By Samuel J. Cox
The work of Fiona Nortier is a brilliant testament to Walt Disney’s belief that ‘if you can dream it, you can do it.’ Having collaborated with a variety of theatre ensembles during her young career, including Deckchair Theatre, The Blue Room, and Little y Theatre, among many others, the talented freelance set and costume designer has been involved with Black Swan State Theatre Company (which contracts designers on a show-by-show basis) since 2009, including a stint as a resident artist in 2013.
Consistently the standout dimension of Black Swan productions, her work this year has included designing their main stage performances of Anton Chehkov’s famous play ‘The Seagull’, and the world premiere of award winning Australian playwright Suzie Miller’s piece ‘Dust’ (see our reviews here and here).
‘Dust’ for BSSTC. Image: Gary Marsh
Set and costume design is the transportation of the audience and actors from the theatre to a completely different place or time, and Nortier is a specialist at building worlds (Inception-style). ‘Dust’ was an overwhelming sensory experience, drawing the audience into the heart of a dust storm with complete disregard for notions about the limitations of the medium. From sketching and making models, to technical drawings, samples and fittings, her job is to oversee all elements of the creation’s physical embodiment.
What led you into the theatre, instead of, for example, becoming a fashion designer? Theatre design requires such a broad range of skills surely you’d have the ability for a variety of jobs. When I was 12, I was convinced that I wanted to be an actor; but I also really enjoyed being creative in other ways, such as through drawing, writing and music. This ended up being more than ‘just a phase’ and when I went to Curtin University I enrolled in ‘Communication and Cultural Studies (Performance Studies)’. I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of theatre and the thrill of live performance, but as my training progressed I drew less satisfaction out of acting. Luckily, one of our compulsory units was in ‘Technical Theatre’ and I discovered how exciting, varied and rewarding working behind the scenes could be. After graduating in 2006, I then completed a two-year ‘Production and Design (Design)’ degree at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts to formalise my training [receiving the 2009 Design Award]. So I guess choosing a career in theatre was always on the cards, but what attracted me to design was the variety of skills that are used on a daily basis. The work is occasionally stressful, but it certainly is never boring!
After reading the script, how much time do you typically have before the design must be completed? Ideally, I have about six months notice from signing a contract to opening night, and work on a sporadic, part time basis around other projects and the other artists’ commitments. Some projects however, have a very short lead time, and may need to come together in just a couple of months. At the end of the day, it’s about being flexible and doing whatever you need to do to make deadlines.
Do you prefer collaborating closely with the writer, or working independently? For most projects I’ve worked on, the writer’s involvement is over before I begin, so it was a real luxury having access to the writers on the Black Swan commissions ‘Shrine’ by Tim Winton and ‘Dust’ by Suzie Miller. In both cases, the writers gave the creative team the freedom to discover the visual world of the play for ourselves, but they were excellent resources for research, discussing mood or atmosphere, character psychology and generally pointing us in the right direction. Although occasionally working independently is required, I much prefer to collaborate with directors, lighting designers and writers as much as possible.
‘Dust’ for BSSTC. Image: Gary Marsh.
What is the size of the budget you typically get per production? The theatre landscape is so diverse that I don’t think there is such a thing as a typical production budget. I’ve worked on shows where the design budget is less than a thousand dollars, and shows with more than a hundred times that to play with. Larger budgets can be deceptive as they are often attached to larger scale shows that bring hidden logistical expenses, whereas smaller shows tend to attract more in-kind support, so it’s possible to achieve a great deal with very little money. No matter what the size of the show is, the budget always seems to be about half of what I need it to be when I get my first set of quotes back on the draft design! I guess I’m an optimist in that regard.
How often do you make costumes by hand? And do you prefer period or contemporary costumes? Costume construction is an art form in itself, with specific skills in cutting, tailoring, art finishing, millinery, sewing and dress making. On occasion I will still make costume pieces by hand for independent projects, but I will employ a skilled craftsperson whenever possible. Black Swan has a wardrobe department that takes care of all costume builds and they are always a pleasure to work with. While designing 19th century costumes for ‘The Seagull’ earlier this year was a wonderful experience, I think I prefer contemporary costumes as I can take a more organic, playful approach to finalising a look.
‘The Seagull’ for BSSTC.
What is the size of the design team you typically have working with/for you? Another tricky question! Sometimes I feel like the loneliest person in the world working from my home studio, while other days I’m surrounded by directors, lighting, audiovisual and sound designers, production, technical and stage managers, wardrobe and scenic builders, prop makers, assistant designers and secondment students all working hard to make my designs a reality on stage.
Where do you find inspiration? Do you ever take notice of the previous designs used for the same production, or do you prefer to disregard earlier attempts? I love buying books on art and photography for inspiration because of the way they present and organise information, but they are usually expensive. I regularly use ‘Pinterest’, and visit ‘Trendland’ and ‘The Design Files’ on the Web. ‘Wikipedia’ has an artwork encyclopaedia called WikiArt.org which is fantastic too. I also find inspiration in movies and going for walks, and some of my most productive brainstorming happens when I’m driving or taking a shower. I do look at past productions as part of my research, but usually I do this after I’ve come up with a few concepts of my own first so they don’t pigeonhole my thinking.
Do you prefer designing for new productions, or those that have stood the test of time? Mostly I just like the variety, and I have to engage with the script on a personal level otherwise I start to get frustrated and look for quick solutions, rather than the best solutions. This year I was lucky to work on a contemporary, world premiere piece followed by a theatre classic in period and the variety in the design styles and creative process fuelled my energy.
Is there a particular writer whose pieces you most enjoy designing? I love the work of my writer, performer, director and musician mate Mark Storen who created the fantastic one-man show ‘The Polite Gentleman’. If your reading this Mark, hurry up and write another one, and then hire me! His writing is surreal, poetic, honest and surprising. The set for his show was very simple, but I was very happy with the result.
Is there a particular play, or playwright whose work, you would like to design in the future? The National Theatre of Scotland seems to have their finger on the pulse; I’d love to design a newly commissioned play with that company. Then it would be awesome to design something extravagant for a huge opera in some avant guard/pseudo period style, followed by a Shakespeare with heaps of blood, like ‘Titus Andronicus’, and then maybe a tiny Fringe show set in a weird location like a laundromat for an audience of five. Like I said before, I’m attracted to variety.
Is there one project that you are most proud of? I’m proud of how ‘Boy Gets Girl’ turned out for Black Swan. The director Adam Mitchell empowered me to run with some risky ideas and we had a great production team who were able to execute them. I was terrified the whole time, as it was my first main stage show, and it was a huge learning curve, but the design was very well received and ended up winning an Equity Guild Award for Best Design.
‘Boy Gets Girl’ for BSSTC. Image: Gary Marsh
Can you tell me something exciting about your future? I’ve moved to Darwin! This is exciting because I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO MAKE A LIVING HERE. That which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.
For more of Nortier’s work, check her website here.
This interview is an extended edit of that published in Colosoul’s latest e-zine.
Banner image by Jessica Tran.