Thank you so much for joining us, you are magical for doing this.
Oh, I’m so happy to do it! I think [The Tiring House is] a great idea.
Well, thank you! It definitely feels better when someone who actually works in the industry thinks so, rather than just, like, your mum.
It looks like you’re in your studio right now actually?
I am in my studio, bottom of my garden, working. Very luckily, we’re doing some work.
Oh, that’s excellent! What are you working on at the moment?
I am trying to finish off designs for an opera, which will hopefully, well, it should be going on next year. So, one of the first things to go back. Because it’s opera, I get to do a lot of stuff in advance. Hence, why I’m actually working!
Excellent! Yeah, that’s probably the only time that you get that much advance notice before you start.
Exactly! No theatre, no theatre, just opera.
Excellent. So, basically, we know that you studied Fine Art and Advanced Theatre Practice, but now you obviously design sets and costumes. But, you don’t have formal set-building or costume-making training, so how did you move from being thrust into that position? How did you learn all the skills that you needed without that formal training?
Well, I co-founded Shunt and that really was my training ground. So, I worked with my company really exclusively for almost 10 years, or maybe 7, 8 years at a minimum, and I just learnt on the job, really. I mean, it’s true that all I had done before Shunt was the year doing my Advanced Theatre Practice at Central, and I got a sort of flavour of costume there and we, you know, anyone who’s done anything like that where you get to realise some projects and you get to play a little bit with costume and the idea of costume, but then it was really just creating work, creating shows.
And so, because it was a lot of devised work, there was a lot of working with the actors and the performers to create character and create costumes through character. So, I did a lot of listening, a lot of working with and collaborating with actors and the performers, and I bought myself a sewing machine and I learnt to sew, and I sewed everything. I sort of, you know, learnt to cut a pattern, and I cut a pattern, and I sewed it up, and it was a bit crap. But that’s how I learned.
And then, I ended up at some point being thrust into a more mainstream infrastructured theatre, and I was terrified! And I can remember very well doing my first opera in Hamburg, and I was standing in the dressing room with this very important opera singer, and my costume clearly wasn’t working brilliantly. And there [were] these three sort of seamstresses and pattern cutters who had, you know, like years and years and years experience standing beside me and they’d just say to me, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I can just remember at that moment thinking, ‘Oh my god, please, please, you tell me what I should do!’ So, you know, I think that the point is that it’s a long, long, long process. And I’ve been learning, and I just continue to learn off people with specialist skills, so, I’ve learnt not to be so scared of seamstresses and pattern cutters with 40 years experience. I’ve sort of worked out that it’s okay to say to them, ‘Oh my god, I need some advice on that’ or ‘I need some help on that’. And it’s just a slow building of experience.
Yeah, learning eventually that the Imposter Syndrome [is] just always going to be there and you have to get on with it.
It’s always going to be there until you work out that it’s okay because everyone has it, and then you just realise it’s fine and you just ask for help.
Exactly. And most of the time people are so honoured that you asked for their help as well, I’m sure – ‘Oh, I can answer this!’
Exactly! That’s why they’re there, they’re the experts! It took me a long time to realise that, you know.
Like, ‘Yes, this is what I’m paid for!’ So, talking about your current design process: obviously you are working in a lot more mainstream, compared to Shunt [which] was way more experimental and devised. I’d imagine [Shunt was] way more changeable, whereas for the most part, the pieces that you’ve worked on now, like when I was with you with Lyndsey Turner for ‘Far Away’ [at the Donmar Warehouse], it was very much the standard design process of ‘show a design, produce the design, go through tech, there it is’, so it doesn’t allow for that sort of constant changing. How did you make that transition? Or, [do you] still try to bring as much change as you can?
I mean, I think it depends on the sort of piece that you’re working on. So, if it’s a new piece of writing and you’re doing it for the first time and it’s the first realisation of that piece onstage, then the actors are also – it’s the first time the actors are bringing to life a character, and what that character looks like. So, it’s so important, it becomes, for me, a real sort of a collaboration with the performer about what the right direction is. If it’s a period piece, so it’s something that’s been done many times, or it’s a piece that’s being reimagined somehow, then I think it’s less collaborative with the performers and it’s more of maybe a conversation with the director and just sort of a massive research project and becoming more and more familiar with the characters and the aesthetic and the colours until I can create designs.
Is there anything specific that you always fall back on for the research for those kind of things, where you do have the really research-heavy period pieces or something where you basically have to get inspiration?
I mean, like everybody else, I end up spending a long time on the internet these days. I mean, the truth is, I don’t do an awful lot of, like, period period stuff, so I always feel slightly like [gasping in fear] if I get a period piece, and I have to end up sort of really swatting up on the period so that I understand, you know, why the corset does that or why that fold does that. I think knowledge is the power in that situation, so it’s a lot of research. But, you know, a lot of the stuff I do is often contemporary – contemporary everyday people. And then it’s about how to use the internet for research, and I suppose that I try and find a sort of lateral movement through that. So I often end up on, like, news websites and trying to find images of normal people, everyday people, something that’s got nothing to do with looking at costume or anything like that in order to sort of try and find my way through.
Someone asked, do you prefer modern pieces? Do you feel like more modern or conceptual pieces kind of allow for more interpretation, do you think?
I think it can be either, you know. Sometimes doing something modern, if it, like, takes place in a living room and [it’s] just some people talking that can be quite dull. And maybe if it’s a big sort of period piece, then you can become so het up with the period that maybe that can take some of the edge off of something as well. But, what I really like doing, and what I always tried to do with Shunt, was try and find a way through where there was something contemporary but there was something strange and odd taking it into a sort of timelessness or an oddity. That’s the kind of the area I find I love working in most.
