world in which they can create really good content."

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Photo credit: the cast of Stranger Things. (Photos courtesy of production)

This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of London Theatre Magazine.

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