BRB’s The Tempest: an interview with Rae Smith

Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Tempest

It was tutu love at first sight. From the moment we discovered Rae Smith’s designs for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Prince of the Pagodas - remember those foamy tutus? – we were captivated by her talent in costuming and sets. Having won an Olivier award for her work in the mega successful play, War Horse, plus many other accolades, Rae is teaming up again with David Bintley to bring to life her enchanting designs in The Tempest, which is just about to premiere at BRB:

TBB: You are one of Britain’s foremost theatre designers, with an illustrious career and many prestigious awards. How did it all begin?

Rae Smith: When I was five or six, my mum, who was training as a teacher at the time, was very interested in illustration and the unusual creatures of Edward Lear. I had a head filled with imagination, with monsters and unusual circumstances in stories, so from a young age I was interested in the idea of a visual story and also how theatrical that could be. I think theatre design is an art where you have this sense of expressing yourself, but within a group of people. You are working for all the people around you, as well as for yourself.

I also spend time on fine arts, so I know the difference and it is pretty lonely on your own, in your studio, doing things which you then need to write about, promote and then sell. But you never feel that loneliness as a theatre designer. You are always working in collaboration with someone: cutters, builders, architects, sound people, lighting, not to mention the director, the dramaturg or the choreographer and other artists who are, in fact, provoking you to work. It is a great excitement to work with other people, you learn so much. You learn about Shakespeare, you learn about the modern context of storytelling, you learn about imagination, the technical aspects contributing to a story, and then you accidentally become an artist again.


Costume designs for The Sirens in The Tempest. © Rae Smith

TBB: And how about designing for ballet specifically?

RS: The great thing about ballet is that it is so aesthetic and visual, it’s about ‘what you are looking at’, about the dancers and how they move, especially classical ballet. I am new on the block when it comes to this art form, I have only worked in one classical ballet before, Prince of the Pagodas, and I am very privileged and excited. I am also very grateful and happy to do that, because of David Bintley, a great artist himself. David is particularly good at seeing something inside his collaborators and getting the best out of them, so I feel he is getting the best out of me, and I am happy to be challenged.

As a designer, I am trying to do my best: to challenge myself to tell a story in the most beautiful way possible, and I think one can do that for ballet. The idea of beauty here is different than in opera, and in theatre. In ballet, the idea of beauty has to do with the physical beauty of the human body, the beauty of the dance, but also with a sense of aesthetic beauty, the kind that captures and attracts your eye so you learn more about the story, and I think that is really quite wonderful, it is like an adventure.

TBB: Can you expand on this idea of beauty in opera and the stage being quite different to that in ballet?

RS: It is incredibly different. I have now been in the business for a while, it has to do with challenges in different areas and I think you have to do that if you are going to stay fresh and creative. A lot of theatre, particularly modern plays or plays written by authors who are alive now, are challenging because you are facilitating a rehearsal process which will somehow be in the mind of the director. It is all about the rehearsal process, with costumes as a live invention alongside what the actors are discovering about their characters as they get into it. It is very live and it is never a process where you could just hand a couple of drawings and say ‘see you at the tech!’

Designs for Prospero

Costume design for Prospero in The Tempest. © Rae Smith

Conversely, in opera, everything has to be done two years before, given the amount of money that is spent on singers, the orchestra, organising the production. So, in fact, you may be designing something and handing it in two years before rehearsals start. Another point is that over the last 10 years, film and television have been competitive with opera (and ballet in a sense), because we are now filming all the shows, you have close-ups and it is increasingly hard for the cinema viewer to suspend disbelief and, say, accept somebody who might not look like the character is supposed to look, who might look 20 years older than Mimi in La Bohème for instance.

For me the most fabulous thing about ballet is this process where David, as the choreographer, is giving me a very clear idea about how he sees The Tempest being played and what he is thinking about, what he is going to do. I am learning about how he works as we go along. That gives me a very clear narrative to then interpret. He is the boss and he tells me what to do, but he lets me interpret what he is doing to an extent. I create a visually imaginative world which facilitates his storytelling. It is only a small part of his choreography or the basis of his choreography, but at this very moment [NB: August 2016], this is the first week back, and he is having to bite the bullet and choreograph the show and invent every bit, it is happening this week. We will be seeing it for the first time, it is so exciting and it must be terrifying for him as well. The distance between those two points is where the choreographer hangs.

