Nick Smurthwaite goes on set with Britain’s award-winning theatre designers

The British may be rubbish at making films with international appeal, but when it comes to live theatre we seem to be in a class of our own. Every year the Tony awards in New York yields a bunch of top awards for British talent, and in June this year some of our best theatre designers netted the three top awards at the Prague Quadrennial 2003.

These were the Gold Medal for Set Design for Richard Hudson for Tamerlano at the Teatro alla Pergola, Florence; the Gold Medal for Costume Design for Nicky Gillibrand for A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Royal Shakespeare Company; and the Golden Triga, the top international award for theatre design, for the British National Stage Design exhibit.

Organiser Peter Ruthven-Hall said the British display reflected excellence in British design and performance during the period 1999-2002, featuring the work of more than 20 set, costume and lighting designers. Will the Golden Triga raise their stock? ‘It is seen as a mark of respect by other designers rather than the whole theatre industry,’ says Ruthven-Hall. ‘I think directors are more concerned about design as it affects their productions, not the quality of the work in isolation.

‘Having won the Golden Triga three times now, there is a sense of exciting things going on in the UK, even though our budgets may be small. On the whole British theatre designers work with very meagre means, and I see a lot of individual hardship in my role as secretary of the Society of British Theatre Designers. If you want to be a success it seems you have to be busier than is sensible, working on three or four projects simultaneously. In the end you hand over your life to the theatre.’

Prague Quadrennial 2003 took place from 12 June-29 June

Great Britain’s winning entry – selected from 2D>3D, a national exhibition held in Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries last year – is currently on a tour of the UK

Plymouth: City Museum and Art Gallery, until 1 November; Salford: The Lowry, 8 November-7 March 2004; Carlisle: Tullie House City Museum and Art Gallery, 12 March-8 May 2004; London: Theatre Museum, 19 May 2004-March 2005 (tbc)

Ian MacNeil – Golden Triga winner

Best known for his award-winning designs for An Inspector Calls, which he worked on with Stephen Daldry, Ian MacNeil admits to being ‘insanely selective’ about the work he does. ‘An Inspector Calls enabled me to pick and choose and it gave me confidence,’ he says.

Both MacNeil’s parents were involved in the theatre and he says it was inevitable he would become an actor or a designer since he had ‘an instinct for it from an early age. I went to a summer school in the US wanting to act, but soon realised that the guys doing design were having a much richer experience than the wannabe actors.’

Like most designers over 40, MacNeil was lucky enough to link up with the then thriving regional circuit, doing stints at the Birmingham Rep and Manchester Library Theatre.

‘You only really learn this job by doing it, so it is vital to do shows on a main stage when you’re learning your craft,’ he says. ‘Being thrown in the deep end is the best thing that can happen to a young designer.’

His incredibly varied CV includes everything from grand opera – one of his Prague exhibits is Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse In Patria – to low-budget fringe shows, taking in a world tour by the Pet Shop Boys along the way. He is currently working on a musical version of the film Billy Elliott, with music by Elton John and Stephen Daldry directing.

‘I’m not surprised a lot of people want to be stage designers. It’s a fun thing to do. But it is also tough, lonely and extraordinarily badly paid. A lot of young designers fall by the wayside because they are paid so little and expected to put in a ridiculous amount of time on each project,’ says MacNeil.

Tanya McCallin – Golden Triga winner

After studying architecture and interior design in Melbourne, Australia, where she grew up, Tanya McCallin came to England aged 20 and studied theatre design at the Central School (now Central St Martins College) of Art and Design, under Ralph Koltai. Her first job was at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, where her actor father, Clement McCallin, was a member.

One of her earliest jobs was designing the original production of Abigail’s Party at Hampstead Theatre in 1977. Following a brief return to Australia to work she settled in England. Her work has encompassed all forms of performance, from tiny fringe venues to the Royal Opera House.

‘One thing to emerge from the Prague exhibition is the clarity and simplicity of British theatre design,’ she observes, ‘and I think that has a lot to do with the fact we all choose to work in these smaller spaces as well as the bigger ones. We have a great ability to distil and reference, and the tighter the budget the more imaginative and simple you have to be.’

She cites one of her favourite jobs as being The Elephant Man for the touring company Foco Novo, which was later picked up by the National Theatre. ‘My design for Foco Novo was so compact it had to fit into a Ford Transit van. When we transferred to the Lyttelton Theatre I had to blow it up to four times the size, which was quite a challenge,’ she says.

Would McCallin recommend it as a career? ‘It’s incredibly hard work and desperately underpaid for the amount of work you put in, but it can be fantastic fun if you are completely dedicated.’

Ian Teague – Golden Triga winner

Being part of the winning British exhibit at Prague was ‘a real validation of what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years’, Ian Teague says. Having trained at Wimbledon School of Art and Trent Polytechnic, Teague chose theatre design because it encompassed the most number of creative disciplines.

When he started out in the early 1980s, there were some 400 regional theatre residences for designers and design assistants; there are now just four. Teague worked as resident designer at the Liverpool Everyman, then joined the left-wing touring company 7:84 and became interested in Theatre In Education and community theatre.

‘For me working in the theatre was never just about putting bums on seats. I wanted to do work that was about enabling people of all ages to understand their lives and their world.

‘The downside of working with small-scale companies is that you are a crucial part of the production crew, so it is up to you to make it happen, for which you need a whole range of technical skills.

‘In periods when I haven’t been designing I have made more money making props for companies like the English National Opera than I do as a designer, and I get to work with materials I wouldn’t normally be able to afford. Teague’s exhibit at Prague was a series of four pared-down Shakespeare plays for a student audience, using the same three actors. Henry V was realised as the story of a David Beckham-style football hero rallying his team to victory, while Macbeth deployed Action Men models and puppet witches.

Nicky Gillibrand Gold Medal for Costume Design winner

Having been a student of fashion and textile design at Leicester School of Art, Nicky Gillibrand went on to work at Berman & Nathan’s Costumiers in London’s Camden, where she made hats and other accessories for film and TV productions. ‘That’s where I discovered theatre, but it was as an assistant to three freelance theatre designers I learnt the most,’ she says. She tends to work with the same directors – Richard Jones, Deborah Warner, Tim Albery and Francesca Zambello – as they like her work so much they keep coming back for more.

These days Gillibrand works mostly in opera all over the world, although the Gold Medal was for her costumes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Richard Jones for the Royal Shakespeare Company last year. ‘Richard wanted it to be more like a nightmare than a dream, so my brief was to use black and white fabrics, which was strange but interesting,’ she says. ‘The fairies weren’t lovely, gentle things, but sinister creatures clad in black. The ass’s head worn by Bottom was like a fright mask from Halloween. Titania’s costume was like the night sky and Oberon looked like a Romanian gypsy bridegroom.

‘Everyone who worked on it loved doing it so the critical lambasting we received in Stratford-upon-Avon took us all by surprise. Fortunately, it did really well on tour and when it came to the Barbican.’

Gillibrand adds, ‘The best thing about my job is seeing it all come together – colour, fabric and design. When I’m doing an opera I will sit and listen to the character I’m working on over and over again, re-drawing the costume until I get it right. The pay-off is when what comes out on stage reflects precisely what you dreamt up in your imagination on that sketchpad.’

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