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How to get into... set design.


Our team are made up of professionals from across theatre - whether lighting and sound design, set design, stage management and beyond. With so much experience in the room, we thought we'd share it with those looking to start their careers in theatre or would just like to know a bit more about where we've come from. Here to get us going, a few of our brilliant set designers who talk us through their path into the field, the lessons they've learnt and how you can get your foot in the door.

Elina Pieridou (EP) is a graduate of the National Technical University of Athens and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she worked as a Freelance Theatre Designer and professional model maker in the UK before joining Charcoalblue. Peter Ruthven Hall (PRH) has written three books on British design and spent eighteen years as a successful set and costume designer. Tina Torbey (TT) was awarded the Order of Engineers and Architects award in her native Lebanon before studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where her design for ‘Cabaret’ won the Set Design Silver Award at World Stage Design 2017 in Taipei.

Let’s start with a recent show you’ve seen where the set design made you stop and stare

EP: The Jungle. I didn’t see it at the Young Vic but it was pretty impressive at the Playhouse. Although the balcony level appeared to be a bit disconnected. It’s hard not to fake something like that and they did a really good job.

PRH: It’s quite intriguing that it went into the Playhouse Theatre which is a pretty little theatre rather than a rough and ready theatre.

EP: They made it rough!

TT: I liked Network at the Lyttelton Theatre because you can’t notice the set as an element on its own, you see the production as a whole. That’s when set works best – when you can’t see the line between the acting, the design and the direction.

PRH: It was extraordinary how the National’s Amadeus trumped every delight of the original and made it even more accented with a diverse cast and the huge expanse of the Oliver stage. A quite stark, modern set that wasn’t particularly representative but alluded to what was necessary – the focus was on the performers.

Elina created the set design for the Merchant of Venice at the Redgrave Theatre.

We should start with an idea of everyone’s pathway into design – what was yours?

PRH: I trained as an architect and I suppose I made a slow transition to professional theatre – it was incremental. The directors I was working with at University got professional work and I carried on working with them as a consequence. I was lucky with the directors I met early on in my career who took me on with them.

TT: I also trained as an architect. I was working in architecture and always performed in musical theatre. I thought I would reconcile architecture and performance in set design.

EP: I don’t have anything else to say because Peter and Tina just said it! I’ve always enjoyed performing but it wasn’t until later, whilst I was studying Architecture, that I took a scenography class which unknowingly led my architectural career to this. I did an MA in Theatre Design to find a way into the UK theatre world.

PRH: Architecture is a very European way of entering into theatre whereas the UK system is based on arts schools training.

EP: In Greece there’s only one scenography course that you can take. I don’t know many scenographers in Greece who are not architects.

Whilst at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Tina won the Set Design Silver Award at World Stage Design 2017 in Taipei.

Set design seems to be a fusion of your left and right sides of your brain – practical and creative – are you better at one element than the other?

EP: I think I balance between both.

PRH: You have to be both. It’s really important. You can’t just be a dreamer, you’ve got to know that whatever conceptual idea you have you’ve got to realise it, or work in a practical way with others to realise it.

TT: The starting point has to be imaginative and then the other side of your brain will make it work.

So, does the director lead with a concept or do you prefer to collaborate on an equal basis?

EP: That’s an example of a good relationship with a director but with some directors you fly with them and you explore different scenarios and then you just land together.

PRH: And sometimes you don’t land!

We’ve touched on it but can we chart the typical process of a set design commission from first email to curtain up? What’s the trajectory?

PRH: The first task is to meet the director or choreographer. They can be elusive, but we do meet in a roundabout way and connections are built over a period of time. If you have an agent you might have your availability checked and be one of three designers being considered for a project. The first is usually the director’s preference but there’s an opportunity to grab the job when being put forward as a second or third choice. You meet the director and, if you’re lucky enough to get the job, you’d probably start work pretty quickly.

Elina working on a scenic commission for 'Woman and Scarecrow' at the Brewery Theatre in 2015.

What would a director want to know at that stage?

PRH: It’s about the relationship – are we going to get on alright or will it be agonizing? I’ve been to an interview where a director has looked at my portfolio and said “Oh well that’s absolutely perfect for my show!”And that’s what he wanted and I was horrified! What about building a creative relationship!?

TT: Like a catalogue!

EP: It is a portfolio that you need to bring with you, you need to show your work. It can be excruciating, I hate having to prove myself every single time.

PRH: It’s about your intelligence – your ability to think around an idea. Your portfolio should never be just about “This is what I did” – it should be about “When we started a discussion this idea developed to this and then we scrapped that part and made this instead …” with all the reasoning and thought behind the decisions.

So, you’ve been commissioned, when in the timeframe of a show is this?

PRH: If it’s a rep theatre I would say three months, if it’s an opera a year, a year and a half.

Elina, Tina and Peter discuss set design at our London studio.

