Picking a theatre design specialism

Set and costumes 

Vicki Mortimer, whose work you can soon see at the National Theatre in The Silver Tassie, experimented with different design disciplines in her days doing student drama at Oxford University. But it was set and costume design she ultimately settled upon, she says, because it allows her “to really participate in the making of a world for a piece of theatre from the very conceptual start of it”. While lighting and sound designers (see below) come on board later in the journey of a production, the set and costume designer must be present from the start, and Vicki relishes the creative conversations her role entails.

As well as the obvious – “an interest in what three-dimensional design can contribute to storytelling” – anyone hoping to pursue in set and costume design needs to be a “really attentive, active listener, because a lot of what people are trying to say is indirect and intuited,” says Vicki. Communication skills are key for all theatre design specialisms, in fact. Theatre is a collaborative medium: it’s no use coming up with brilliant ideas if you can’t get them across to the other people in the team, from the director to the people building the set, making the costumes and lighting the show. 

One of the key tools that set and costume designers use to communicate their ideas are models and drawings. “In my experience,” says Vicki, “the better the model, the better the end result in terms of what people are building for you. Plus, models are really delightful objects for other people. There’s a doll’s house fascination with model-making which draws people into a project.”



As immersive theatre experiences become an ever larger part of the performance mainstream, there’s more and more work available for designers able to respond to non-traditional theatre environments. Joanna Scotcher’s work can be found in theatre buildings – in Pestsat the Royal Court, for example– but she calls herself a “live art designer” too, creating the physical contexts for shows such as The Railway Children, the set of which was built around an actual railway track. 

For site-specific work, she says, “instead of being focused in one direction, on one sightline, your senses have to be 360 degrees and you have to pan your design around you rather than focusing it on the stage”. A designer specialising in site-specific theatre also needs take into account external factors that don’t come into play in an auditorium such as noise and performers’ access to the playing space. Flexibility and pragmatism are prerequisites for any sort of theatre design role, but the lack of infrastructure in site-specific work ups the ante considerably. 

It’s not just about problem solving. Joanna finds this type of practice allows her to play a more active role in the creation of the work itself: she’ll often walk through a space with a director and a writer and make suggestions that “help craft the journey of it.”



Puppetry is another theatre design discipline that often calls for increased involvement in the making process. “It’s quite hard to explain sometimes without getting up and doing it yourself,” says Rachael Canning, who designed the puppets incurrent Sheffield CrucibleshowKes. “I do a lot of that.”All designers need to be able to communicate their ideas confidently in the rehearsal room of course, but in a lot of cases a puppetry designer will also play some role in directing the puppeteers. There’s a performance element too, says Rachael, with the designer needing to be comfortable experimenting with their puppets in front of the cast and creative team. 

It was when Rachael was studying theatre design at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama that she found herself becoming increasingly interested in elements of “character and form and movement” within the costumes she was designing. “I suppose I felt a need to create characters,” she says.



As arguably the most technical of the visual theatre design specialisms, lighting design requires a good working knowledge of the huge range of different lights on the market. It can be hard to keep up with technological advances, says Tim Mitchell, lighting designer of the current productions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the RSC, especially as a freelancer. You need to do your homework – Tim reads industry publications and chats to colleagues about the new technologies they’re using.

A business brain is a boon in all theatre designer disciplines – the best designers are not just those with the best ideas, but those with the ability to come up with clever solutions on a tight budget – and lighting is a case in point. “Lighting design is also lighting management: you manage a budget, you manage staff,” says Tim. “Say you’re doing a commercial musical, it’ll come down to what the lighting rental company have on their shelves because if they have to go out and buy a new light, your weekly rental price goes through the roof.” 

There’s plenty of creativity to the discipline too, but in a different way to sets or costumes. “Lighting is reactive not proactive: a designer tends to come up with a concept for the show and we help to enhance that concept,” says Tim.



Sound is another highly technical design specialism. As well as “knowing about speakers, knowing about mixers, all that kind of stuff,” says George Dennis, sound designer on Peddling at this year’s Hightide Festival, you need to be proficient in a cue-based programme like QLab and sound montaging software such as Logic, Pro Tools or Adobe Audition. QLab is easy to pick up, says George, while sound montaging is more complicated. “But if someone’s interested in [sound design] but doesn’t necessarily want to spend a lot of money, then Garageband’s a really good place to start”. 

Having studied music at degree and postgraduate level, George fell into sound design by chance after a friend asked for his help on a theatre show. You can do a degree in sound design for theatre at drama schools including RADA, but for those coming at this world from other courses of study, the designer recommends job shadowing to get a sense of what the role entails. 

The chief requirement for anyone considering the discipline, George says, is “a natural inclination towards listening to sound”. If you’re someone who “thinks more in terms of sound than visuals”, it could be the path for you.



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