Designer Joanna Scotcher tells Fergus Morgan about balancing simultaneous projects with the Royal Opera House and Lyric Hammersmith, and why more needs to be done to create a diverse workforce backstage
Joanna Scotcher is having a busy day. “Sorry I missed your call,” she says when she picks up the phone. “I was up a ladder. I’m also slightly ill, and I’m about to put a model box in a cab and take it to the Royal Opera House. Can I call you back in a bit?”
It is, she continues half an hour later and model box safely delivered, all part and parcel of being a freelance theatre designer. “You have to straddle a lot of different and very contrasting events every day,” she says. “It never really falls into a routine. I haven’t had a routine for about 10 years.”
Scotcher’s career is more varied than most. In the past 12 years, she has worked across Europe, designing for unconventional shows in unconventional situations: an interactive adventure in Kensington Palace, an immersive pantomime in Covent Garden, a community musical in the Old Vic Tunnels. She specialises in site-specific work – the result, she says, of her background as an art student at the University of Brighton.
“I was a sculptor,” she says. “And the artwork I was creating was becoming larger and starting to frame the scale of a human figure. I started to build doorways and passages between spaces. That took me into the world of human interaction and relationships and character. Then a tutor took my hand and said: ‘Have you thought about theatre design?’”
That was “one of those revelation moments”, Scotcher says. She graduated from Brighton and enrolled on Nottingham Trent University’s degree in theatre design. An apprenticeship at the Royal Shakespeare Company followed, and soon after she landed her first professional design job – building the world of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children for York Theatre Royal.
That production, which premiered at York’s National Railway Museum in 2008 and subsequently toured to Waterloo and King’s Cross, famously featured a moving steam train, and its success was the springboard Scotcher built her career on.
“I came from an artistic background, but not a theatrical one,” she says. “I wasn’t particularly well-versed in the world of theatre, and I felt like the doors weren’t really open in the buildings I wanted to work in. So I took it upon myself to make my own work, and to pursue companies that were interested in similar things.”
Scotcher counts herself fortunate she could do so. She recognises a career in design “isn’t financially viable” for most people, and the opportunities on offer – unpaid work, training schemes, assistant designing – “remain the preserve of the privileged few”. It’s something she is passionate about changing.
“A lot of people who go to art school and then into designing come from a background that supports going into a career that isn’t particularly lucrative at first,” she continues. “And that limits the diversity of output we get on the stage.”
“There’s a whole world of people creating the show underneath directors and actors,” she continues. “There are technical departments and stage managers and costume makers, and I feel like we are not really engaging with encouraging access and diversity in those roles. And I don’t think that’s going to change unless the people at the top of the industry make seismic changes about how they support their creative teams.”
Early in her career, Scotcher barely set foot inside actual theatres, working instead with immersive and interactive companies such as Look Left Look Right and Coney. In 2015, she worked on the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, designing a ceremony at the Ateshgah Temple that featured a 300-strong ensemble on a 100-metre-wide stage.
“It was an incredible experience,” she says. “I got to flex a design muscle I had always wanted to because I’m obsessed with figures in space. It really fulfilled a long-seated desire to work on that scale. It was hugely enjoyable but such hard work. There was a section that had 172 pieces of scenery and I have never been so overwhelmed and elated. I look back and can’t believe I did it.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a punt chauffeur on the Cam in Cambridge.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Railway Children in York.
What’s your next job?
I’m doing two projects with the Royal Opera House – She Described It to Death in the Linbury Theatre, and a virtual-reality opera that’s in development.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
There is no right answer. Be creative and don’t question yourself.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Antony Gormley. His focus on the human scale has hugely influenced my development as an artist.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
I’d have liked to be a surgeon. I was very good at science at school and I can stitch.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
My work is so diverse, I don’t think I’ve ever managed to develop a ritual. Don’t forget the scale ruler, maybe.
Gradually, Scotcher’s career started to incorporate more traditional theatre, with jobs at the Bush Theatre, the Young Vic and London’s Royal Court. In the summer of 2018, she was asked to design the set and costume for Emilia, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play about the early-modern proto-feminist poet Emilia Bassano that transferred from Shakespeare’s Globe to the West End.
She puts the show’s success down to its all-female creative team – Scotcher, writer Lloyd Malcolm, director Nicole Charles and choreographer Anna Morrissey – and to their shared values.
“The power of the piece was extremely genuine because it reflected how all of us – the writer, director, designer and choreographer – felt about the world right now, and how little has changed since Shakespearean times for women”, says Scotcher. “The best productions have that special something. I call it alchemy – the right people in the right space at the right time.”
She continues: “It was one of those rare shows that relights that passion to make a difference with your work. The reason I just spoke to you the way I did about access and diversity is because of Emilia. It was an incredible show to be a part of.”
Now living and working in London, Scotcher has just finished the design for Rachel O’Riordan’s revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love at the Lyric Hammersmith. First staged in 2012, it is a state-of-the-nation play turned family drama, set in the increasingly grand homes of a baby-boomer couple over three separate years – 1967, 1990 and 2011.
“Mike just peels the lid off each scene, and you’re plunged into a new era,” Scotcher says. “For me as a designer, it’s a gift because I get to delve into the world at these different times.”
She goes on: “I laugh because I love the set we’ve made for the 1990s, but it’s hideous. It needs to be ripped out of their home. It’s very much the time of matching florals and pastels. There’s a lot of pleated fabric, which is not my usual material. A designer friend of mine actually came into the studio while I was working and said: ‘Have you been watching [1990s sitcom] 2point4 Children?’ And I had.”
Designing something so realistic made a welcome change for Scotcher. She is used to creating “emotional” stagings that “reflect the tone and atmosphere of a play”. For Love, Love, Love, though, she realised all she needed to do was provide “a canvas [that] allowed the conversations and events in the play to unfurl”.
That ability to recognise how set and costume can best serve a production, that capacity to respond appropriately to hugely different briefs, is essential to being a freelance designer juggling several projects at once, Scotcher says. It’s also one of the hardest lessons to learn.
“All artists can fall into tropes and develop house styles,” she adds. “We all do it because we have our own personal interests and creative takes on the world. But being able to check that, being able to stand back and reflect, and being able to be challenged by a director is a healthy way to develop.”
Training: BA (hons) Theatre Design, Nottingham Trent University; Royal Shakespeare Company apprenticeship
• The Railway Children, National Railway Museum, King’s Cross Theatre (2008)
• Pests, Royal Court, London (2014)
• Cuttin’ It, Young Vic, London (2016)
• Emilia, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2018), Vaudeville Theatre, London (2019)
• WhatsOnStage award for best set designer (2011)
• Dora award nominations (Canada) for outstanding costume design and set design (2011)
Agent: AHA Talent
Love, Love, Love is at Lyric Hammersmith from March 5 until April 4. For more information go to: lyric.co.uk/shows/love-love-love