WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE…
To be a set and costume designer
My career took off because of a failure. When I was a teenager, I was very much interested in projections and film. I studied animation and design, and found myself drawn towards the cinematography aspects of the course. I tried as hard as I could to pursue cinematography, but I couldn’t pass the exam. I fell back into what I thought I knew better, which was set and costume design. Moving to Australia was the turning point in my career. I grew up in Romania, but for some reason I always wanted to be in Australia. I decided to trust in fate and, in the mid-’80s, I transported myself to where I really wanted to be. I went through NIDA and it rejuvenated me. The European system is very conservative and very sturdy. You learn how to paint, how to sculpt, how to do everything. The Australian system is much freer and you’re encouraged to work with your instincts. It was heaven to be able to work this way. I really felt emboldened and new ideas kept coming. I was offered a job working on the West Australian Opera’s production of Carmen while I was still at NIDA. And, just a few years later, was part of the team working on the Sydney Olympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies. It remains a career highlight. For me as a new Australian, the experience made me feel cemented here even more strongly in my mind. It helped shape my identity. I always say that as a designer, you’re doing three jobs a day: the job at hand, the job coming up, and the job of
hunting for the next job. I’m based in Sydney, but many of my projects aren’t, so I am back and forth all the time and spend a lot of time in the air. The first and most important thing I do when I start a new project is to try to extract the feel for it. When you’re in the audience and the curtains open, you get that feeling in your belly. I want to identify that very feeling well ahead of time. As designers, we have to imagine and create a world the audience can inhabit for a few hours. It’s a pretty lonely job – an ivory-tower situation – but there is also a lot of work with the director and the choreographer. I like to work very closely with people and it’s amazing the amount of sparks that fly when you get the right heads together. You need a lot of buckets to catch all the ideas falling out of the sky. Sometimes you do have a false dawn; you think you’ve got the solution, but at the end of the day you realise it’s not working. Yet that will lead you to the right place eventually. I’m very hands-on. I like to slog it out by myself because that’s the only way I can discover it. I always sketch my costumes by hand, but with the set I will often jump straight to creating a 3D model. They can be made from a variety of materials – paper, cardboard, timber, balsa wood – whatever will best help me achieve the final look. My models are atrocious. They’re probably the
worst thing you’ll ever see simply because I use them as a tool to find ideas rather than worrying about a perfect finished product. I love transplanting my ideas into the cold world of computers. I’m a huge fan of the digital world, although I was reluctant at first. I thought ‘how can it capture the madness?’ With a pen and paper, ideas flow quickly and freely. I got my first computer almost 20 years ago, when I could afford it and when it was only just starting to play a role in the industry. Now my iPad never leaves my side. Presenting is the part of the job I find most
stressful. We present our final ideas to the company to make sure they’re totally behind the project and its direction. It’s nerve-racking making sure you’re presenting your ideas in the best light and that you’re not being ambiguous. Then there’s the long wait as costs are assessed and delivery timelines are established. The technical director does that, but I like to keep close. How long does it take to build a set? How long is a piece of string? Last year I was involved with the Royal Swedish Opera’s production of Dracula and it took six months just to complete the engineering of the rotating bed. It had to lift and spin and do all kinds of things with people inside it. For less intricate designs, it could take as little as a month. Originally, I hated costumes. I enjoyed designing them, but when it came to working with the characters, I just couldn’t crack it. I was shying away from it until I realised you just have to communicate with the performers and make sure they trust what you’re doing. Once I figured that out, I never looked back. I love the way certain costumes expand as if tendrils connect one to another. They really grow together. For inspiration, I go analogue. We are held to ransom
by search engines. The internet is fast, and it might be satisfying, but you get exactly the same kind of results as everyone else. What’s wrong with the old-fashioned way of opening up a book? I study a lot, read a lot, go to galleries. Of course, the other thing is your own experience; things you’ve grown up with or things you’ve been dreaming about. To me, it has to be personal. If it’s not personal, it’s not talking to anybody. Competing with Sydney Harbour is a battle you can’t win. I have worked on two Sydney Harbour operas and it’s one of the best backgrounds in the world. Instead of competing with it, we acknowledge where we are and celebrate it by incorporating the landscape. It’s a glorious challenge. I particularly enjoy unique challenges: working with new mediums, on obscure operas or in a location that seems completely impossible. I find it extremely satisfying because it’s a journey that will invariably take you to places you weren’t aware of. I also like to integrate the latest technologies, but I don’t usually use them in traditional ways. I can see the technicians scratching their heads and saying ‘well, it’s not in the book’, but I want to push the envelope. I am currently working on a new musical and am looking at hiding the orchestra in the set. So, you’ll discover musicians in various cupboards and so on. Of course, the conductor’s not very happy about that. Opening night marks the end of a project for me.
It is in my contract to take a curtain call and then I will celebrate with a glass of Champagne – well, probably more than one – and I am usually on a plane to the next job the following day. I’m a bit of a hoarder. I find it hard to chuck things away, especially knowing how many hours have gone into sketches or models. My attic is full of stuff, gathering cobwebs. I was actually quite surprised recently to spot my original models of Carmen. It was quite wonderful to be thrown back to that time. And it will be interesting to compare notes since I am working on the production again this year, this time with Leipzig Opera in Germany. I wonder if I’ve learnt anything in the past 25 years.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Costumes for Turandot on Sydney Harbour; Dan Potra’s work is very hands-on; For inspiration, the set designer gets offline. OPPOSITE (clockwise from top left): Potra spends a lot of time working solo, but also collaborates with directors and choreographers; He sketches his costume designs by hand but jumps straight to 3D models when designing sets.