Interview with a theatre designer

Paul Burgess

Interview originally published in ISTA’s Scene magazine

1. What is your current title/position/job description?

On my tax return it says ‘Theatre Designer’. But that’s not the full story. I design sets, costumes and video projections for theatre but I am also involved in the hard-to-describe grey area between visual art and experimental theatre and have directed various plays taking my own installation art as a starting point. I am also involved with youth arts, mainly running workshops on theatre skills and video-making.

2. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Harlow, Essex, and grew up in a village called Roydon just outside Harlow. I went to a comprehensive school called Sheredes in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. It was really easy to get to London so I went to the theatre a lot. My mother ran the art gallery at Harlow Playhouse so I felt involved in theatre from an early age.

3. What were your favourite subjects/passions at school?  Did you know at school what you were going to do?

At school I loved English, Art, Music, Maths and Physics. My main hobby at that age was music (I was in a band and a few orchestras) but I was very involved in school productions. When we had a show I used to get my mates to help me paint the back wall of the school hall, which was great fun!
I knew that I loved theatre design. As a kid I made lots of designs for little model theatres, then when I was older I started designing all my school’s productions. But I didn’t think of theatre as a serious career option until university; I was wondering more about music or architecture. Looking back, however, I can see that theatre design was something I kept coming back to over the years.

4. Did you receive ‘on the job training’ or attend college/university?

I studied English Literature at Oxford, where I got very involved in student theatre. I acted, directed, composed music and designed. I learnt a huge amount. After university I was lucky enough to get a work placement at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. I worked on the ‘original practices’ shows, where we tried to do plays as they were done in Shakespeare’s time. My jobs included shopping for fabrics, cutting the distinctive Elizabethan ‘slash’ patterns in clothes, dyeing fabric and doing some leather-work. By this time I knew a lot about the practical side of design but I didn’t feel ready to try and establish myself as a professional designer. Because it’s a very difficult and competitive world I felt as if I needed a clearer idea of what kind a designer I was and what I wanted to get out of it. The Globe’s then Head of Design, Jenny Tiramani, suggested I applied for a post-graduate course called Motley, which was run by professional designers (including Alison Chitty, one the UK’s foremost designers) and only took eleven students a year. I got in on my second attempt! The first time they said I already knew enough about theatre design. I persuaded them that not only did I have a lot to learn but I also needed time to get to grips with the whole idea of being a designer. I learned a huge amount at Motley and it was an incredible, wonderful experience which gave me a huge amount of confidence.

5. Can you describe a favourite project/job that you have been involved with?

It’s always difficult to pick out one job; I’m very lucky to have worked on a lot of great projects. One that illustrates many of the good things about the work I do is Jonah and Otto at the Manchester Royal Exchange’s studio theatre. This was a new play by a writer called Robert Holman. Many theatres had rejected the play because on the surface not much happens. It’s basically just two strangers who get talking, then go their separate ways. But the dialogue goes so deeply into what it means to be human that you come out of the play feeling as if you’ve had a really profound experience. There were also several other special things about the production. It was the third production I’d done with a director called Clare Lizzimore. I love working with the same director over and over again. The relationship gets better every time. You get to know each other’s way of working and you can just cut straight to the important stuff. Also, even though we were in a studio theatre, we were allowed to build quite a big set, in which we initially hid the depth of the stage: when the action went from an enclosed space to a cliff-top we could suddenly reveal a huge open space that the audience wasn’t expecting. You could hear the gasps! Finally, one of the actors was a hero of mine: Ian McDiarmid who used to run the Almeida Theatre and has supported a lot of innovative plays. He also played the Emperor in Star Wars – so he was part of my childhood too! The other actor was an amazing young guy called Andrew Sheridan. One of the great things about theatre is that you get to work with some incredible people. In spite of it being a ‘difficult’ play, we got really great reviews: a nice reward for the hard work.

6. Please provide an overview of how you got to where you are now?

After training at Motley I got a few fringe theatre jobs but not enough to call a career. (By fringe I mean young unpaid professionals or students creating shows on a low budget at small theatres.) Through Motley I also got some work as an Assistant Designer, which got me experience in big theatres. However, I was lucky enough to get some youth arts work to keep me going financially. Gradually, the directors I was working with on fringe productions started getting bigger jobs. At the same time my own experimental arts projects started getting more attention and I got some funding for them. This also made people notice me as a designer – it made me stand out a bit from the crowd. All in all, it took about eight years before I could make a living without relying on youth arts work. Though I like working with young people because they keep me on my toes – so I have never given that up all together!

7. What does a typical ‘day in the life’ look like for you at present?

There are two types of typical days. When a production is getting close I’m always out and about: at the theatre, or the set-building workshop, or looking for costumes. If the show’s a few weeks away I’m either in my studio drawing or making models, or in meetings, or watching rehersals. I also need at least one day a week to do all my admin. I have to keep my own accounts, and there are always lots of emails to answer. I also maintain my own website and I’m currently trying to manage without an agent, so I negotiate my own contracts.

8. What is it you enjoy most about your current work?

I love the fact that I can do a creative job but at the same time work closely with other people, rather than just being in my studio all the time. I think good design is about serving the bigger picture not just making the set look as dramatic as possible and I get really inspired by a good script. There’s also a huge amount of variety in the work. One minute I might be researching army uniforms from 1786, the next I might be working out how to build a two-story house on stage. I also totally believe in theatre as a way of examining society and human nature.

9. What are the greatest challenges?

The biggest challenge is almost always coming in on budget. But every show brings new problems of its own. One show might need lots of water on stage, another might require impossibly quick costume changes or a really difficult to find prop. As a designer you have to keep a lot of people happy – the director, the writer and the actors  – as well as being on budget and not breaking the laws of physics!

10. What are your dreams, aspirations for the future?

I’m pretty happy. I’d like to do more work that pushes at the boundaries of theatre, and to collaborate with more people who are pursuing the same ideals. I’d also like to have a go at designing for dance – something I’ve never done before. Finally, I’d like to see the theatre industry get a bit less chaotic – at the moment we all have to rely on luck a bit too much and sometimes you feel rather like you’re out there on your own.

11. What advice can you give to a young person, interested in your line of work?

Keep at it. Be patient. Be clear about what you want to achieve. Find a part-time job so you can afford to build up a good portfolio by doing unpaid design work. Take photos of everything you do so you have a record. Try to get work as an Assistant Designer to broaden your experience. Go and see lots of plays and then try to work out what you like and dislike about them. Try to build working relationships with young directors, so you can grow together. And make sure you’re enjoying yourself. It’s a tough industry and sometimes a difficult life – so it’s only worth it if you love your work.

About Paul Burgess

More information about Paul can be found on the Trustee page.


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