Designer Grace Smart: ‘I once broke into a theatre at 7am to repaint the stage’

Designer Grace Smart. Photo: Tom Webber Grace Smart. Photo: Tom Webber

It is only 18 months since she won the prestigious Linbury Prize, but Grace Smart is already showing signs of becoming one of our most exciting young stage and costume designers. So far this year she has worked on half a dozen productions, including Northern Stage’s tour of East Is East and a new play, Mighty Atoms, for Hull Truck Theatre.

It is in the nature of theatre design, especially for those starting out, that you must work on more than one show at a time.

“It’s like plate spinning,” says the likeable 24-year-old Londoner. “As soon as one show gets into a rhythm, the other plates start to wobble. It’s hard not to feel as if they’re all about to drop off the stick.”

Sabrina Sandhu, Omar Malik, Raj Bajaj, Deven Modha and Viraj Juneja in East Is East, designed by Smart, at Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in 2017. Photo: Pamela Raith

Her most recent project, Amanda Whittington’s Mighty Atoms, for director Mark Babych at Hull Truck, is set in a function room in a Hull pub where an ex-professional boxer is conducting a ‘boxercise’ class for local women.

“The bar is really scuzzy and the women mostly downtrodden, but the challenge for me was to find the beauty and other-worldliness within the mundane,” explains Smart. “It is a single set, so it has been a question of finessing the details – the stain on the carpet, how the light is reflected in the optics, the bra strap marks on the shoulder, that sort of thing. There have been lots of small and delicate challenges, which I love.”

Of course it is attention to detail that can make the difference between a good design and an outstanding one.

The Times’ review for East Is East talked about her “lovingly detailed set design whose period flavour offers a witty counterpoint to the pertinence of Ayub Khan-Din’s themes”.

Given that she was born in 1993, how difficult was it for Smart to time warp her imagination back to the 1970s, when the play is set?

“Hours and hours of research,” she replies. “Anything pre-trainers is tough for me, but the 1970s are especially beautiful. I’m a sucker for polyester suits, knitwear, tea cosies, net curtains and a thousand shades of brown. I also became obsessed with the concept of the 12-year-old Sajit’s hood – the idea that everything he sees is blinkered by the fur-trimmed, orange-lined hood.”

In the pre-production stage, Smart says there were times when it was “quite uncomfortable” being the youngest person in the room telling everyone else what the 1970s looked like. “You can guarantee that the collective knowledge in the room is more valuable than your singular, but in a way that spurs you on to do even more extensive research and to make sure you’ve got it right. If there is an actor in the room who actually lived through the 1970s and wore those clothes, that’s enormously helpful to me.

“Obviously if I get to do a show set in a 2007 school disco, I won’t be taking any advice from anyone.”

Smart’s ability to find the humour in seemingly serious situations may come from her dad, the stand-up comedian Andy Smart, who is a regular at the Comedy Store in London. Her mother is the actor Victoria Willing, who appeared in The Inbetweeners. An only child, Grace says she spent a lot of time left to her own devices with a pencil and a sketchbook.

The cast of Mighty Atoms at Hull Truck Theatre. Photo: Karl Andre
The cast of Mighty Atoms at Hull Truck Theatre. Photo: Karl Andre

“I never wanted to perform,” she says. “When I was at school I was cast as Miranda in The Tempest. I threw up in the wings three times I was so nervous. It wasn’t meant to be. But the theatre was part of my growing up. I remember being taken backstage at the Lyric Hammersmith when I was quite little. My dad was playing one of the Ugly Sisters in pantomime and I saw all the scenery and props from the back. It probably didn’t occur to me at the time, but it was an early insight into the magic of backstage, how all this stuff has to be designed and made.”

She studied at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, graduating in 2014. “It’s basically a drama school and it does 12 productions a year in a 350-seat theatre, so you got to work with a lot of actors and directors.”

In her first year, she worked on lighting, set building and assorted other backstage skills. In her second year, she was mostly assisting third-year students on their assignments and in her final year she emerged as a lead designer on three major productions. “By the time I left, I felt I’d had a grounding in every backstage discipline,” she says.

Prior to entering the Linbury Prize, Smart assisted top designer Peter McKintosh on four productions, including Our Country’s Good at the National Theatre, Guys and Dolls at the Savoy Theatre in London and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

“Peter took me on as a model maker after I left LIPA,” Smart recalls. “He was tough, but fair, and taught me pretty much everything I know about making a model box. He would drop little nuggets of wisdom without even realising he was doing it, like: ‘Always pay attention to door frames and skirting boards, they can make or break the realism of a room.’ I came away a much better designer for having been there.”

Did she expect to emerge triumphant from the Linbury?

“I genuinely thought they were taking the piss when my name was announced as the winner. It never occurred to me that I would win. It was probably the most stressed I’ve ever been, especially the design commission at the Lyric Belfast. When I knew it was happening, I spent a whole week curled up in a ball of anxiety. Apart from anything else, I hadn’t developed the language of how to speak to the crew or the other creatives.”

The set of St Joan. Photo: Steffan Hill

Smart’s radical design for George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan, conceived in concert with director Jimmy Fay, placed the 15th-century French martyr in a contemporary office, complete with fire extinguishers and wilting pot plants. Their Joan was inspired by a press photograph Smart unearthed of an angry Sinead O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope.

“The office setting was quite bleak, but I felt we could transform it quite easily by kicking some papers in the air and overturning a desk, as if Joan was overthrowing an empire. It gave us licence to do crazy, operatic things and use the space like a playground. The Lyric is a big, beautiful theatre and it felt like you could do anything there.”

That artistic liberation did not prevent the process from being stressful and nerve-racking, Smart recalls. “Joan claimed my social life, my sanity and my sleep. There was one day after the get-in when I got up at seven o’clock one morning and broke into the theatre in order to repaint sections of the stage before anyone else got in. Later I pretended to arrive with everyone else. You get obsessed by details nobody else will even notice. After that experience everything else seemed manageable.”

Despite an already impressive track record and a user-friendly website, Smart says she is not good at touting for work, though she says she is getting better at talking to fellow creatives and hanging out with the crew.

How does she cope with the increasingly competitive nature of the business?

“You can’t let the competition worry you,” she says. “You’ve just got to keep your head down and make sure your work is as good as it possibly can be. As long as I can make enough money to live, I’ll be happy.”

CV: Grace Smart

Born: 1993, Harlesden
Training: Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts
Landmark productions: As set and costume designer: St Joan, Lyric Belfast (2016), East Is East, Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (2017), Blasted, Styx, London (2017), Mighty Atoms, Hull Truck Theatre (2017)
As costume designer: Wonderland, UK tour (2017)
Awards: Linbury Prize, 2015
Agent: Mark Price at Amanda Howard Associates