WHAT IT’S RE­ALLY LIKE…

To be a set and cos­tume de­signer

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

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.

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