As a practitioner of theatre I have always created work in pictures first – both with the actors and with the set. A couple of years ago a visual art colleague watching some site-specific work I had created commented, with some surprise, that we clearly both worked in the same way, driven by a visual aesthetic. Obviously this is only one part of the creative process involved in making theatre, but is one I love – in another life I think I would have liked to be a set designer.
I was intrigued to read, therefore, in an occasional series in The Guardian, an interview by Georgie Bradley with Colin Richmond, a UK-based theatre designer entitled How do I become … a set designer
How do I become … a set designer
Good communication skills, an ability to network and willingness to start out making the tea have got Colin Richmond a long way
Colin Richmond conjured up fantastical uses for pegs when he was a child. His carpenter father would make miniature theatre sets out of leftover wood while Richmond covered pegs in “Borrower”-sized clothes.
“I loved going to the theatre for a bit of escapism. After I had seen Starlight Express I came home and made a model version of the set from memory,” says Richmond. He also recreated Gotham City at the age of eight.
Richmond, 32, from Ballymoney in Northern Ireland, wanted to be an actor. He had a string of school production credits to his name when he was cast as a member of the Jets in West Side Story, performing with the Ulster Theatre Company. “The set was this massive scaffold structure and I thought it was interesting how an environment changes you as an actor. And it made me realise this was the part of the process that was so appealing to me,” he says.
Richmond then attended the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where he took a three-year theatre design course. It culminated in a final-year show with all the pressures of a professional production. “It’s a hardcore three years of hardly any days off. It begins with sculpture work and developing the imagination and building up good skills,” he says. “We had a puppetry project to do, which we also performed in to understand the other side of the process. The second and third years are when you specialise in costume or set design.”
After his course, Richmond moved to London to become as an assistant to Bob Crowley, the designer of Mary Poppins and The History Boys, whose main assistant at the time was a friend of Richmond’s head of design at college.
Getting a break through someone you know is common in this line of work, although getting one job does not automatically lead to another. “You have to keep emailing and creating worlds, get ideas and designs on paper even if you’ve not got work. You have to be relentless in knowing who is doing what and where.”
Fresh from college, a designer can expect to be an assistant with tasks including the necessary evils of tea making and photocopying, but perseverance and a bulky portfolio will help you climb the ranks.
Richmond has recently worked on the RSC’s Wendy and Peter Pan, where he designed both the costumes and set. “You’re only contracted up until press night and then you’re free to go.” Walking around the warehouse of a set at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, Tinkerbell’s fairy dust is everywhere, Captain Hook’s ship is being recharged in the wings and the plurality of the show’s scenes are inconspicuously layered.
Richmond believes in challenging the audiences: “Letting the audience use their heads to add to the story is a way to give them that escapism or realism. I’ve seen the most overdesigned sets that left nothing to the imagination. However it does depend on the show.”
Frantic sketches and doodles are part of the designer’s work, but a lack of drawing skills won’t set you back. “References, mood boards and montages are equally as effective,” says Richmond. Up until the set is constructed, the concept goes through different model stages, working at a scale 25 times smaller.
Good communication skills are vital for a good set designer. They are always feeding back to the director and therefore need to be able to articulate ideas and have strong people skills. “At the end when it all comes into fruition it makes every part of the process worthwhile. The schedules are exhausting but you’ve got to keep doing more because it doesn’t pay well,” says Richmond. “You’re either a prince or a pauper in this industry.”
One of the great things about how large producing theatres now market themselves is that they are ready to promote all aspects of their production process. As a result the design of a play is often shared, along with other key aspects of the production, as the video above of Richmond’s work on the RSC’s Wendy and Pater Pan shows. Here is another, this time of the work of Bunny Christe, the designer of the UK’s National Theatre production of Emil and The Detectives, adapted from the 1929 novel by Erich Kästner.