Designer Alison Chitty was resident designer at the National Theatre for eight years and has more than four decades of experience designing operas and plays all over the world. As an exhibition of her work runs at the National, she talks to Official London Theatre about her profession.
Alison Chitty, Designer
The most important thing to begin with is to familiarise yourself with the material, whatever it is, the play or the opera or the libretto. Then you have your first meetings with the director and together you decide which direction the production might be going in. You share ideas a lot of talking. Then we part and both of us carry on with our particular areas.
The foundation of all my work is drawing. I have a series of black sketch books, one for every production I’ve ever done, practically. I start drawing and it becomes a visual diary of the process of the creation of the production. Then maybe we meet again with material that we’ve found or interesting images or things that we think are pertinent, and together we look at those and we start to choose a direction. This all takes forever. If it’s an opera it could happen over a year. If it’s a play you might have to work in a more intense way; it might be 10 weeks or something like that. I suppose the next thing is to go through the piece moment by moment, work out what’s happening, what is the story, how do we want to tell it. Then maybe we start to storyboard in the same way that you might for a film.
We start to model. I make sketch models and we start to work in those and move things around and see whether what we were thinking is right. Obviously big decisions like what period you’re going to do or the nature of the production, those sorts of things come together first. Then you finalise the model, you do the costume drawings, you do the prop drawings. You submit the work to the company you’re working with, they say yea or nay. If it’s a big nationalised company like the National Theatre, you know the people who are running the building want to be sure that it’s appropriate and good and fabulous. If it’s a commercial company they want to see whether they believe it’s commercial or appropriate.
From page to stage
You start to work with the production managers and it’s budgeted and costed. If it’s too expensive you go back, you have to cut stuff, you re-present it. You have a very marvellous relationship with the production managers, trying to work out the best way to get it to happen; who is going to build things, who is going to paint things, who is going to make the clothes. You have very, very key people in each department. The production manager deals with all the set and oversees the general budget, then you work with the props supervisor who oversees all that and deals with that budget and the costume supervisor who oversees all that. So you work with these three colleagues who are a lifeline, and usually become your absolutely best soulmates because you spend your lives together, which is a nightmare in some ways but that’s what you have to do.
Then we start rehearsal; the actors, singers, performers get involved. You’re working with them with the costumes, with the designs, making sure that they feel part of it. You do fittings and you try and buy props, you supervise all the making of everything, you supervise the building of the set, the painting and gradually you are just trying to get a lot of decisions made and refine it and get it finished and get it on stage.
About two weeks before we open in an opera, maybe a bit less in theatre, you get all those ingredients together and put them on the stage and have a look at them. Sometimes it’s the first time the director has seen a lot of it, certainly it’s the first time the actors have seen the finished set, if it is finished. And you start another great big collaboration which is with the lighting designer, who actually has been involved at the beginning too. Obviously when you’ve designed the set you work with the lighting designer to see how would be a marvellous way to make the world look the best it can. If they turn the lights off there’s nothing. How they light it actually makes it good or bad. You can do the best work in the world and if you have a lighting designer who isn’t sympathetic, understanding, creative and a wonderful artist they can completely destroy the whole thing.
This is the best bit in some ways. All of you are together, all the ingredients are on stage, all the performers are there, and you have a fantastically intense time where you just look at everything and try and manipulate it and tweak it and turn it into the best it can possibly be. And then you open.
I couldn’t light my own show, I wouldn’t want to. I want the expertise and knowledge and experience of a really marvellous lighting designer. I love the input of a colleague who knows much more about it than I do. In every area the more experience you have the better you are as a person to work with other people. I have made many costumes in my life but I am not a costume maker and never will be. I have painted many sets in my life but I am not a great scene painter. There are many, many, many wonderful talented people who work in all these different areas who are fantastically skilled; I want to work with them.
I started in rep, in Stoke-on-Trent [at the Victoria theatre], with absolutely no money at all and no people and I did everything. I made shoes – we did them for King Lear, I’ll never forget that – out of old scraps of old leather. If you wanted that on stage there was no other way you were going to get it because we didn’t have any money.
