Setting the stage: performance designer Abby Clarke

Hattie Fisk
Friday, March 1, 2024

Speaking to one up-and-coming designer, Hattie Fisk finds out what its like to enter the performance design industry, gathering the best advice for students who may wish to follow in their footsteps

Unfortunate, 2023, Southwark Playhouse
Unfortunate, 2023, Southwark Playhouse

Pamela Raith

When you walk into the theatre, one of the first things you are greeted with is the set. Long before the actors set foot in the space, or any string instruments open the show, the set design is often there to establish the scene and immerse you in the story. Design can affect both the audience's and actor's role in a production's narrative, with each design decision having the potential to transform the show's experience. For something so fundamental, it is frustrating that set, costume and even puppet design are often left as a secondary element to drama education, leaving students sometimes unaware that this is a career option.

Paving the way for future stage designers are people like Abby Clarke. Having initially studied English at the University of Oxford, Clarke went on to change tack and do a Masters in Design for Performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, before launching herself head first into the industry. Now, she has an impressive portfolio career of set, costume and puppet design, getting to the final of the Linbury Prize for Stage Design in 2017.

Breaking down the elements

Clarke tells me she always had a big fascination with design generally, being helped by the fact that both her parents are design technology teachers. When discussion shifts towards the elements of design, I am surprised to learn some of the intricacies that come with each production.

Puppets, she tells me, are the most intriguing as you are essentially designing a character.

‘It is a weird cross between costume and set design, as you have to curate an aesthetic and the whole world that they live in, while making it functional for the puppeteers,’ she tells me.

On Unfortunate, Clarke was lucky enough to work with a brilliant maker called Aled Williams who, by all accounts, translated Clarke's wacky and inventive designs into the puppets themselves. ‘He has a really great way of working that is extremely collaborative. For example, when I wanted the knee joints of the actors to correspond with the knee joints on the crab puppets, he'd come up with the mechanisms of how we could do that.’ Clarke is an Offie Award finalist for both her Set Design and Costume Design for Unfortunate.

What it takes

‘I love art, I love design and I love texts. I love analysing scripts and pulling ideas out, and I also love the pragmatic puzzle solving challenges and the technical challenges this job creates. I also love working with people. It feels like theatre design is at the centre of that Venn diagram,’ she says.

When asked if the temporal nature of theatre ever frustrates her, Clarke shrugs. ‘It is sad, but there are always things that remain from shows, like relationships and connections,’ she claims. After a bit more prodding however, she recalls a memory from her student days, back when we weren't all so environmentally conscious. ‘We would watch all the sets go into the skip at the end of the production, and that was really heartbreaking. It both felt really wrong and was also really sad knowing how much time had gone into it.’ She does caveat that the industry has moved a long way since then in the last 10 years. Indeed, she is right. The latest round of the Linbury Prize for Stage Design had an overriding theme of sustainability and the environment.

Industry tips

There are lots of different routes into the industry, and Clarke's is just one of them; she found professional training extremely useful. ‘It gave me the confidence I needed in knowing how theatre is made. I learnt how tech weeks are run, and the process of going from initial sketches to white card models, to scale models, and then processing that into working with workshops or building it yourself,’ she tells me. But of course, many prominent set designers didn't go through this system, preferring to gain experience and expertise through shadowing opportunities or trial and error in the fringe scene instead.

When asked about top tips for getting into set design, Clarke lights up. ‘Get involved in your local theatre scene and get to know what kinds of careers are out there. Volunteering and working alongside people in theatres local to you is really important,’ she advises. For when you start making work, she has some top tips:

  • Fight for your creative voice on stage: ‘Theres a reason why you've been employed, so don't be afraid to bring your aesthetic and ideas on board.’
  • Collaborate through local networks: ‘Don't be afraid to lean on other people's expertise. There are lots of great people in the industry who can help with engineering skills for example, so take a look at existing artist networks and get to know other people that are out there.’
  • Be persistent: ‘People may often not respond, but don't let that put you off. It can often be that they are busy at that time, but if you persist then you might find amazing opportunities. Just don't be afraid to ask!’