VCA Production student Alex Rothnie with his set model

Production notes: set designing at the VCA

Third-year Victorian College of the Arts student Alex Rothnie took a circuitous route into Production. His highlight so far? Working as a set designer on the VCA’s upcoming production of Mother Courage and Her Children.

Interview by Susanna Ling

My pathway to studying Production at the VCA wasn’t a straight one. For two years I had been working as a set designer/maker and theatre technician at my old high school while I was studying a Bachelor of Environments at university, but I always found my work far more engaging, enjoyable and rewarding than my studies. After years of encouragement and persistence from my boss, I finally decided to change direction. I’m now studying something that really interests me and makes me happy.

I feel a sense of infinite possibility at the VCA. For me there is no typical day – that’s what makes it so engaging. My days range from exhausting shifts in the workshop, repetitive sessions of model-making, stressful moments of costume construction, inspired moments of design, and long days of meetings. But that’s what makes this course so rewarding: every imaginable door is open to us, leaving us to explore our true interests.

I strive to create encapsulating, interactive worlds for performers and audience members. As a set designer, I often find myself most inspired by installation artists. It’s a powerful and exciting thing to see artists transform previously mundane spaces – say, a room or a road – into one giant piece of art, a pure visual display of expression.

Some of the challenges we face as designer/makers are also some of the greatest points of inspiration. We’re constantly in a game of tug-o-war with someone or something, forcing us to come up with creative solutions to realise our vision. It might be a miniscule budget, or spatial issues that come with a specific venue, or a design deadline that’s creeping up faster and faster. Trying to overcome the specific limitations and challenges posed by each show can open you up to ideas you’d never considered.

I’m currently living out my university highlight, designing the set and props for the VCA’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Theatre design is my true passion and to be given the opportunity to work on such a big show is a real blessing.

Through working on numerous VCA productions I’ve learned hands-on how a show operates and how my role – or indeed, roles – fits within it. I’ve found that sometimes, as a designer, my hands are tied quite as tightly. One thing the VCA has developed in me is an ability to problem-solve and think outside the box. Delving into this piece and trying to create a world with such a creative team of people is incredibly inspiring.

I’ve learned that you have to soak up as much information and experience as you possibly can. Theatre is such a collaborative experience, encompassing different people and disciplines and skill-sets. No-one will expect you to be an expert on everything, but the more you learn, the broader your sense of theatre and collaboration will become. I think that’s the key to becoming a better practitioner – being able to draw from a far larger, deeper pool of knowledge.

Our 2017 Brecht Season runs from 5–11 May at both the Southbank and Parkville campuses. Visit the Brecht Season event page for more information.

Visit the VCA website for more information about Production courses.

Image: Alex Rothnie with his set model for Mother Courage and Her Children. Photograph: Sav Schulman, 2017.

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