We were very lucky to pin down the extraordinary Eleanor Field, a very talented set and costume designer who has been passing on her experience and wisdom to the Backstage students. Read on to find out more about her industry, career and tips for stepping into it yourself!
Thank you very much for taking the time to chat to us Eleanor, we really appreciate it! Let’s start at the beginning shall we? You decided to head to the Winchester School of Art for your BA and studied Fine Art – Painting, have you always known you wanted to take a creative route with your career?
Yes, it was either that or become a Volcanologist, (I’d always enjoyed Geography and liked the idea of the silver suits) for about five minutes I considered applying for geography courses but ultimately I knew I’d be happier studying art. I’d always loved visiting galleries and I’d always, from a very young age, enjoyed art projects; my parent’s loft is full of cards, paintings, slightly wonky pots from pottery classes and various other creative offerings.
You went on to study at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for a Post Grad in Set and Costume Design, quite a side step from Fine Art Painting, what made you take that route?
Basically I was one of the few students on my painting degree that had no intention of becoming an actual practicing artist, I’d always known that I’d wanted to work in theatre and at school I had painted scenery for school shows, but the careers advice hadn’t been amazing, I didn’t even know theatre design courses existed when I was applying for university.
I am grateful for my fine art training, I loved every minute and the conceptual thinking that I learnt on my art degree has become such an important part of my design process and I still use art history and galleries as my primary source of inspiration.
When I was at Winchester I painted scenery for local amateur theatre companies and was even allowed to design a show! I knew Theatre Design was where I wanted to be and that there was a huge amount of technical skills to learn to be a Theatre Designer, so I started to read up on Post Graduate Theatre Design courses, there aren’t that many! RADA was an easy choice; its two year design course covered all the skills and gave most opportunities to actually put a design onto stage.
You were originally an installation artist before turning your hand to design, can you explain a little of what that entailed and what experience you gained from it?
Installation art became my focus at Winchester School of Art as it allowed me to work themes of performance and theatre into my art work, it taught me to understand composition of a space and the importance of a person within a space; how a person alters the space they are in just by being in it and having a visual relationship with their surroundings, almost like an unscientific visual kind of ergonomics! It was a very useful thing to learn and is so important in theatre design where you aren’t just designing the stage but also the actors costumes on the stage and, to a degree, how they can exist within the stage.
For the year between my BA degree and Post Graduate course I worked creating installations for a company that run corporate events and parties. The work was far more prescribed but I learnt how to work and paint to a large scale and basic building skills.
What goes into the process of designing a set for a theatre production for example?
Quite a bit! The process can vary from project to project, depending on all sorts of things like timescale, the actual physical scale, budget and the processes of the people you are working with.
Theatre is so collaborative; you have to allow other people to impact on your work so much.
Usually it starts with just the Director and Designer, you read the script (if it already exists, devised theatre is a whole different game!) and meet up to discuss initial ideas and the themes that you both find most important and also what it is the Director wants to put across through the piece (they may already have very strong ideas about setting or concept).
Then I will spend a fair bit of time on my own, working in my sketchbooks and then modeling up ideas for set and costume, often running big ideas by the Director as I go, always ‘checking in’ and making sure we are still on the same page. After many discussions and countless pots of tea the Director and I will have come up with a design for the piece. It is at this point that everyone else gets involved! The design is presented to the production manager, the build team, the props team, the wardrobe team and the scenic art team and then my days are spent having meetings with everyone to make sure it all comes together and that everyone understands what is going on. This is one of my favourite bits of my job; when I see other people get really excited about the design and take it and use their amazing skills to make it happen.
When it comes to costumes, do you source and make these yourself or work closely with other professionals?
I have made costumes for smaller productions but I much prefer working with other professionals, and on larger scale projects it would often just be impossible for me to do it all myself! I love working with a wardrobe supervisor, talking through the costume designs on paper and then hunting through a costume store or markets to find pieces that can be adapted.