I think most of your designs do that, where you just go, ‘Oh!’ Like, when you worked on ‘A Number’ [at the Bridge Theatre], you’re like ‘Ah, it’s just people in a living room’, and then the entire living room shifts and you’re just, ‘Oh! Okay, this is not gonna be boring, this is really interesting.’
Yeah, so sometimes you can do that through the spatial design, sometimes you can do that through the costume. Sometimes you can just do it through the props. I mean, I think one of my favourite recent costume things actually was working on ‘Far Away’, which of course you know very well having been with me. But, I think Caryl Churchill’s play is this timeless dystopic piece that you can’t quite place in time or place. And so, as a costume designer on that, you really have to sort of engage with the sort of, like, science-fiction, vintage-modern-futuristic kind of world you find you’re in and find a path through it, which is very exciting. And, as well, of course, as all the hats, which is just such a brilliant job for costume.
Oh yeah, those hats were fabulous! Was it the course on [London College of Fashion], I think it was the one that I did, that helped out?
They did a fabulous job. So, when you’re working with people do you find that you tend to gravitate towards people that are as experienced as you in the business? Or, do you – it sounds like you look for people that are starting out as well to help them, such as me, or like the students at LCF, to kind of bring them in? And I know working at CSSD you probably do the same.
Well, I just think it’s really good to keep on top of what’s happening and new blood and new ideas, just so I don’t become set in my ways and don’t start repeating myself too much and, you know, developing tropes, which I do in every show. You know, that’s the danger when you’ve been like doing it as long as I have been doing it. I want every show to be sort of conjured as if for the first time, fresh from my imagination. And I am really interested, I love talking to students, and, you know, hearing the different angles on things and the energy, the fresh energy, and it’s very inspiring. It reminds me of what I used to be like before, which I strive to remain like.
So, now to be incredibly selfish: obviously, [The Tiring House] aims at matching people on the making side with the designing side. What’s the relationship between those two sides? Like, for you, how do you communicate with them?
Well, I mean, of course it’s essential. I mean, I’m a designer, but I’m not a maker, and until you sort of fit together those different skills, it’s just an idea on a piece of paper, or it’s just being talked about. So, to develop relationships with the makers is just so vital, and such access to skill is extraordinary. Like, I can design something, but it’s in conversation often with a maker to sort of understand technically how something’s going to happen. And often there’s a sort of further design process as well – everything can be developed and improved. So, it’s such an important relationship to foster and to understand.
Yeah I’m sure there must be a lot of times, I know, as a designer, when you speak to someone who has a lot of knowledge in a specific area of construction, and they very kindly inform you that that’s physically impossible.
I mean, yeah, but I think it’s something you have to learn, like learning skills, how to deal with those relationships is something to learn. Because, of course, actually, what you’ve sort of stepped on there a little bit is that when you’re dealing with someone who has an enormously specific skill-base, on the one hand, you have to listen to that because that’s going to get you to the next level, the next point in your journey. But also, as a designer, sometimes you have to challenge it and push against it. You have to see, you know, because like myself, I can get set in my ways and of course, makers and artists [that] work in the ecology that surrounds the design process, they can get stuck in their ways, too, and sometimes you have to sort of push against what people say you can and can’t do just to see if something else is possible. And sometimes that can be hard and sometimes it’s not possible, but that’s how you can move.
Yeah, I was gonna say, I’m sure a lot of amazing designs have happened because someone said ‘I mean, how impossible are we talking?’
Exactly. I mean, I think every show is a sort of pushing the boundaries – like, ‘Is that possible?’ ‘Can we do it?’ Like, ‘What if we do it like that?’ ‘Is that possible?’ And often, you know, when you talk to someone who’s very, very skilled in a very specific area, if you really have a vision to do something, once you start prodding and say, ‘Well what about…’, ‘Could we do it like that?’, ‘Could we do it like that?’, then those people, they have all the knowledge, and then they can often, they will go ‘Okay, well if we did it like that, then maybe we could achieve that.’ And that’s where the conversation really starts. So, it’s a really important conversation, there’s got to be quite a lot of trust and sort of mutual respect, I think, in order to sort of be confrontational sometimes but also always be looking for a solution.
Sure. Yeah there’s actually a question here that asks about the design process for ‘As You Like It’ at the National, and I’m wondering how different it is for something like that vs. something that you did like ‘Blindness’ [at the Donmar Warehouse] this last year where it was restricted so much by Covid. So having something that was so entirely different, how it changed for that?
Well, I didn’t do the costumes for ‘As You Like It’, I should say that. So, that’s an example where the set and costume worked together with the director to try and create a united vision, so hopefully that did work. And in terms of ‘Blindness’, of course, there were no live actors in ‘Blindness’, so there’s what’s happened to costume design in Covid: there are no live actors! So the audience has become your performers. In ‘Blindness’, the audience became the performers and they could wear what they [wanted] as long as they included a mask. But, I think, you know, the reality though is that it’s a really difficult time, and there’s no live performance, and who knows when that comes back.
Yeah, well, we’re just going to keep thinking happy thoughts until we know.
Yes! You’re preparing for when we inevitably lift off again.
Yes, in, like, 2074 when theatres reopen we will be there! But thank you so much for joining us, it has just been beyond a pleasure. And it’s so good to see your face after so long!
Aw, it’s good to see you, too, and the best of luck with your brilliant business, and I think it’s a great idea, and I’m sure you guys will do great. And, of course, it’s a very challenging time for you to be launching this, but, you know what, I think we’ll be opening again soon and I’m sure it will fly.