Why is the lead time of an opera so much longer?

PRH: Oh because of planning! In rep you’re dealing with something that is the entire focus of the company. In opera the scheduling of work in the theatre – because it’s daily turnovers rather than three to four week runs – means you’ve got to think about fitting your opera into the programme. In a fringe show you might get four weeks or less and you’re on!

EP: I’ve been asked to do something in ten days.

TT: I’ve done one film, production design, and I did it in four days – from conception to delivery, furnishing a whole apartment. That was completely mad, I wasn’t sleeping.

So you’ve been commissioned, you’re say three months out – I assume you then have a research phase, how do you spend those three months?

PRH: Whenever I read a play or listen to the music or work out the concept of the dance my mind goes off on a tangent and I’ve lost the story because my mind has created the world that everyone is living in! I think that’s what a lot of visual people do. The research doesn’t stop until… sometimes even post-first night!

TT: Put together a mood board!

PRH: I always found it helpful spending time with the director reading the play together and speak it to each other, rather than just read it. By speaking the words you relate more to the psychology of the situation.. When you read, you are thinking “I see you as such and such a person.”

Peter was instrumental in winning the Golden Triga for Great Britain for the third time at the international Prague Quadrennial in 2003.

And at some point you need to conclude the design

TT: The design deadlines are usually set by the production team and the people who are actually building it. If the designer is late on their deadline, the whole building or production team is delayed; it costs more and stresses everybody out. The key to a successful performance resides in positive collaboration. But the design never stops. It keeps evolving, just as the performances are refined through rehearsals and previews.

PRH: I would expect to deliver the design four to six weeks before the opening, or about halfway through the commission. There’d be a meeting with a white card model which allows the production manager to assess whether it’s likely to be on budget, will it fit in the space, who needs to be contracted to realise the design.

TT: You never realise just how many departments are involved in bringing it all together – props, production, lighting, sound, video, costume, hair and make-up, wigs.

EP: Lighting is so important, I find it very helpful to just sit and discuss with the lighting designer over the model and explain the mood.

Do you need to be a great model maker to be a great set designer?

PRH: No. But you need a bloody good assistant who is, and there are plenty around. Unfortunately, the rates are unbearably low for the talent – it’s shameful. Tina you’re from Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, right? If I was ever looking for a talented model maker I would be pleased to employ someone who was trained at Royal Welsh College.

EP: It’s a UK phenomenon to need such good models!

TT: Even in the US you don’t need them to such a level. In other countries you can work from technical drawings, sketches.

Where do you go for inspiration once you’ve gotten the commission?

PRH: I’m a magpie, I go everywhere – books, postcards, cuttings, photography. I’ll see a colour and I’ll say “I like that colour, that’s the emotion I want for my show.”You audition everything around you for a role in your production.

Elina presents a model whilst at the National Technical University of Athens.

Are there any great resources for designers starting out that you recommend they look at?

PRH: I know Vicki Mortimer spends a great deal of time researching her shows at The British Library. Build up your own reference library of books and cuttings or images from the internet.

TT: And personalise it. I veer more towards architecture but some focus on social studies or other areas I would never think about.

PRH: Tanya McCallin references period paintings in her work. She goes to fine art to extract detail and interpret them and turn them into costumes. Her success is to be completely original through period detail. Nature is another great resource and inspiration; the colour combinations in nature are inspiring.

EP: It depends on the play and your take on it. What you get from the play directs where you go for inspiration.

TT: No designer works alone, you’re working with the director. Sometimes the approach comes from someone else. Don’t have a rigid process.

For our younger readers, where can you go for experience whilst still at school?

PRH: Just do it! Work on your own shows. Take any opportunities for internships or apprenticeships. Check with your local theatres about their schemes. The best thing is to go ask to design your school’s show, give it a try. That’s what I did.

EP: Explore more sides of theatre business. It’s great if you know you want to be a set designer, but even better to have knowledge of the surrounding positions.

You’re all designing theatres and venues for a new generation, how has your work in set design informed that process?

PRH: I’m answerable to the client but my highest loyalty is to the end-user. I’ve been there – I know what’s it like to have a theatre that doesn’t support what I want to do.

EP: Everything that’s been done on stage and to the venue is for the audience – you want to please them.

And finally, do you have any advice for designers starting out?

PRH: There are three things that affect how you relate to the production: the people you’re working with; the money you’re getting paid and if you’re having a good time. If you enjoy who you’re working with, it doesn’t matter if you’re getting paid a pittance. If you’re being paid lots of money, don’t be arrogant about it not being a good collaboration – take the money and run, it’ll fund something else. If you’re having a good time, don’t moan about the money or the people. When you’re starting out, be thankfully for any of them. Two out of three is great. Three out three, you’re bloody lucky!

Peter leads a discussion at our monthly theatre design forum.

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