Interviewer: My guests today are Neil Strellson and Vivienne Barnes, who work as set designers in the theatre. Neil, you’ve worked on a number of well-known plays, especially comedies and musicals. Was it always your ambition to be a set designer?
Neil: I don’t know about always! Unlike actors, who often become smitten with the idea of going on stage as children after being taken to their first show, I really stumbled into designing quite late on. Although my parents did take me to see some shows, theatre wasn’t a career on the horizon. I mean, I always liked to build things but my creative efforts were directed towards stuff like treehouses. I did English at university, so did get to read and understand quite a few plays, but it was pure chance that a friend asked me to design a set for a student musical he was directing. It was a thrilling experience, and was what led me to enter drama school on the postgraduate programme, honing my artistic skills and learning the ropes. 
Interviewer: And after that, you came to London. How did you get started working in the field?
Neil: I knew some names of designers to call up to get some work as an assistant. You can actually make a better living as an assistant set designer than as a designer because it’s a salaried position. But more significantly, I needed a hefty apprenticeship period because I’d sort of lost my way a bit as a designer. On the post-grad course, I got wrapped up trying to assimilate all the various skills. I was young and very impressionable. This happens to actors too. They come out of drama school terribly academic, worrying about their voice lessons and movements. What you need to do is to put all the training in the background and get some hands-on experience – an apprenticeship’s great for doing that, and I spent three years doing one. 
Interviewer: Now Vivienne, you’ve designed a lot of successful shows, tell us a bit about how you work on a production. How does the process begin?
Vivienne: Well, what happens is, the director calls to ask if you’re interested and you read the play to decide whether to take it on. Having an affinity with a play is pretty vital. If you don’t care about it, there’s no point in doing it because you’ll never come up with good ideas.  After that, you and the director start to have conversations about things like how to make the scenes flow into one another or how to make the transition from one visual environment to another effortlessly. I also do a lot of sketches to try out various schemes until something starts to make sense. These also show the director where I’m heading. The script generally gives you the lead – whether you need, say, moving scenery, or whether how the stage is lit is enough to establish a different sense of place.
Interviewer: Now, you often work on several projects at once. How does that work?
Vivienne: I do about ten plays a year, and used to do more when money was an issue for me at the start. I don’t find it that hard. It’s distracting only if one production’s having serious problems. Otherwise, I’m totally committed to each one. Actually, it helps me to keep coming up with new ideas if I’m constantly changing my focus from one show to another – there’s a kind of cross-fertilisation goes on – I wouldn’t want to lose that.  And you can also be just a little less nervous on the opening night than the actors and director, because you do have other irons in the fire.
Interviewer: Now, you’ve both worked on sets that get mentioned in reviews, sometimes getting a better review than the show.
Neil: Sometimes, yeah. A good set’s not easy to design, but it’s not nearly as tricky as writing a new play. Unlike a lot of actors who claim not to pay attention to reviews, I keep up with what critics say about all productions, not just my own. That helps you keep any criticisms in perspective. Maybe a critic’s been harsh on other productions or has fixed views about set design. 
Vivienne: Well, I’ve never actually come across that.  But, in any case, there’s no glory in hearing it was a great set for a dud play, and if there’s a negative review of the whole production, then the set’s still part of that whole – so you can’t dodge it.
Interviewer: Is movie work something that interests either of you? Neil?
Neil: I’ve done a bit of film work, but I’ve never worked on a really good movie. I guess it employs the same basic set of skills but there are differences. For the set designer, any production’s a set of unique problems to solve and that’s the most exciting part, figuring out what’ll make this particular production work. Mostly, that problem solving’s not as interesting on a film set. In a movie, you design everything as it ought to be. On stage, you have a limited amount of space and time and making it fit in those parameters requires the type of thinking I love best, the kind of puzzles I like to solve. I don’t get that buzz working on a movie, I’m afraid. 
Vivienne: Well I don’t know that I’d go along with that entirely because …
There’s a group of fifteen of you, plus the guide, and it’s a four-day hike to the site. The route’s lovely, if a bit steep in places. For some people it was like a childhood dream come true, especially arriving at the site and taking in the views and the architecture. But some found the hike much more challenging than others, especially the rather basic hostels where you stay the night. When I’d first suggested going, my wife said I’d never make it, which only made me more determined actually.  For me, the highpoint was how friendly the others were because I hadn’t expected that; nobody seemed to mind waiting for me to catch up. 
I was surprised you have to go in a group, and worried I’d be with the sort of people who just tick these sites off a list of tourist attractions. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They’d all read up their history and the guide was there to fill in any gaps. I mean, the view from the top’s out of this world, but that wasn’t what made it for me. It was the actual design of the place. However did they build it right up there?  As a graduation gift, it was a lovely way of marking the achievement.  I just wish my grandfather could’ve come too because he’s always dreamt of going.
I knew it was a wonderful site and quite understood why my girlfriend wanted to go, and though it wouldn’t have been my first choice – too touristy – I went along with the idea for her sake.  But I was wrong. The route’s actually quite challenging at that altitude, and we made some great friends in the group, even quite enjoyed the camp-fire style meals. The guide was very knowledgeable, and people had loads of questions, perhaps because the historical notes we were given left quite a lot to be desired. What blew me away, though, was looking out from the low walls of the site over the mountains.  It was an awesome experience.
I don’t know why, but I hadn’t expected the actual walk up to the site to be so impressive.  I mean, it’s all there in the notes, but I never read stuff beforehand. Anyway, it was an unforgettable experience. Our guide was a real character, but you could see he was fed up with some of the group. Like me, they’d mostly seen that chap on TV at the site and decided to go too . They’ll probably go to all the places he went to – just to say they’ve done it. I won’t be joining them! Although the site is impressive, I’d seen that on the programme so it made less of an impression on me somehow.
I’d been out of action for a while with a knee injury, so I was looking to do a bit of serious walking to see what I was capable of . I’d heard that it’s quite a stiff climb, but that the guide’s there to lend a hand if you get into difficulties. My girlfriend came along to keep me company and, though no great walker herself, had a great time. I’ll never forget the meal the night before the final ascent . As usual, the guide made a brilliant job of that. My girlfriend found the view from the site wonderful, the architecture stunning but I never saw it because my knee finally gave out that last morning. Shame really.
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