It was a fantastic way to start. We didn’t have a dye bath so I bought a bath off the rag-and-bone people and I installed it in the workshops and put some gas rings underneath and we had a dye bath. We dyed all our fabric ourselves. If you learn about that, when you then work with a wonderful dyer, you know how hard it is. I think one of the most important things when you’re working with colleagues is to respect them and understand how difficult their jobs are.
You have to be a collaborator, and that is one of the most exciting things, one of the most difficult and in some ways one of the things I love the most. You work alongside a whole gang of people and when you start working on it you have to help them feel that it’s more important than any other show they happen to be working on or any other show they are going to work on in the future; this is the one, so let’s all work together to make this fantastic. You could say that’s manipulative, but you could also say how fantastic to excite people to think this is going to be something really special, and enthuse them to do their best work.
Realising the vision
Although we all have a certain amount of knowledge or experience, sometimes you don’t know how [your design] could happen. Some directors are very concerned about that. When you design something they say ‘yeah but how can we do that?’ Sometimes I have to say, ‘well I don’t really know; I think it is possible but let’s talk to someone.’ I am totally dependent on engineers, physically to make things dramatically happen on stage. What I particularly like is things that defy what you might think would be possible. I’m excited by things that cantilever over spaces or take great journeys over great widths of space, which means that it all has to be made to happen by an engineer.
There’s no point in doing something when I know that it is incredibly expensive, absolutely impossible to achieve. Part of the skill is going, well, in this theatre we’ve got £20,000 to do the whole opera, in this one we’ve got £400,000. There’s no point doing the £400,000 version for the £20,000 theatre. You are wasting your time. Sometimes it’s very, very stimulating to not have every single possibility, to not have masses of money. Actually, it puts you on your toes. Sometimes you work with a kind of freedom which a larger production can drown. That’s the fun thing with working with different scale spaces.
There are lots of practical things that control how you work. I’ve just done an opera in Cologne. We had no money and there were 400 people in contemporary clothes. It was the story of chic urban life in a European capital, so they needed to look stylish. And I practically did the entire thing out of Hennes and C&A because there was no money. We just devised outfits together like that. I find that sometimes as exciting and interesting as sitting down with a pencil and really working out how a frock might be.
Learning from the best
I’ve been to the theatre all my life because my parents were great theatregoers. But I didn’t understand that you could have a job in the theatre, I don’t know why. I went and did an art foundation course, had a brilliant tutor and he said to me, you seem to be very interested in the theatre. He sent me over to Central [School of Art and Design], where Ralph Koltai was running the theatre department. I went over and I saw this little exhibition that was on and there was work in there by John Napier, the great designer. He was an ex-student or was just about to graduate, and I thought my goodness I could do that, it looks great. I went back to my tutor and went, yeah ok I’ll apply to do that.
The first year was a bit complicated, I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to do. Then I started assisting people and then I was hooked. I assisted Ralph on things and I assisted another designer in the holidays. Once I could see how what you did became something, I was completely hooked. I had a great time there and then I won an Arts Council bursary to Stoke-On-Trent and then I went there for nine months. Peter Cheeseman was running that theatre and he offered me another job and in the end I stayed for eight years. I had an incredible time there.
A life in theatre
You have to have a sense of humour. You have to be passionate. You have to give up your life, mostly. You have to be prepared to work very, very hard, and you’ll have a ball. It’s about telling stories, and if you are interested in telling stories, working out how to tell a story in the best possible way, that’s not a bad thing to do in life.
What I’ve tried to do with the exhibition is show the process. I’ve started with the sketchbooks, there are storyboards, there are moment drawings, there are sketch models, there are photo storyboards of the sketch models and there are final models. So you can see what the journey is to making a play. And that’s what I’m really keen about. It’s not about the glorification of Alison Chitty and her glorious career, it’s about how we make plays. This is only the way I do it. Everybody does it differently and you always want to know what everybody else is doing. The other part of my passion is that we educate our audiences so that [they] understand the fine tuning and the journeys that we all make.
Alison Chitty: Design Process 1970-2010 runs at the National Theatre until 28 March.