Industry Interview: Nicolai Hart-Hansen

Hi, it’s been ages! How have you been Nicolai? Have you been keeping busy during lockdown at all?

Yeah, pretty busy. Strange times, and I kind of feel that things are starting to happen again. And, of course, all my postponed productions are now going to happen at the same time. So that’s, you know, that’s another hurdle to get past. Because everybody is just so keen to get these things back on their feet. 

Oh sure! Yeah, I’m sure since the announcement’s gone out about the sort of way of ending lockdown, I’m sure every company is like ‘Great! So this is the date that we’re all starting.’ No, not all at the same time!

But it’s been a strange year. And what we do is, you know, it’s fine, you can sit and draw and do things in your studio, but we aren’t really alive till we are out there doing the work we love with the people we love.

‘Nordost’ (2013) at Salisbury Playhouse, designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen.
©Richard Davenport 2013. Salisbury, Salberg Studio, UK. A Company of Angels and Salisbury Playhouse co-production. Nordost by Torsten Buchsteiner directed by Adam Barnard. .Cast: Emily Bowker, Nia Davies and Ellie Turner.

Oh boy, it’s chaos out there. But do you think as we’re moving back to everything opening up that it’s going to be back to normal basically?

Yeah, that whole sort of idea of normality, I think, you know, is – I mean, there’s been lots of debates as well. You know, actually, this could bring some great change with it. So, you know, as I am sort of a semi-positive person here, I think we should kind of embrace that, and maybe something good could come out of this even though it’s been a really hard year for so many, so many people. And performers and dancers in particular because they sort of, you know, just live from hand-to-mouth often, and they just sort of go from – you know, I have a base, but so many people don’t have a base. They just go to whatever place in Europe and they work for four months and then they move on. So yeah, it’s been hard. 

Yeah, I know you hear so many – I mean, basically horror stories about people that feel like they just can’t keep going in the industry. So, I think it’s nice that it’s starting up, because I think it’s kind of reached a breaking point for a lot of people. But yeah, as you say, it might also be a good chance for a fresh start, a new way of doing things. 

I think so. I hope so. I think that’s what we need to kind of believe, otherwise it’s too bleak.

‘The Window’ (2012), Rambert Ballet at Queen Elizabeth Hall, designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen. Choreography by Dane Hurst, Lighting by Paul Green, Photo from

Yeah, well, especially I think because you work so much with younger designers. I know you work at Central [Royal Central School of Speech and Drama] now, which is how Abby and I met you, but I know you’ve worked at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and a few other places in the past, and I would imagine that that kind of keeps you fresher?

Yeah, I love it! I love mentoring and I love teaching. And, you know, the designers that are training now, they’re kind of the lucky ones somehow. I think they come in and the first years are sort of really – they just think, you know, ‘this is gonna end, it’ll be fine.’ I think the ones that have just graduated, those are the ones I – because it’s hard! It’s hard when you just stand there and you know – I remember when I just trained and ‘whoa, the big world’, and it was almost like you had to choose the opportunities that you wanted but now…Anyway, it’s coming to an end.

Yes, exactly. So, what are your plans for as soon as it’s over? You said there’s a few things happening all at once?

Yeah, let’s see. But I think there’s definitely things in the next – I think June, June-July are sort of gonna be the big months where there’s gonna be sort of a fireworks of theatre. Still with caution, but yes. 

Yeah, that’s exciting though! Finally, after – what? A year and a half? That would be amazing. And I mentioned before you joined that you’re originally Danish, and I know you mostly work in London now, but especially after Brexit’s happened, do you think it will really change how you work between Europe and here?

I can’t say. I can’t say. I think it’s such early times to be able to predict that. Obviously, it’s gonna be harder. But let’s hope for the best. 

‘Habe Kein Angst’ (2012) at Eklektisk Teater, Copenhagen, designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen.
Based on the film ‘Angst Essen Sehlen Aus’ by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Directed by Volker Schmidt, Projections by Thyra Hilden, Photography by Vahid

I was actually talking with a friend the other day about the different styles that you see working around Europe. I think we got onto the subject because we were talking about Austrian theatre and how absolutely terrifying it can be! Do you find that your style changes when you work in other countries, or is it something that they bring you in because they want your particular style? Do you feel like you kind of go to fit in with whatever’s happening?

I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I think for me, it’s the people you work with, you know. So, I go – I’ve done a fair amount of work in my home country, Denmark, but then, actually, when I go back to Denmark, I work with international directors, so I work with British directors or Austrian directors or German directors. So, I’m kind of, I’m still sort of the strange bird in my home country. But I think ultimately it’s the people. I think the structure of the theatres are different, you know, and the administration of it, but it’s the people, it’s the people you work with. And, you know, and that’s ultimately why I’m doing what I do, because I – it’s the collaborations that I enjoy and love. 

That’s wonderful. Well, it makes sense then why you would mentor, because that’s – I mean, basically Abby and I both just fell in love with you because you have a way of, like, cheerleading while still being straightforward, which is a hard skill to master, and I honestly don’t know how you do, but it’s magical.

Yeah, it’s something I greatly – I love it, you know, it’s such a wonderful thing, certainly. I started teaching quite early on, but actually being able to mentor – it’s all part of the work.

That’s wonderful. Yeah, because I’ve noticed you do – you also design for student shows a lot. I know you did – did you do a show at Central a few years ago as well?

Yeah, I’ve done some Central shows – it’s been a while. They mostly get their own students to do it, which we didn’t get the opportunity to when I was a Central student back in the day and did my BA. Then I did my MFA at the Slade [The Slade School of Fine Art]. They didn’t have a theatre, so we weren’t attached to productions, but it’s happened later on, which I think is great. I mean, it’s the way it should be. But even when I go and design, I try and sort of do a couple a year just because I love working with students. You get to work with the whole range of young people. It just adds to the overall picture. 

