Woman with designs on the National Theatre
Interview with Alison Chitty by Sarah Hemming Financial Times, 14 April 2003
When we arrive at the National Theatre for our interview, the designer Alison Chitty and I are conducted to a "VIP room" comfortable, if rather dimly lit space in which significant people usually sip their interval wine. Chitty's first move is to beetle over to a large contemporary painting on the wall and peer at it intently. One suspects that it rarely receives such close scrutiny but then, for a designer, perhaps looking hard at things is a difficult habit to shake.
Chitty has been a designer for more than 30 years, creating sets for many of the world's leading theatre and opera houses, and has just been appointed an Associate at the National Theatre. What this entails she is not sure yet ("it's being part of a think tank, I suppose"), but her first job for Nicholas Hytner is one of great practical import. She has designed the show that launches the new regime, and significantly both for her and for the theatre it is not a seasoned classic, but a new play by the rising Belfast playwright, Owen McCafferty.
McCafferty's piece, Scenes from the Big Picture, offers a "glimpse of life in Belfast on a wonderfully bright, hot, sunny day," says Chitty. A contemporary play, then, in a simple urban setting: as a design, it sounds like a piece of cake. Quite the contrary, says Chitty. "It's fantastically episodic, has 43 very, very short scenes and jumps from location to location, which gives it its amazing energy," she explains. "But when you break it down, you realise that the characters go to a shop and buy slices of chicken, they go to the pub and drink pints of beer, they walk down the street, they break into a sweetshop there are lots and lots of physical things which you've got to establish quite thoroughly but without slowing the pace down."
You might imagine that an epic setting would be the most challenging to provide, but Chitty points out that realistic details can be extremely tricky. A simple activity such as making a sandwich can be a real headache: "You need somewhere to make the sandwich, you need bread, a knife, a breadboard, you need the cheese and the spread. And you need to make those elements look good in the space."
It is not Chitty's style to swamp the stage with intricately detailed scenery, nor yet to go to the opposite extreme and have a prop-free set, forcing actors to slap invisible butter on imaginary bread. She and the director Peter Gill have worked hard at finding ways to suggest the settings. "When you read the play and there are people drinking Guinness in a pub, you probably see the pub. Now
I've not said 'we're going to make a pub'. We're going to try and convince people there's a pub there that's different." Chitty talks with great spirit and enthusiasm about the project. She clearly loves rising to a challenge: when she finishes Scenes from the Big Picture she will be off to talk plumbing at Chichester Theatre where she is flooding the stage for a "water season".
And while she has designed many classical plays, she always seizes on new work with relish. She began her career in the 1970s working with the director Peter Cheeseman at Stoke-on-Trent's Victoria Theatre, where between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of the plays each year were new. She then moved to London and embarked on new work with Peter Gill, Mike Leigh and Harrison Birtwhistle.
"I feel I haven't been very good at planning a career," she says. "I've worked in a completely ad-hoc way. But when I look back, I can see there is a pattern. I enjoy doing new plays very much: being part of making a new piece is fantastic."
Perhaps the most challenging of the new projects she has worked on have been those directed by Mike Leigh, who famously works without a script the most basic tool for most theatre practitioners. Chitty, who has designed several of his recent films, describes the experience as "solidarity round a big black hole". "One of the main things I have concentrated on, working with Mike Leigh, is controlling the palette. With Naked, for instance, it was very monochrome: there was colour in there, but very little. We bled the colour out of it so that it had a very hard, bleak quality. Now, who's going to notice that? But it gives the film its atmosphere." I admit that I had scarcely even thought of those films as being designed and Chitty seems pleased at this confession. "I think that's as it should be. But of course, I'm designing my socks off in order for them not to look designed!"
This principle of working very hard to go unnoticed might be the closest one could get to describing a Chitty aesthetic. She certainly isn't a designer who aims for lavishly lifelike sets. "I've got too much to do to think about whether I've got an aesthetic or not, but I know that people think I have one," she says. "I've had enough reviews saying 'another bare set by Alison Chitty' to know that that's what people think I do. I believe in a kind of restraint: I like to pare away. Things drown in realism and there's less space for an audience to take part if everything is so completely expressed they can just turn off their imagination.
Indeed, it seems that one of Chitty's main concerns is to encourage people to look carefully. She often teaches and frequently holds master-classes and workshops at the National Theatre Studio, "doing exercises that help people to look". For Chitty, the joy of the job is "making some sort of order out of the chaos". "I pick up a script and I think, 'Oh my God, how are we going to do that?' And then we get to the point when the play opens and we've done it. That's what gives me a buzz."
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