This month, Elizabeth Wright’s play of Vanessa and Virginia returns for a three-week run at London’s Riverside Studios with Moving Stories Theatre, under the direction of Emma Gersch. The cast is Kitty Randle and Alice Frankham.
I asked the show’s designer, Kate Unwin, about her work.
What made you want to become a theatre designer?
I was doing a degree in interior architecture and one of my modules was in Television Scenography. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. It brought together so many of my interests: design, history, literature, theatre, film….
What qualifications are needed to become a theatre designer?
You don’t really need any actual qualifications although I am glad I did my degree. I studied television design specifically which is very different from theatre. On my first job I just lied and said I had experience even though I’d never designed a costume before or made any costumes. I thought I would try and see how it went. It paid off and I got more work from that show! You need to be creative, practical and able to adapt and think quickly. I do feel sometimes I need to be a historian, artist, costume maker, painter, builder, prop maker as my job covers so many things – which is why I love it so much.
How do you go about conceiving a design for a play?
I start with an initial chat with the director and then the script which I read and re-read making notes. I love research and it is my favourite part of the process. I gather references which I use to start a visual dialogue with the director. I gauge where they want to go by their reaction to the initial research and then do lots more. I make all the design decisions come from the research or the text so it adds extra layers to the work – it makes this initial stage really important.I then start sketching the rough models, followed by more detailed models. The research keeps going throughout the process. A lot depends on the rehearsals as things can change drastically once the actors begin working with the director. One has to be fluid and able to let some elements go as things can evolve all the time! Everything on stage is down to me, including the props and what the masking is like. I work closely with the lighting designer to convey what the set and costumes are going to be like as this will affect their decisions. How much I make myself depends on the budget. On a show with a large budget I don’t really make anything but there are some shows where I make and do everything!
Can you describe your creative process?
I feel like I am always working. When I have a day off I spend it reading, looking at newspapers, magazines, blogs, watching films, seeing exhibitions. The more I can absorb the better my work will be. I now get up quite early and that is a good time for me to work but I also work late into the night too. I usually have between 4 and 10 projects on the go so I need to be disciplined and put the hours in. This job isn’t a 9-5 and you have to be happy to be a bit of a slave to it. I have lost count of the number of social events and holidays I have had to cancel. My friends and family are very understanding!
Can you describe the process of creating the design for Vanessa and Virginia?
I already knew a lot about the aesthetic of Vanessa and Virginia’s world. I had visited Charleston and totally fallen in love with it. I knew about the Omega workshops, the work of the Bloomsbury set and Vanessa Bell’s work so it was a joy to delve into the research. I especially enjoyed studying photos to help with the costume design: luckily Vanessa took a lot of photos. I have been reading as much as I can by Virginia Woolf and about the period and the lives of both women. It’s hard as there is so much material. We had a really limited budget the first time round and there were key props which needed to be integrated into the set. They were fragments on the edge of the women’s world which they moved around. The costumes were layered and changed throughout the show onstage to show the passing of time so that was a challenge.
You are redesigning the production for the forthcoming run at the London Riverside Studios. Without giving too much away, what is different about this redesign?
This time round I feel like I can really turn my attention to the set. The costumes are pretty much there though I am going to add in a few extra pieces and improve some aspects. I have a bit more money for the set for this run and I want to create a really immersive environment, which reflects not only the creative, multi-faceted life these two sisters led but also how they were so inter-twinned. I really want to inject some of that wonder and warmth I felt at Charleston whilst creating a functional and cohesive design.