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Designer Andrew Riley: ‘The secret to success is to be persistent but not annoying’

Andrew Riley Andrew Riley. Photo: Chris Mann

Currently working on a new production of The Phantom of the Opera in Oslo. Andrew Riley tells Giverny Masso about his design process and how to get ahead in the industry…

How does your design process work?

When I’m offered anything, I read or listen to it first. I prefer listening, which is probably why I like doing musicals. Then I meet the director. It’s always a collaboration: you throw ideas up and see what sticks. Sometimes you lead a director, sometimes they lead you.

Is The Phantom of the Opera the biggest production you’ve done?

Absolutely. We did a version of it in Bucharest, Romania, in 2015. At that point, it was the biggest thing I’d done. There were lots of things we didn’t get quite right the first time around that we were able to revamp or spend a bit more money on. But no matter how much you get, you always want more. I’ve learned from other designers that our job is to push the budget as far as it can go and make the design as good as possible within that remit.

Is it difficult designing something that is already in the West End?

It’s not about bettering it – it’s about doing something different, because the West End version is iconic. A lot of my set is quite stark-looking, apart from the opera scenes, so I’m putting colour from the costumes against the starkness of the set.

What’s the secret of success as a theatre designer?

There’s a famous adage, ‘Work leads to more work’, which I don’t think is necessarily true. You really have to work very hard, because the job market is full of talented people and it’s so difficult to get noticed. I’m not well-established and haven’t yet done a West End show. It’s about contacts, getting in touch with people, staying on the radar and going to see stuff – being persistent but not annoying.

What do you think about the fees designers are paid?

Unless you are doing a West End show with big royalties, the fees are never that good. My two best-paid jobs have been Phantom and Flight for Scottish Opera. But I’m still waiting to be paid for one of my smaller jobs, something that’s sadly happening more and more. Those of us working on a production should not be gambling our money to do the show, so I get really cross when I hear that productions haven’t paid people. There’s not enough protection for creatives, crew and cast. Musicians have quite a tough union, but our unions need to toughen up.

Working group established to advocate for theatre design in wider industry

How did you get into theatre design?

I never dreamed of doing this as a job – I just fell into it. When I was doing my art foundation, the design course director from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts came to my college and did a presentation and I thought, ‘I so want to do that.’ What was great about LIPA was that we learned how to put a show on, as design is only a third of the process. The rest involves negotiating budgets, the realisation of the design, collaboration with other departments, sourcing props and fabrics, and so on. After leaving LIPA, I moved to London and started assisting designers.

CV: Andrew Riley

Training: Art foundation, Winstanley College, Wigan (2004); theatre and performance design, LIPA (2005-08)
First professional role: Dresser on Eric’s the Musical at the Liverpool Everyman (2008)
Agent: None

Further details: andrewriley.co.uk

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