Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in theatre design Bunny Christie has created sets for establishments such as the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Court and the National Theatre, with which she has collaborated extensively.
In 2013 Christie’s simplistic reimagining of the world that Mark Haddon painted in his best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time earned her the latest of her three Olivier Awards for Best Set Design.
We spoke to the UK’s queen of production design ahead of our competition to win tickets to the National Theatre’s hit production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at London’s Guilgud Theatre.
How did you become interested in set design?
At Central Saint Martins, there was a very lively and vibrant theatre design course so I decided that working in the theatre department looked much more fun than the rather solitary life in the fine art department. I was right!
What was your big breakthrough?
In terms of scale it was designing Baby Doll at Birmingham Rep, which transferred to the National Theatre and then went onto the West End. It was great to get to work on really big stage and design, a panoramic picture with massive pieces of set flying and trucking, and very exciting to have the chance to really stretch my design muscles and imagination.
Describe the process from initial design ideas to turning them into a stage reality?
It’s very important to let your imagination fly and not worry too much about all the practical restraints – of which there are many – too early. It’s about finding a visual world for the piece, trying to convey an atmosphere. It’s about very sensory things – smell, memory, light, heat, texture and sound. It’s a dreamscape for the story to live in and be told.
Those ideas have to work within the restraints of the particular theatre. We have to work within a budget and technical restrictions and scale. It’s always a compromise between imagination and reality but of course great ideas can come from working within restrictions.
How important is lighting in bringing your creative vision to life?
It’s vital. I imagine my designs lit as I am designing. I worked at The Globe where there is no lighting as it is outdoors and I found it incredibly difficult. It constantly felt as though something was missing to make the scene work visually.
What advice would you give a young set designer?
It’s important to be able to enjoy, not only the solitary work when you are actually designing and creating a world and working for very long hours inside your imagination in a very concentrated way, but also working in a team. A large part of the job is collaborating with other people and being able to convey what you want and being sensitive to the actors and director and the rest of the creative team but being able to keep the integrity of your design intact.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been very special but I think that managing to have a family and home life and keep working creatively is a pretty big achievement.