A set is any build construction used on stage to create a home for a scene. It helps establish the particular world and aesthetic for a production. The theatre designer’s job is to work closely with the director to create a visual concept for the play, plan and design all the physical elements and oversee the realisation of them in collaboration with the technical teams and workshops of the theatre.
It’s a behind-the-scenes job that might get overlooked by a casual audience, and yet one that is essential to the successful staging of any production. Noemi Daboczi is a theatre designer with almost a decade’s experience under her belt. She has worked with the Royal Opera House, as well as Finnish National Opera, Rambert Dance and LAMDA, among others.
Most recently, she worked on the Royal Opera House’s production of Handel’s Arminio (1736), which was staged by Jette Parker Artist Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol, and ran at the Covent Garden theatre from 20 April-6 May 2023. Later this year you can see her work, Lay Down Your Burdens, a new movement theatre piece from Rhiannon Faith Company, which is on at the Barbican from 21-25 November 2023.
I spoke to her about her experiences on the job and she admitted that theatre designer was a profession she didn’t know existed until she was in her 20s. She was studying fashion design at the time and remembers the moment when she saw a description of the theatre design course of the University of Fine Arts Budapest in a careers handbook.
“I immediately thought that this sounded like the most interesting job,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to complexity and diversity, and design for performing arts is a beautiful mix of so many things from fine art, music, literature and architecture to psychology.”
There’s no such thing as a typical day when it comes to being a set designer. One day can be completely different from the next, and for Noemi this is one the things she most enjoys about it.
“There are design days spent alone when I’ll be reacting to the material, doing research and shaping ideas. Then there are intensive brainstorming and concept-building days with the director and other creative collaborators. This is when we analyse the text, listen to the music, share our visions and imagine how the show will happen.
“There are super technical days when I’ll be focusing on working out the details, materials and construction of the set. Socially rich rehearsal days when we’re in the field working with the cast, creative team and stage management team. This is the time to test our design and concept live, work out what else might be needed and get ready for the tech week when all the elements come together for the home stretch.
“However colourful a designer’s life is, creative decision making, an active imagination-exercise and problem solving are all part of every one of my workdays.”
I ask Noemi about the highs and lows of the job, and while she says there are many incredible aspects to the job, she acknowledges that there are also a lot of challenges. Noemi particularly loves the creativity of being a theatre designer and the way she can use this to make connections – with ideas, her colleagues and audiences. This, she says, is what she loves most about the job.
“It’s beautiful to see your dream spaces come to life and to create mini-universes with their own unique rules and distinct atmosphere,” she comments. “Your design will become a character with its own narrative, and will provide the visual dramaturgical element that makes a performance so rich and stimulating.”
She is inspired by the opportunity working as a theatre designer gives her to create a space for people to experience their feelings, and to make them think differently about something they thought they knew.
“It gives me a lot of joy to see how my work contributes to building a community of creatives, technical team and audiences. I really enjoy getting inspired by my collaborators’ visions, and witnessing how my ideas make somebody else’s day more interesting. You learn so much about the world, your peers and yourself, and it makes you understand life a little bit better project by project.”
But there are downsides to the job and it’s the vulnerability and lack of security that all freelance artists experience that worries Noemi most. She acknowledges that the performing arts isn’t an easy industry to work in and that currently it is incredibly hard for designers to thrive. As freelancers, designers tend to work from job to job, but, projects can get delayed, cancelled or lose their funding. This makes it hard for designers to obtain financial stability.
“You need to take on a lot,” Noemi adds, “and the amount of labour you have to do on one project is often hard to predict. Working out what to look out for before taking on a project and building up your boundaries are key, and usually only happen after some hurtful experiences.”
Having a support network is crucial – your peers understand what you’re going through and can provide invaluable experience. Noemi advises: “Before you get into design make sure you have a great support network for times when it isn’t working out. You have to be prepared to trip and fall many times, and get in the habit of getting up quickly and learning from your own and other’s experiences. Try to find ways to protect your joyful spirit from the difficult experiences.”
As with all freelancers, one of the hardest things can be taking time off. This is something Noemi struggles with too. “It’s great to work hard but if you’re like me you might find it hard to take breaks and be patient.” She also thinks it’s a good idea to have a back-up plan: “If you’re struggling, don’t blame yourself. We’ve all been there. Keep an eye out for when you’re no longer creating with joy and have a plan B to rely on. Don’t let your determination blur your vision, and don’t sacrifice your present for your future.”
I ask her about her favourite opera. “I make emotional connections with everything I work on,” she replies. “I put so much dreaming, time and energy into each piece, each design, that they all become my favourites.
“An opera that was particularly special is the first big opera that I was part of. This was Theodora at the Royal Opera House that I worked on with Katie Mitchell. Listening to Handel’s music every day sung by such incredible performers like Julia Bullock and Jakub Orlinski, and seeing how Katie marries this music with a fascinating and truthful narrative mirroring our contemporary human experiences with such precision made that opera close to my heart.”
You can see Noemi’s photography projects and pictures of her theatre and film work on her website.
The Jette Parker Artists’ production of Handel’s Arminio at the Royal Opera House featured sets and costumes by theatre designer Noemi Daboczi.