This is the first in a series of interviews celebrating the female designer – specifically female set designers.
Why only female?
It concerns me that Sydney theatre appears to be content with all-male or male-dominated creative teams, or with the archaic model of male set designer and female costume designer.
Women shouldn’t be at 50/50 parity in set design in Sydney. In fact, women should be in the majority. After all, the graduate rate from last five years at NIDA is 75 per cent female. At NIDA right now, the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Design for Performance) degree’s first and third-year intake is all-female.
There are, of course, designers who do not come through that establishment, but either way, a headcount of trained female designers compared to a list of women in regular set design work reveals systemic imbalance.
So let me take this opportunity to introduce audiences to our leading female designers and their work, beginning with set and costume designer Anna Cordingley.
Anna is an alumnus of the Victorian College of the Arts, Drama School (Bachelor of Dramatic Art: Production Design) and the University of Melbourne (Master of Curatorship) and is an active Set, Costume & Exhibition Designer. She is a Lecturer of Design at the University of Melbourne.
Anna and I have built a close friendship over the years, one that started in Berlin, at the Komische Oper and Barrie Kosky’s production of West Side Story.
Anna lives in country Victoria but during her trips to Sydney for work we’ve spent much time together, along with her family – partner Rob and son Louie.
Anna’s earnest and zealous approach to the industry and her effortless design skills make her a role model for emerging designers. She is the designer of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Antony and Cleopatra, currently playing at the Sydney Opera House.
AB: Have you formed a particular relationship with Shakespeare’s plays?
AC: I’ve come to love the liberation that is designing a Shakespeare. The visual language of Elizabethan theatre was extremely minimal by our standards, and so the storytelling – the expositions, the plot developments, the pragmatic location or date or time details – are, for the most part, articulated elements.
Most scenes launch with practical information being delivered from character to character, liberating the designer of the need to visually describe information. This is one reason as to why the scenographic worlds you find yourself in when you sit down to watch a Shakespeare are so vast and varied.
AB: Do you champion the female through your design choices, even if the text can conflict with the present day?
AC: I bloody hope I champion my female characters! Shakespeare’s women are resilient, wild, formidable creatures and my job designing around them and for them must be to enable that. I also hope I champion my male characters, and my clowns and my fools and my in-betweens. I believe design or direction must never judge or condemn its characters. That’s the audience’s job, not ours.
As for the text conflicting with the present day, amazingly this happens less often than you might think. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus delivers some hideous misogyny, and yet his character is so complex and nuanced, his intentions leave us pondering.
To erase the misogyny would also mean misrepresenting Cleopatra and context for the strength of all the women in our work. Cleopatra’s triumphs are all the more striking because of the world in which she lived and loved and ruled.
In order to create a picture of power more congruous with the present day, however, Peter Evans has cast the sparkling Lucy Goleby as Pompey, for example, and she sits naturally as a world-leader amid the triumvirate of Roman men.
AB: What excites you about the future of design and young designers?
AC: I’m excited by the exchange between gaming design and live performance, meaning actual immersive theatre in its truest form. The Artaudian, misplace-your-reality-in-another approach to work is gaining momentum and design prowess as it goes.
And I’m always excited by the infiltration of theatre and performance art into the rather more precious fine-art space, and this seems to be enjoying a resurgence right now.
AB: You’re not city-based. Does that make your career more difficult?
My home is in country Victoria, where I develop my designs, draw up my CADs and build my models, but I must always travel for collaboration. And once you’re travelling, it makes no difference if you’re travelling to Melbourne or Sydney or Berlin or Edinburgh. The trick is to have a three-year-old son entirely content to live in myriad different spaces. I’m super fortunate on that front.
Living regionally is a challenge. Being 300km from a capital city means that I miss most opening nights, most industry events; I have never been able to buzz around making foyer talk or networking.
But thank god, really. It’s not my forte. Instead, I hope that my work has spoken for me, and each job has sprung from the last.
AB: It seems to me that good design arises organically and honestly from collaborative discussions with the creative team. A design will always sit awkwardly when an idea has been planted onto a text. Your thoughts?
AC: Good design doesn’t happen in a vacuum; designers should be seeing art, referencing history, society, the world. Designers should travel. Good design is informed by many things, and designers must be aware of their references and quotations.
AB: Women often get costume design gigs but not set design as well. Does that bother you?
I imagine it is – in part – a hangover from the antiquated belief that women are better with costumes than the built environment.
When the Bauhaus opened its doors in 1919, more women applied to study than men and women were broadly celebrated within the school, however they were limited to the ‘gentler’ arts of weaving, print making and so on.
Architecture was reserved for the men, the ‘stronger sex’ as [Walter] Gropius called them. When I am invited to partake in costumes alone for a project and not set, a tiny part of me wonders whether there is an echo of Gropius in that decision. And then I knuckle down and enjoy the brief I’ve been given regardless.
The costume department is still very occasionally seen (thankfully only occasionally) as subordinate, which is ludicrous. For me, costumes are so much more demanding than environments. Outfits are in constant evolution, in constant discussion, and call upon collaboration in so many directions with the actor, the maker, the art finisher, the director, the lighting designer and the production manager. The same goes for stages, too, but the complexity and nuance of collaborating on a stage design is somehow less intense.
Antony and Cleopatra plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 7