With an impressive CV of acclaimed work, the Linbury prize-winning designer has carved a reputation as a rising talent. She tells Fergus Morgan about what has inspired her and how learning to trust your instincts is key
Camilla Clarke’s work on stages at London’s Royal Court, the Gate and the Orange Tree among others has earned her a reputation as a bright, bold creative on the rise. But this daring designer was originally inspired by the most traditional set design of all.
“My granny took me to the theatre when I was eight or nine, to pantomimes and stuff where the set is painted castles and beanstalks,” she says. “I remember seeing this piece of scenic art that was very traditional. It was a door that had been painted as if it led to another place. And I remember my brain kind of exploding. I thought: ‘My God, there’s a corridor through there to where all the princesses, kings, queens and dragons live.’ ”
She found it totally mesmerising “that you could see something painted on stage and imagine a whole new world. And I have quite a vivid imagination, so I found the idea that I could be invited into that world really, really amazing. I guess that’s where my curiosity comes from.”
Born in Swindon in 1992, Clarke studied a foundation diploma in art and design at Cardiff Metropolitan University in 2011, before completing a degree in theatre design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. By the time she graduated in 2014, she’d been showered with scholarships and awards – the Prince Of Wales Scholarship, the Paul Kimpton Prize for Innovation, the Lord Williams Memorial Prize for Design.
It wasn’t long after leaving that she received further recognition. In 2015, she was one of four winners of the prestigious Linbury Prize, a biennial competition that offers successful entrants the opportunity to design for a professional production at a major theatre. Clarke, thrillingly, was commissioned to design Stef Smith’s Human Animals at the Royal Court.
It was, says Clarke, “a huge surprise”, but it was the process – 12 finalists prepare work for an exhibition, before the final four are selected – rather than the prize itself that she found most helpful.
“It was a massive forensic look at how you work as a designer, and what your processes are, and figuring all that out,” she says. “At that age you don’t really question how you work, you just do it instinctively, and the Linbury was a really important exercise in how you work with directors and how you think and how you visualise things.”
She continues: “I understand my process more now, but I still rely a lot on instinct. That hasn’t really changed. I just trust my instincts more now. It’s one thing to have an instinct, but it’s another thing entirely to trust that instinct.”
Clarke predominantly works as both a set and costume designer – the two roles often “weave in and out of each other”, she says – but whatever role she is undertaking, she always strives to work collaboratively. Her instinctive tendencies are always rooted in the conversations she has with fellow creatives.
“What’s happening now is that you have initial design meetings with more than just the director,” she says. “You might bring the movement director in from the beginning, or the lighting designer or the sound designer or even performers. Those meetings, those conversations, are something I really enjoy. To see the building blocks of an idea becoming something is just amazing. It’s creating worlds, really.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
In a chocolate factory in Pembrokeshire, pouring chocolate into plastic animal moulds while wearing a Victorian hat and apron.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Work experience scenic painting at Cardiff Theatrical Services before I went to art school in Cardiff. I lived in the block opposite and turned up with some drawings and asked if I could have a go.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
People have different tastes. Be yourself. The value of preparation and communication.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I love Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s work, my collaborators, my mother.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have done?
Found another vocation where I could make and build things – or train guide dogs.
Every project is different – of course it is – but shows designed by Clarke often share similar features. She likes “bold colour”. She likes “objects that talk to each other in interesting ways”. She likes being “untidy” and having “stuff everywhere”. Above all that, though, she’s concerned with evoking mood, with creating atmosphere, and if that means taking a backseat in creative conversations, then so be it.
“If everyone feels that the visuals are what is needed to create atmosphere, then fine, but I don’t necessarily think that design should take precedence at all,” she says. “I don’t think that means you have to think selflessly as a designer, though. It just means you have to learn to listen to other voices in the room. It just means doing the best thing for the production in that particular moment.”
For her latest project, There Are No Beginnings at the Leeds Playhouse, that meant letting the performance space itself do the talking. Written by Charley Miles, directed by Amy Leach and starring Julie Hesmondhalgh, it’s a drama about the birth of the Reclaim the Night movement in Leeds in 1977, and it’s running in the Playhouse’s new studio space, Brammall Rock Void.
“It’s built in a vacuum underneath the theatre, so it’s already got a lot of character,” Clarke says. “It looks like it’s been hewn out of rock, and it’s got the red-brick walls that are so prevalent in Leeds’ architecture. There’s a big pile of old rock left in the corner of the space. It’s very atmospheric, it’s very intimate, and we were really keen to show it off. We’re using the red brick that’s currently there to evoke the feeling of the city in the 1970s.”
Clarke’s influences vary from project to project – artists, writers and friends all enthuse her – but in the world of theatre, she’s particularly inspired by the designer Chloe Lamford. Their paths crossed while Clarke worked on Human Animals, and Clarke worked as associate designer to Lamford on several shows, including Victory Condition at the Royal Court and Amadeus at the National Theatre.
“Our interests in performance married quite well, so she invited me to work with her,” Clarke explains. “It was one of the most incredible learning experiences I’ve had. She would engage me in creative conversations and ask for my opinions. She always asked me how I felt about something, or what I thought about it, which really helps you understand your process.”
Since working with Lamford, Clarke has rarely been short of work. She designed Trial by Jury for the English National Opera. She designed virtual reality show Frogman for science-focused company Curious Directive. She designed Bad Roads at the Royal Court, Beginners at the Unicorn, A Small Place at the Gate and Out of Water at the Orange Tree. She’s now at a point in her career where she feels comfortable turning work down if it doesn’t suit her.
“It’s quite weird, because when you start out, you have that sense of wanting to do everything,” she says. “You want to learn as much as you can and take every opportunity. But it comes to a point where you can’t fit everything in and you have to choose. And it doesn’t mean those opportunities won’t come up again, it just means that you’re taking care of your head, and taking care of your capabilities.”
At the moment, she’s enjoying the variety of her work. “I love the mix of it all,” she says. “It means your brain is exercising in different ways. I love working in theatre. I love working in opera. And I think it would be really fun to do a pantomime one day. That would be awesome, actually.”
Born: 1992, Swindon
Training: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
• Human Animals, Royal Court Theatre, London (2016)
• Bad Roads, Royal Court Theatre (2016)
• Wind Resistance, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (2017)
• Seagulls, Volcano Theatre, Swansea (2017)
• A Small Place, Gate Theatre, London (2018)
• Beginners, Unicorn Theatre, London (2018)
• Inside Bitch, Royal Court Theatre (2019)
• Linbury Prize for Theatre Design, 2015
There Are No Beginnings runs at Leeds Playhouse until November 2