Jess Curtis shares her exclusive insights into what we can expect to see in Grosvenor Park this summer. Curtis is a freelance theatre designer, who has designed the set and costumes for the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre every season since 2013, as well as working on shows such as A Little Night Music within the Storyhouse Theatre. She has also designed for ballet, film and opera.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you got to this point in your career?
I owe my love of theatre to my parents. When I was growing up, they were both passionately involved with various amateur dramatics groups, writing and directing their own work. Whilst they’ve been a great source of inspiration, I was still keen to find my own route into theatre.
I did my degree in illustration and worked as a freelance illustrator for a short time, before enrolling on an amazing course at Motley Theatre Design School. The great thing about the course was that they tended to take on people from different backgrounds and disciplines, all united by a love of theatre. Working with incredible designers and directors during that year, confirmed to me that I wanted to be a designer myself one day. Since then, I have been lucky to explore all that there is on offer in the world of design, including ballet, film, opera and theatre.
I first worked in Grosvenor Park in 2013. I stepped in at short notice on the recommendation of my friend Lucy, who was directing Cyrano de Bergerac – I have a lot to thank her for. That was the beginning of a gorgeous working relationship with Grosvenor Park and Storyhouse every year since.
What are the challenges of designing a set for an outdoor space, like Grosvenor Park?
One of the obvious challenges is that Grosvenor Park is a really busy environment to make theatre in. The theatre space encourages people to acknowledge each other, to chat – it’s a really festival atmosphere! My job and challenge is to draw focus to the story that we’re trying to tell. So the set needs to compete with, or at least be as good as, all of the other exciting stuff that is going on.
Another thing is that the park lends itself to very energetic performances, so I can’t ever let that energy drop. If the audience has to wait for something to happen with the set or costume changes, that doesn’t really work. I have to design everything with this quick and immediate style of storytelling in mind. I’m constantly innovating and learning.
This year, we are doing a version of Romeo and Juliet set in the 1950s and Little Women set in early twentieth century Chester. How do you go about designing costumes for these familiar characters in a different time setting to the original, where clothing styles are changed?
I think that the reason behind adapting a piece of work that everybody knows and loves, and placing it in a different context, is always about making the audience understand the piece better, to clarify it in some way, or to introduce a new point of view that releases or unlocks something original about that story. With well-known tales like Romeo and Juliet, it really shows what a wonderful story it is, that it has a strong enough core to withstand reinterpretation. This recreation for new generations and new audiences, ultimately becomes part of its survival. Reinventing it visually is part of that process of offering a new point of view that refreshes the story for an audience.
In terms of the design, I feel like my job is a bit like an interpreter. It’s about making things clearer or easier to connect with. If you understand the core of a character and you understand their nature and their function in the story, then it becomes a lovely game to think about how the Juliet in 16th century Verona would be portrayed in 1950s Italy, or indeed, a space camp on mars!
For most iconic characters, we have a collective sense of what they look like. I like to use that to create a thread that connects the original to my version, so there’s some points of familiarity for the audience.
Is there a particular period in history that you personally love the clothing of or that particularly inspires your designs?
One of the things I really love about my job is that whenever you get a new project, it often pulls you into a new world. So with Little Women, I enjoyed looking at the original early Victorian American world and then with Anne’s adaptation, looking at early twentieth century Chester. There’s always a journey of discovery.
I really like combining periods together to make something new and I also like using contemporary clothes that are inspired by a historical era to re-create historical clothing in an unexpected way. We did that a little bit with Pride and Prejudice last year.
There’s some periods that I haven’t been asked to design yet that would be really fascinating. I’ve never been asked to make an ancient Egyptian piece or anything about Vikings. Stig of the Dump is the first time that I’ve been asked to make cave men, and there’s some knowledge about what they might have worn, but not really. It’s unchartered territory, so there’s still so much to discover.
How important is collaboration, when coming up with a vision for a show? Could you tell me a bit about that process?
It’s a very collaborative art, but the dynamic can be slightly different depending on the project. My closest and earliest relationships are with the director, and also the writer through their words.
Storyhouse’s producer Helen Redcliffe is an incredible human being and a great theatre maker. She will have an overall vision for the season, which I need to understand and reflect. This year, for example, we were given the brief of revival, following the Covid seasons. She also has a very deep knowledge of the audience and who she wants to welcome into the theatre. We always want to welcome as diverse and inclusive a group as possible, so I need to keep that in mind.
What is your favourite piece that you have designed so far?
I really, really enjoy working with Therese and Loree, Storyhouse’s wardrobe team. They’re great artists and collaborators. We made costumes together last year for The Jungle Book; Loree made patterns, Therese dyed the fabric, volunteers embroidered them and Live! Cheshire community group made big pink pom poms for us. I found it such a privilege to work with all of those different people on these joyful costumes.