In 2019, Told by an Idiot launched the Naomi Wilkinson Award for female stage designers. Winner Ioana Curelea tells Kate Wyver about leaving Romania to study and work in the UK and how Wilkinson inspires her designs
Naomi Wilkinson was one of British theatre’s most recognised designers. For a decade, she worked intensely with touring theatre company Told by an Idiot. Wanting to honour Wilkinson’s life after her death in 2013, the company created the Naomi Wilkinson Award, a prize designed to recognise one female stage designer in memory of another.
The inaugural 2019 award was given to Ioana Curelea, a 26-year-old Romanian designer who, as part of the award, has created the set for Told by an Idiot’s new show, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
“Naomi was utterly unique, consistently surprising, challenging and provocative,” says Paul Hunter, artistic director of Told by an Idiot. “Across 10 years she shaped our company’s visual aesthetic.”
Known for her epic structures in intimate spaces, Wilkinson’s early designs for Battersea Arts Centre and London’s Gate Theatre then led to her set for Peer Gynt at Dundee Rep in 2009 and later at London’s Barbican, a behemoth stripped-back set of stairs.
Larger work followed at Lyric Hammersmith, Sheffield Crucible and for the English National Opera. She embedded a sense of fun in her high-concept work, with riotous, colourful designs sweeping across stages. Her first show for Told by an Idiot was 1998’s dreamlike I Weep at My Piano. “When she tragically took her life we were lost in a big way,” Hunter says, “in terms of losing a friend and a long-term collaborator.”
After Wilkinson’s death, conversations with her brothers Patrick and Anthony led to the formation of an award to recognise a unique female visual imagination. “We were very keen right from the beginning that the prize was an actual job to design a show for us,” Hunter says. “It had to be a very practical, real thing and give someone the opportunity to go up a level and work with bigger teams, greater resources and bigger budgets.”
Told by an Idiot contacted top design schools around the country for submissions. Curelea was put forward by Michael Vale, a set designer and course leader at Wimbledon College of Arts. “Having worked, myself, as a set and costume designer with Paul Hunter and Told by an Idiot before,” Vale says, “and having seen Naomi’s work with them, Ioana was, in my opinion, a natural candidate for this award and someone worthy of nurturing Naomi’s legacy.”
Curelea grew up in Romania and moved to England six years ago to study for a degree in visual arts at the University of the Arts London. “I always had an interest in theatre because of my parents,” she says. “They’re doctors, but growing up and living under communism, they didn’t have the same opportunities, the same opening to cultures. So they made it a point that their children would.” A tutor at UAL suggested she had a mind for stage design. “With fine art you have a sculpture or a painting, and it’s just you and the item,” Curelea says, “whereas I was missing something of the immediacy that theatre can offer. I was building little dioramas, and it kind of felt like creating little universes.” She applied for the theatre design course at Wimbledon, and continued on for a masters, on which Vale was course leader.
“I recognised not only her talent as a formal designer, but an attitude towards performers, live performance and design that had many similarities with Told by an Idiot’s own rehearsal process and Naomi’s aesthetics,” Vales says. “I really felt she would ‘fit in’ with the company and Paul Hunter as a director.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked as a sous chef at a very fancy fusion restaurant in Romania. One of my friends in high school worked there with her mum, and I used to work night shifts.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I designed a play called Clowns With Extraordinary Skills in my second year of university at Leicester Square Theatre with a group of Romanian actors and directors.
What’s your next job?
Ms Julie, a dance theatre piece at the Place on February 18. Then, Ryan Lane Will Be There Now in a Minute directed by Georgia Murphy at London’s Vault Festival.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Italian director and designer Romeo Castellucci.
What’s your best advice?
Fake it ’til you make it: own the room and panic about it later.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
Probably a doctor.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Nah, I’m all for science.
Hunter also sees a similarity in the way Curelea and Wilkinson create. “Naomi was not interested in naturalism or psychological realism – and neither are we,” he says. “She had an ability to create something very simple that would then reveal itself to have many possibilities. There was a kind of poetic simplicity to her work that I have always remained in awe of. And that’s what’s wonderful about Ioana too. In her own distinctive way she’s created something that has a real poetry about it. Right from the beginning I liked the spirit she threw herself into [the process] with. Her ideas were surprising, unpredictable and non-literal.”
Curelea says her dislike for naturalism stems from a suffocating over-saturation of the style in Romania. “It’s not as experimental as here. It’s very much naturalistic Chekhov.” She says there are fewer opportunities for young designers too. “It’s really tragic. I blame it on [the fact that] the country’s still recovering from communism. It’s been so long and it still cripples the country.” Does it stifle creativity? “Absolutely. There’s this culture that the titans of theatre are still there. You don’t give young people opportunities, so most of us go abroad.” She felt there were more exciting possibilities of work for her in the UK. “Young people are trying, but you can’t do it by yourselves. So you do what is best for you, and you leave.”
Performed in the style of a silent comedy, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel dives into the brief period of little-known history when the two comedy stars collided. In 1910, they shared a cabin to New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe and toured together for two years. The core of the set was always going to be a boat, but Curelea’s design needed to accommodate the way the show merges time, place, truth and lies. With various levels of wooden planks running up and down like a muted Escher design, it looks like it’s been repeatedly unpacked and slotted back together.
“Paul kept saying we just need to have options, we need to make something we can play with. So in my head it was like: it has to be a playground. It has to offer so many possibilities. Anything can become anything.” The set is rusty (“I wanted it to look like it was pulled from the depths of the ocean”), is built with possibilities (“the red curtain can turn it into a music hall”) and deliberate restrictions (“the wobbly stairs force them to slow down”).
The ensemble has had Curelea’s stylishly skew-whiff set in the room from the start of rehearsals. While Curelea admits designing for a play that doesn’t yet exist has been intimidating, the rehearsal room has been “a lovely mix of new ideas, excitement and panic”. While she had seen images of Wilkinson’s work on her design course, she decided not to revisit them for this project. “There’s a tendency when you admire someone’s work to borrow a bit more than you should.”
However, she identifies with, and is inspired by, Wilkinson’s style of deconstruction. “You can have an item on stage, or you can take away from that item and reduce it to the point where it’s something that’s not the item, but is used in a way that suggests what it is.” This is what Hunter calls “essentialising the production”. Curelea continues: “It’s in that simplicity, I think, that she got it right.”
Born: Bucharest, 1993
Training: Foundation in Art and Design, University of the Arts London; BA (hons) in Theatre Design, Wimbledon College of Arts; Masters in Theatre Design, Wimbledon College of Arts
The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel tours from January 9 to March 28. Find out more at toldbyanidiot.org