David Farley is an Oliver Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated set and costume designer, with credits including Sunday in the Park with George (pictured above) and La Cage Aux Folles. Based in London, he regularly works abroad, including on Broadway. Here he talks to Jo Caird about training, getting his first big break and the “gift” of designing for opera...
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
Originally I wanted to be an architect but changed by mind after doing some deathly dull work experience. I was doing Drama GCSE at the time, specialising in technical drama, and it happened that a bunch of recent drama school graduates in theatre design put on an exhibition near where I lived. I went along and saw these amazing models and beautiful technical drawings and the penny dropped: all the same skills that I’d be using as an architect, but in the world of the performing arts, which I love.
Where did you study?
After an Art Foundation course at the Oxfordshire School of Art and Design I went on to do BA in Technical Arts Design at Wimbledon School of Art. I knew I needed skills to be employable and useful, that I needed to develop my technical drawing, model making and set-building skills. I believe that it’s important to have an understanding about what you’re asking a workshop to build for you, in terms of practical knowledge. Not being able to solve everything, but at least being able to have a proper dialogue with set builders. Particularly if you’re talking about low budgets, you’ve got to know how to get the best out of your materials.
How did you make the leap from low-budget, small-scale work to the big commercial productions you design these days?
I was working as an assistant for Christopher Oram and in the room next door sat Michael Grandage, who was running the Sheffield Crucible at the time. He had a young director, Angus Jackson, who he wanted to do a show on the main stage at the Crucible, and I’d assisted on at least half a dozen productions there by that point, so he put us together. That first professional show, a double bill of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Shawl, was a real kick-start to my career.
You and Timothy Bird won Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Awards for your Menier Chocolate Factory production of Sunday in the Park with George, as well as a Tony Award nomination for the show’s Broadway transfer. How has that success influenced your career?
It’s a little bit scary and ridiculous just how many doors it opens, but at the same time how many doors it closes. There was quite a lot of interest from various producers, which was good. It got me an invitation to do Jason Robert Brown’s new musical, 13, which was an out-of-town try-out in Connecticut and then on Broadway, but at the same time theatres like the Crucible stop calling because they think you’re too expensive, too busy. Over the next year [I’m going to] to knock on those smaller but really exciting doors to say, “I want to do a play with two actors in a small space. Yes I’ve got a big show, La Bohéme for Houston Opera, but it’s going to pay me very nicely so I can afford to come and work for you for tuppence”.
How does designing for opera compare with designing plays and musicals?
Designing for opera is a designer’s gift because there is so much freedom of expression visually. Unlike with musical theatre where you can tweak and change the music, the lyrics, make the entire show feel completely different; with opera, the music is the music. You’ve got to fill in around that and support it, but it will take your very avant-garde, brutal interpretation or your classic design... So there’s a lot more room to manoeuvre.
Coming to the profession with a background in scenery design, does costume design bring additional challenges?
I would say I’m a set designer who dresses characters. I’ve learned a lot along the way, dealing with very good costume supervisors. There’s something very satisfying about having complete aesthetic control, that the entire visual world of a piece is the product of one mind. It can be interesting working with a separate costume designer as a collaboration, but for me, having that control of the whole aesthetic of the world can be very rewarding.
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Second image is from Kiss Me Kate, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Ontario.