Soutra Gilmour is one of the most successful theatre designers working in Britain today. As her production of The Duchess of Malfi opens at The Old Vic, we caught up with her to talk about terrible pay, how to get your break and how she is inspired by William Morris and Batman…
Theatre design feels like the place where English and drama, history and art all sit together. It’s painting, sculpture, lighting, textile, drama, history and engineering all at once.
At art school I knew absolutely nothing about the industry: my family found theatre embarrassing. But I got three things off the back of my degree show: A job assisting a designer, a fringe job and a job on the main stage at a rep theatre in Devon. Your degree show is your calling card; it’s all you have unless you happen to know some people in the industry. You need to set out your wares.
Be a yes person. If an opportunity comes up, it generally pays to say yes. For the first five years of my career I said yes to almost everything.
A lot of being a designer is about social interaction: you are the only person who works with absolutely everybody – costume makers, carpenters, directors, actors – and there is a totally different language, approach and set of considerations in each case. And you don’t learn that sitting in college, making model boxes.
Quite a lot of theatre design is logistics. If the script says, “He shuts the door and picks up the kettle,” then you need to work out the geography of the set that will make that possible.
Theatre design is a bit last man standing. For the first five years you’ll be doing these little random shows where you get paid 25p and have a budget of 35p. But you just have to work really hard and not give yourself any alternatives. If you build your career slowly, brick by brick, it makes it impossible to knock down.
If you’re not content and excited at 24 by the tiny fringe show you’re doing, then you’re not going to be any more content and excited if, in 10 years, you’re doing a show at the National. You have to be fascinated by what you’re doing in the moment.
The director Irina Brown once told me, “Never try to be original, just try to be personal.” That way you won’t be contrived and, while you’re not so unique no one will recognise it, you’re unique enough that it will have something of its own.
Your own industry is the last place you should look for inspiration. If you want to be a theatre designer, don’t just go to see plays. I notoriously go to the theatre very rarely; instead I go to exhibitions, walk around cities looking at buildings, read interiors magazine – anything else that gets me excited.
In Focus: Turning inspiration into design
The tricky thing about doing something of a period is that it can act as a bit of a barrier to the audience. The characters become removed from you because they’re wearing crazy frocks, or whatever.
For The Duchess of Malfi I looked at lots and lots of influences. I looked at Jacobean and Elizabethan architecture – the world Webster was writing in – but also the Italian Renaissance, which was the world he was imagining. I also looked at modern spaces that had that same scale, detail and feel, like 1930s images of Gotham City or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I mixed all that up with three-storey Victorian libraries and bits of other random things like the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or William Morris designs. I try to find a visual language that runs through it all.
My computer desktop is covered in little folders, for each production, where I just throw loads and loads of images as and when I find them.
I create the set first, but as I’m going along I’ll be thinking about the people all the time. The Duchess is heavily influenced by paintings of Christina Rosetti [by Dante Gabriel Rosetti]. I also collected a lot of graphics from Assassin’s Creed on Xbox. They had that heightened, exotic feel to them.
I still make all my models, physically to a 1:25 scale. I don’t do much sketching, so I tend to start making 1:50 models very early on, to try out ideas in 3D.
In making a model, you discover a lot of the problems that they will encounter when building the set. Even though it’s just one twenty-fifth of the size, and just cardboard and paint, you will face a lot of the same structural issues. When it comes to understanding the space, the relationship to the audience, you can’t beat a physical model.