I love costume fittings and am very playful, trying different things on the actors and discussing with the Wardrobe Supervisor the different ways we can add things or pull things to pieces!
With any creative role there must be times when the dreaded block descends, have you ever had any difficulties coming up with innovative concepts your role must demand?
There are always days when a design can feel really tough, like it just isn’t coming together, and it often just needs one idea or one image to make it all ‘click’. It is on these days when I call the Director or see if they are free to meet for tea and I am very honest and I say: ‘I am stuck, I love this bit of the design but that bit isn’t working and I feel like I’m missing something’. My advice to all Designers starting out is to be honest when you’re struggling and never hide from the Director because you feel you haven’t got any good ideas, being honest with them means that they will actually trust you more and you’re opening up the chance for useful collaborative discussion that may solve all your problems! It can often simply be that you have been looking at your own design for too long and you just need a fresh set of eyes to point out the obvious!
What was your first role in set design and how did it come about?
The first show I designed was a production of the opera Don Pasquale at a Chateau in France. It was an amazing first job and it was thanks to the wonderful Westminster Opera Company! They have a brilliant emerging artist scheme which allows recent graduates in design, stage management, music and opera singing to put on a full production and take it over to France. We spent a week in London pulling it together and then a week at this beautiful chateau, painting scenery in the sunshine whilst the orchestra rehearsed, it is still one of my favourite ever jobs!
Do most set designers freelance?
Yes they do, most theatres just don’t have the funding to afford ‘in house’ designers anymore and the way the role of designer works means that you will often juggle 3 or 4 jobs at a time. There are ‘associate’ roles out there but you will still work freelance alongside that.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement to date?
There are a few projects that I am particularly proud of so it is tricky to pick, so I’ve picked three:
My final projects at RADA felt like a real achievement, the course had been so wonderful but such hard work and I was so aware of how lucky I was to be there.
The show ‘Man To Man’ which opened at The Mercury in Colchester was a real joy. The Director Tilly Branson and I worked so well together and it remains one of my favourite pieces in my portfolio.
In May last year I had the opportunity to work with Stephen Unwin and that felt like an incredible achievement as I have admired his work for so long; it was vaguely terrifying but wonderful and I learnt a great deal from him.
I often count my achievements by how much I learnt from a project and that is one of the joys of working in theatre; each job is so different from the last, you are always learning something.
For students considering enrolling with Backstage, what will you be tutoring them on?
At Backstage I teach the basics of model making, which I am incredibly nerdy about, and how to conduct and present visual research, which I am also incredibly nerdy about.
Model making is an integral part of my working process and I teach both sketch-modeling, which is a playful way to figure out basic design ideas, and more technical model making, which is all about looking at the details and getting the measurements right. I start right from scratch for students who have never done any model making before, the basics of how to cut with a scalpel and not injure yourself and how to start piecing together elements of furniture and staging for a design.
In the visual research module I teach how to pull together images to successfully translate design ideas. We explore different ways of manipulating an existing image, both digitally and with good old fashioned glue and sissors, and discuss all the benefits of creating a mood-board and how to make it a useful part of the design process. It is quite a messy workshop.
To the students at Backstage considering a career in set and costume design, what would be your advice on getting a foot in the door?
See as much stuff as you can. See theatre, art exhibitions, corporate shows, outdoor events, festivals, gigs and really look at it, look at it and log details so as that you always have plenty of things to talk about. You will always be asked ‘what did you last see?’ and if your answer is ‘well I went to this show a couple of years ago’ you just sound dull and disinterested.
Also look out for graduate and emerging artist schemes, there are some fantastic ones about, check local theatres to see if they run an artist community and join an online creative network such as Hiive.
And finally, what would be your dream project to work on?
‘Dream’ projects for me are based more on the people than the title of the piece or the location of opening night, any project that has inspiring collaboration and talented new people to invest and share with is a dream project to me!
Thank you very much Eleanor!
Thank you! It has been a pleasure!
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