“Ten years ago you could very easily walk into a job and do your apprenticeship on the job,” says Richard Kent, whose current projects include The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at London’s Tricycle Theatre. “But now it seems very normal for people to have done some kind of training.” Richard did a BA in theatre and performance design at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) immediately after leaving school with arts-based A-levels. “I know I wouldn’t be able to do the job I do now if I hadn’t been through that training process,” he says, emphasising the practical nature of the degree course.
LIPA, like other drama schools, offers students the chance to experience and work within the theatre industry in microcosm. “There’s a lot of learning on the job because there’s only so much planning you can do with theatre, particularly theatre design.”
Like a lot of designers, Rosanna Vize, whose work can be seen in the currently touring Banksy: The Room In The Elephant, only began to consider a career in theatre design while studying drama as an undergraduate. It was while at Royal Holloway, University of London that she learnt about postgraduate theatre design courses that accept applicants from a broad range of academic and non-academic backgrounds.
She “started acting as a designer in the room at university and got a portfolio together” and was accepted on the Theatre Design MA at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. The course was “very much aimed at people that were able to bring the creative side of designing in with them and put that into practice in a very technical way. [That involved] learning model-making, technical drawing and finding ways to communicate your work and your ideas,” says Rosanna.
Regular National Theatre set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer (The Silver Tassie is her current NT project) also studied theatre design at postgraduate level, at the Slade School of Art. But Vicki credits her time spent doing student drama as an undergraduate as “probably really where it all started”.
“That’s mainly what I did – rather than studying English literature. I was at Oxford and the advantage there of course was that the student drama societies had enough funding to use scenery in their productions in quite a constructed way. So there were quite a lot of opportunities to start designing. I did everything though: lighting and sound operating and made the costumes. It was a really wide foundation for starting to acquire theatre skills,” she says.
Her experience goes to show that student drama can be a fantastic route into theatre design, whatever your course of study. But it’s not just about skills; it’s also about making valuable career connections. It was at Oxford that Vicki first met and worked with Katie Mitchell, a director she has collaborated with a great deal since.
Richard also talks about the “good contacts” he made at university, including the former student who got him his first job, which led to him working as an associate to the designer Christopher Oram. It was here that Richard really honed his skills. “There were wonderful model-makers and work by directors and theatres was being bandied around,” he says. “It was absolutely another level of training.”
Playing a supporting role on big projects with an established designer at the start of your career, rather than having the freedom to work on your own smaller projects might be frustrating for some, but there’s no denying the benefits. “Assistant work is hugely important to a designer,” says Rosanna. “I think possibly more so than in any other areas of theatre because when you work as an assistant you really learn the technicalities and the practicalities of theatre design and all the different materials and the process.”
It’s also a good way to make further connections in the industry, says Richard, and “be exposed to people who can give you opportunities” at a later stage.
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Image by dmmalva on a Creative Commons license.