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January 12, 2015

How to be a set (and costume) designer

By blending the sometimes non-complementary skills of imagination and real world application, set and costume designer Ailsa Paterson builds little worlds that give us the chance to slip seamlessly away from reality for a few hours.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Ben McGee

Not many people grow up dreaming of being a set or costume designer, and Ailsa Paterson wasn’t one of them. 

It wasn’t until she was in her final year of high school that she even discovered that such a job existed, but after that point she wasted no time in pursuing it. Now an in-demand freelancer, she is preparing for one of her most challenging projects to date – the State Theatre Company’s Beckett Triptych

As she puzzled through the challenges of running three plays one-after-the-other, with no set era to replicate, and in the non-conventional space of the State Theatre Company’s scenic workshop, we distracted her by asking for some tips on getting to where she’s at.

“It was really hard initially to be taken seriously when you are that young and inexperienced.”

Work hard 

Ailsa went straight from high school in Adelaide to studying a degree in theatre design at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts, which she says was “absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done”.

When she graduated in 2003, she was much younger than most of her contemporaries but didn’t let that phase her. Instead she dived into some of the most challenging projects she could find. 

“It was really hard initially to be taken seriously when you are that young and inexperienced,” she says. “I just started to work in independent theatre, where you don’t get paid very much but you get to work on interesting projects and you do everything yourself because there’s no budget. So you design everything and it’s just the best ground for learning and building up some experience and building up your portfolio to try and get better jobs.”

Make friends

While she was working in Sydney after her graduation, some of Ailsa’s biggest breaks seemed to be coming from an old connection based in her home town of Adelaide. 

“I had started working with Adam Cook while I was still at NIDA as a student, so we sort of forged a bond. He got back in touch when he moved to Adelaide to become the artistic director of the State Theatre Company, and it made sense for me to start working with him back here. Eventually I was getting more work here than I was in Sydney.”

We don’t often get excited about shoes, but we got excited about the State Theatre Company’s collection

We don’t often get excited about shoes, but we got excited about the State Theatre Company’s collection

Don’t limit yourself

“I’ve always had a very fond spot for my first show with the State Theatre Company here – which was The Cripple of Inishmaan, a period piece but with a very magical realism style,” says Ailsa. 

“When I first graduated from NIDA I thought I might only be a costume designer, I didn’t think I’d be doing so much set. But that gradually became something I was getting better at and I was really loving taking control of the entire piece. So that was the first time I did a main stage set and costume design and I had a ball on that one.”

Some things change, some things stay the same


The State Theatre Company’s Beckett Triptych shows from February 20 – March 15, 2015 in the Scenic Workshop.While watching, be sure to take note of Ailsa’s ingenious use of space and visual cues as she helps the audience consecutively enter the world of three different plays, all set in a space that is more often used by people wielding power tools than those watching theatre.

The step-by-step nature of creating a world and look for a play is almost always the same, says Ailsa, but things are never repetitive.

“For me the process is always generally the same… it is always going to be starting with the initial conversation with the director, reading the script a million times, researching that, starting to look at any visual imagery anywhere in the world that you respond to in some way that is related to that piece and then collecting a vast array of inspirational things before gradually honing that into the final images.

“But I’m still just blown away by how different every project I do is and I love going from Oscar Wilde and all these crazy period costumes to something really dark and dense and complex like Beckett, and always with a different team of people as well. I sort of have all these little journeys throughout the year.”

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