Profile: Katrina Lindsay

Amid a hectic schedule, the Tony Award-winning British stage designer is collaborating with director Rufus Norris on the premiere of music drama London Road at the National Theatre. Nick Smurthwaite went backstage to speak with her

Such is her current workload three shows in various stages of production and another one on the starting blocks that I feel rather guilty subjecting a stressed-out Katrina Lindsay to an interview backstage at the National Theatre.

Lindsay is just about the hottest British stage designer around just now, having won a Tony Award for Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Broadway, and received rave reviews last month for her work on the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, at London’s Sadler’s Wells.

’This is the busiest time I’ve ever had as a designer,’ she says. ’As a freelance you can’t choose when the projects are going to turn up, and it sometimes happens that two or three irresistible things come along at once. There are moments when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “How is this ever going to work?”’

She is at the National working with the director Rufus Norris on the premiere of London Road, a strange-sounding music drama piece inspired by the aftermath of a series of murders in Ipswich in 2006.

’It is unlike anything I’ve done before because all the focus has to be on the rhythm of the sounds and the speech,’ she says. ’I struggled to find a visual aesthetic for it. It is all about atmosphere and mood. I looked at Gilbert and George, and the black tunnel at Tate Modern. I’ve created a dark tunnel filled with smoke, from which the characters and props emerge. At the start of any project I never have a clear image of what it’s going to be, you just have feelings and instincts. The process is then excavating those feelings and finding out how you can manifest them into something more solid. There is usually a nugget in there you can build on.’

Lindsay trained at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, having abandoned the idea of becoming an actor in her teens. Instead of the usual assistant-apprentice route most graduate stage designers take, she plunged in at the deep end. She joined up with Norris and a group of actors to form their own company and promptly won a Fringe First in Edinburgh. The show was picked up by the British Council, which took it to Romania, the US and Hong Kong. ’You can feel quite cut off as an assistant, making box models in a studio somewhere. I preferred actually doing it, helping to produce shows, even if there was no money. It enabled me to observe acting and directing processes from the inside out. It is important to find your own voice.’

Though she was herself never selected for the Linbury Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for stage design, Lindsay served as a judge in 2009. What sort of things was she looking for? ’I was looking for people who took me on a visual journey, with clarity. I also help to choose portfolios from design graduates who go on to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I’m often able to use some of them as assistants on my own projects. It helps them to feel not quite so isolated when they’re starting out.’

Lindsay prefers to do sets and costumes so that she can ’create a whole world’, as she puts it. Clearly, she had a ball on The Most Incredible Thing, a dance premiere based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. The reviews found her ’eye-popping Constructivist sets’ the most striking aspect of the evening.

’I used a lot of visual references Russian Constructivist art, multiple images using mirrors, paper cut-outs. It was the first big narrative dance show I’d done. There is something about the fluidity and ease of professional dancers at that level that’s absolutely captivating.’

Because of the Tony Award for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Lindsay is in great demand as a costume designer, and she is currently in the throes of her toughest ever assignment 400 costumes for Terry Gilliam’s reworking of Faust for the English National Opera, opening in May. ’I’m trying not to panic,’ she says. ’You have to build up reliable teams of people around you in order to get through it.’

Looking to the future, she has a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in prospect for the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is not the traditional forest setting, as you might expect, but an abstract reading with a hint of the 1970s. ’It is very much about the dream world and people’s desires,’ she says.

After that she intends to take a long summer break. ’My partner is an actor so he understands about working in spurts, but I have an 11-year-old daughter who hasn’t seen a lot of me lately. Come August, I shall really need a break to recharge my batteries.’

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