Gianni Schicchi’ (2018) at Royal Northern College of Music, designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen.
Directed by Robert Chevara, Lighting by Ian Somerville, Royal Nother College of Music, Photo Credit: Robert Workman

Yeah, that’s got to be weird training somewhere like Slade where you just don’t have access to a theatre at all, but yet, you’re learning how to design for a theatre. Do you think that affected how you design? 

No, I don’t think so. No, but I trained under Philip Prowse, who’s a director/designer; he ran the Citizens Theatre. And, I think, sort of in my interview, he just sort of made it very clear that this is just a place to be creative and not caring about practicality. So, sort of the mix of Central, which was very – you know, it’s all about the practicalities and the groundplans and the side views and the sightlines and the ‘how to make theatre’ basically. And then, I did my MFA straight afterwards which was a two-year MFA, and that was all about being creative and not give a monkey’s about what you could do. So, it’s kind of – it joined the two worlds of sort of ‘I can do everything I want’ but also ‘I have to make it work.’ So, those two institutions were kind of great as a springboard for later on.

Yeah, well it makes sense, too, because I feel like, when I was looking at your designs, everything seems to be designed with a sense of like, I don’t know, fun? When you mentored me you definitely always were like ‘yeah just try it, do the thing, even if it doesn’t work, just look at it’, and I feel like you can kind of see that in your designs, where you’re like ‘yeah I’m gonna try a thing, I’m gonna see how it goes.’ Do you tend to use that play with every design?

Yeah! Yeah, definitely. And I kind of – yeah, intuition, I think, is so important. I was reading through – I sent an email the other day just saying, you know, ‘what kind of questions might you be asking me?’, and I think one of them was kind of, you know, ‘what is your procedure as a designer?’ And I sort of thought hard, and I just felt, actually, I try to not have a procedure. I mean, I’m sort of one of those people that will walk a new route every day work, you know, if I had a work to – you know, as my job. But I try new things every day, so that’s kind of what I do with my designs. So, even when – how I design costumes or how I design sets, it’s completely different, and I try to change my drawing style from production to production. Sometimes it’s really messy, sometimes it’s really strict and graphic and, you know – initially it’s about just finding the core and the heart of the production and that particular piece. 

Sure, that would make sense because I’m sure that it just may not – you know, a really bold style of illustration would feel weird with really – a show that is more delicate and flowery.

Yeah, I mean, I think you could. I mean, you can easily be a designer who sort of has a – I mean, I think I have a style. But I tend to just, you know, be very intuitive and weave in and out of various – and I also tend to pick my projects that way, you know – not sort of do six operas in a row, but mix it up.

Do you feel like you get to have that luxury of choice then a lot? Are you kind of at that point where you feel like ‘I can pick’ now?

A bit more, I think. You know, it’s still super hard being freelance, but I’m much more cautious about picking – again it goes back to the people, so, you know, it’s – I’m really cautious about the people that I pick, the people that I choose to work with. So, I would say it’s the person or it’s the director first, and then it’s the material. But that person that you are going to work with for four, five, six months, they are kind of the – it’s like a marriage, you know, very often. So, I’ve been married many times! That’s kind of how it goes, and that’s how it should be, so you should love being with that – I mean it’s not, you don’t always love love. But there should be a mutual bond and a mutual kind of brainwave and vision and whatever you might call it.

Saving Rachel/Loving Charlie’ (2019) at The Andrew Lloyd-Webber Foundation Theatre, designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen.
Written and Directed by Rikky Beagle-Blair, Lighting by Peter Small, Photo Credit: Steve Gregson

Sure. Do you feel like – I mean I guess it works that way not just with directors but, you know, if you’re designing costumes, and you’re working with, say, a wardrobe mistress and the people that are actually making your costumes, what’s that relationship like for you, how do you kind of manage those? Because it can be hard sometimes being in charge. 

 Yeah, and sort of, I feel, once you find that really good costume supervisor for example or that really great maker, you kind of, you know, you hang on to them. So you kind of extend your family. And sometimes you get a choice, you know, you can bring that maker in or that supervisor if they’re available. If they’re really, really good, they might be super busy, but then at least you can ask that person if they could recommend someone. And now we can go to The Tiring House!

Exactly! A little plug. Well, I mean, like we were saying, as theatre comes back, it allows for changes hopefully of the kind of standard way things are done, which right now is just word-of-mouth. So, hopefully, that will change a bit, because I know it can be tricky if you’re, you know, looking at it like choosing someone to be married to, basically just taking somebody’s advice and plunging into a blind date a bit – ‘I hope this isn’t a disaster!’

But thankfully, you know, there’s not really been many disasters. And I think it’s all about intuition, and it’s all about that initial feeling.

That makes sense, yeah. Well, thank you so much for talking with us! I want to keep you here for ages because you’re just fabulous! But we promised we wouldn’t keep you too long. But thank you so much!

That’s alright, I’ve enjoyed it! So, tell me just quickly about your Tiring House. So, you’re launching, but I guess it’s still such early days that you can’t really…?

Yeah, basically, we’re open and available, but because shows are just now starting to go ‘oh, I think we can start up’ and, you know, making those initial plans, we’re not quite at the point where people are starting to get, you know, starting to hire actual costume makers and everything. But that’s why we wanted to open up before everything happened, so we’re really hoping there’s a big surge of the summer shows and everything starting.

But it takes time, you know. Everything takes time. Yeah – best of luck, best of luck with it! I hope to see you all out there in the real world and everybody who has joined it.

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