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Inteview with Rachael Ryan, designer

How did you first get into production design?
I was always interested in watching musicals on TV, film and occasionally at the theatre from a young age, the big costumes, sets and dance sequences! At school I was drawn to Art and Design, and Drama as subjects at GCSE and BTEC levels, and went on to work with my local amateur dramatics society. Then I went on to attend an art college to do a foundation course in Art & Design, where you could try out all sorts from textiles, to scale model making to more classic art styles like painting and illustration. Then, realising that I liked having a design brief to work to and I missed the storytelling aspect of theatre, I found a way into theatre design, which I trained in for 3 years at degree level. Since graduating in 2013 I have gone on to work across multiple job roles in the industry, from assisting other designers, helping out at scenic workshops paint calls, making costumes in my early career, and designing my own work at various levels from fringe and small scale productions and drama schools to larger spaces like Storyhouse.

With set design, are the challenges (and opportunities) different for revivals compared with new work?
As a designer your starting point is always the space you’re designing for and the script (and the music if designing for a musical). You tend to ignore what others have done in the past, as designing for different spaces will naturally guide what you can and can’t achieve. You have to work within the parameters of the size of your stage, what configuration the audience is in, what technology the theatre has to offer to add scene changes and how big your cast size is, and of course, designing within the budget allocated. So regardless of how many times a show has been done before, you start with a blank slate for the new production and work with the producer, director and choreographer to start to build what this new version looks like.

What were your primary sources of inspiration when designing the sets and costumes?
Each production has different requirements for what it needs from the design, but I always start with visual research of key locations mentioned in the script.
Using Kinky Boots as an example, I looked at industrial factories, brick colours and textures, and Drag/LGBTQ+ performance spaces, and found the crossovers between the two.

I also make sketches of snapshot moments I can see, and then build out from there. Again using Kinky Boots as an example, having a reveal of a drag queen through the double doors of the factory was a snapshot, which myself and the director built out from.

Scale model making is how most theatre designers work, either in physical or digital form, I use a mix of both mediums. Starting to play around with rough shapes in the 1:25 scale model of the theatre is a great way to get a sense of audience sight lines, and best the use of space really early on.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the visual experience of the musical?
As a designer, my aim is to support the storytelling, and help audiences suspend disbelief to get lost and immersed in these worlds. I feel set and costume design should add layers of backstory we don’t get from the script, to give depth and authenticity to these spaces and characters, and let audiences be able to feel like they know who these types of people are just from looking at them.

With a brief like Kinky Boots, the art of drag illusion is at the forefront of the costume design, and we’ve had so much fun putting together these looks. We hope the audience enjoy the playfulness and layers of craft from heels to eyelashes, that the drag art form brings to the show. If you’re a drag fan, see how many famous Drag Queen references you can spot that we took inspiration from!

How did you approach balancing the demands of the storyline with the need for visually engaging sets and costumes?
This is designing in a nutshell, the fine balance of practicality versus aesthetics. There isn’t a right way round to do this, it’s a constant juggling act, that carries on from initial design concepts, all the way Interview with Designer, through to rehearsals, and even into previews once we get the show in front of an audience and under stage lighting! I like to figure out the foundations, logistics and the rules of the world first, make a timeline of the show and what locations we need to visit, and what would these characters wear to different locations and how much time has passed between these locations. What practical elements have to happen, (e.g. the making of shoes), then start adding rules.

For Kinky Boots at Storyhouse it’s an actor-musician lead show and it’s played on three sides, so figuring out what benefits and restrictions those elements brings to this production. Then it’s onto adding the richness of the world, through colours, texture and set dressing. All the while constantly communicating with the rest of your creative and production teams’ needs and ideas, it is always a collaborative process.

Did you draw from any specific historical or cultural references when designing the sets or costumes?
As a designer, historical and cultural research is so important. Thorough research is crucial to do early on so you can make informed decisions, which adds levels of believability and authenticity to the production. It helps you build rich tapestries of reasoning behind each decision you have to make, from brick colour, to what a shoe says about a person, to keep it on the topic of Kinky Boots.

What role did colour play in your design process, and how did you use it to convey mood or character?
Colour is an extremely important tool for a designer and lighting designer. Colour and intensity of light on the colours in the set and costumes evoke so much mood and atmosphere. It can help bring to mind certain eras of time, or invoke an instant opinion on a person. It can help group characters together or create a divide. It can help heighten a world or mute it depending what the feel of the show is, and in this case we want to have an over-arching feeling of joy, so the colour palette is a little over saturated to what it might be in real life to help give this vibrancy to the production. Shades and tones of the same colour are also so significant as Lola puts it, it’s red NOT burgundy!