TBB: You have worked in Shakespeare plays before. How did you approach The Tempest in ballet form? 

RS: David gave me a very clear idea of what he wanted: a very simple setting, meaning that they didn’t want to tour too much scenery. Say you have 25 scenes, you don’t want a different piece of scenery coming in on every scene (and Pagodas was quite big in that respect, it was quite scenery-heavy). Now if you work in the Royal Shakespeare Company, you would do what is called an ‘environmental set’ or a ‘composite set’, or simply build an environment where the story can happen because the actors will typically just come in and say who they are and where they come from, and you don’t have to illustrate that. You simply give them a costume that helps shape the context of the story. So Shakespeare doesn’t really demand big sets, it demands clear storytelling costumes, it demands an interpretation and particularly with The Tempest, it demands a sense of metaphysics, of magic, of fear, of nostalgia, and the sense of something being wrong in the past, getting revenge and catharsis and redemption, they are all very big themes that are up for interpretation.

Designs for Caliban

Costume design for Caliban. © Rae Smith

David has very much embraced the themes of longing and desire, redemption and revenge, magic, the monsters and creatures of the mind, and the whole idea of a ship sailing across the sea and a storm coming and the terror of it. Then being shipwrecked in an island which is filled with strange spirits and creatures. It is a great adventure into the new world, exploring 1548, everything looks terrifying. That is the type of magical world we are dealing with. And how does that translate into ballet? Again, a set that can allow for an underwater environment, a sand-dune island environment and to suggest caves or a forests.

And then there is the “tempest’ itself, the idea of huge giant waves, a party of aristocrats being whammed by this colossal storm. It is really good fun, to have a set that can do that but not really do anything. It is an environment that can conjure all these things. I’ve got the timings from the score, so the waves we are creating are all timed. I’ve been working with Gyre & Gimble and Toby Olié, who are puppeteers, and this time we have created waves that are enormous and exciting. And also, you’ve got the things we love about ballet: the beautiful Miranda, her scary but gorgeous father Prospero, Caliban, the monster-child, the sweaty monster who is abused and bruised and who desires Miranda. And Ferdinand, this gorgeous creature Miranda falls for. The servants of the house, who are an hilarious pair of losers, there is great clowning going on with them, but also monsters of various kinds. I won’t tell you too much, but it is great to be doing monsters and ghosts!


Costume designs for Miranda. © Rae Smith


TBB: How difficult is to design dance costumes?

RS: Well, I am very lucky, I’ve got a fabulous costume supervisor called Elaine Garlick. She has put together a team of people who are so amazingly technically-skilled at making ballet costumes that I’d have to be an idiot for it to go wrong! And David is in all the fittings so if he sees anything that needs to be addressed – let’s say you would need to get your hand around someone’s waist really quickly and you can’t because there is a big old dress in the way – he’ll constantly put forward what he needs in order to make it work for him. I love that input because it means I am only helping what he is doing rather than hindering it.

For me, the more fun you have and the more in love you are with the project, the more imaginative you get and that is what I love about ballet. To give me the challenge of that is just the best job in the world. It is a mutual thing: I can’t be a happier person than I am working with David Bintley.

TBB: Any final thoughts on The Tempest?

RS: I hope the audience likes The Tempest and are interested in the show, with its dual Italian and English perspective. Full-length ballets are quite tough, aren’t they? I think if theatre came to me and they commissioned me to design The Tempest, I would probably think ‘Oh God, what am I going to do, how am I going to do this?’, but there is something magical about the ballet. And I got to do my monsters! How exciting is that?

Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Tempest

Official poster for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Tempest – Photo: © Zena Holloway / BRB

David Bintley’s The Tempest opens this week in Birmingham. For more information, touring dates, and to book tickets visit Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

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