Set and costume designer
Claire Halleran is a freelance designer and founder of The Envelope Room, an organisation in Scotland supporting and promoting professional theatrical designers.
She graduated from Queen Margaret University College with a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Production in 2004.
Why did you choose to study the Master Degree of Fine Arts in Theatre Production at QMU?
I had originally completed a BA (hons) Fine Art degree at Glasgow School of Art, specialising in Environmental Art, hoping to gain an understanding about how to create artistic or creative spaces.
Once I had graduated, I was lucky enough to go travelling for a few years, when I came home I wanted to do something with my creative training. I had always thought that Designing for Theatre would be a good fit for me, I enjoyed the idea of having a purpose for the visual design that was being created, I liked the idea of helping to tell a story on stage and I really loved the thought of working as part of a team.
The Masters programme at QMU was a new one and it was exciting to be able to shape it around what I wanted to do.
What did you enjoy most about your course, and what’s been the most important/significant thing you learned at QMU?
The Masters course ran alongside the undergraduate course and so I was able to learn how the visual arts training I had could fit with making theatre and learnt how to design for theatre.
"My design tutor, Francis Gallop, had an infectious love of making theatre and was incredibly encouraging. I learnt that making connections was so valuable, I was fortunate to be able to build a professional portfolio for my last year and worked with some amazing people and diverse companies. The support and confidence the tutors gave me to do this was so important."
What are your most memorable experiences of being a QMU student?
Seeing my first design come to life, slightly terrifying but exhilarating! Something which wouldn’t have happened without the course steering me along.
Graduating and feeling ready to step into the industry.
Tell us more about your career path since leaving QMU.
I can honestly say that it’s always been interesting! I’ve designed all sorts of things in all sorts of places. Scottish touring theatre is most of the design work that comes my way and that is certainly how I have built up my body of work.
But, it’s not just theatre designs, I have designed a venue for a film festival in a disused and very smelly bingo hall in Nairn (8 ½ Days with Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins) the bingo hall wasn’t smelly when we finished! I’ve designed a show in an ice cream van, 'The Pokey Hat'. I’ve made shows which take place in churches, hotels, nightclubs, the street, an ice rink and community halls. I love a challenge.
As well as having the opportunity to make work in the UK, working internationally with shows in China, Australia, America, Canada and designing interactive events in U.A.E has been fantastic.
Tell us more about what your role as a freelance set and costume designer involves?
My role is to join a company to work with a group of others to help tell the story. My engagement usually starts with a script or a chat with the director. Some initial ideas are formed and then a great deal of research. I work with big sketch books to start to build a sense of the style of the show through 2D images, sometimes I’ll use references from film or suggest a director visits an exhibition to understand the style I’m trying to communicate. Sometimes it’s less about the look of a design and more about how the space is to be used.
I then work on making models to communicate the design idea to both the director and the rest of the team. Once it’s approved, I’ll pass on technical drawings to a set builder and references for paint finish to the scenic artist. The costume design is usually created alongside with a similar process but instead of a model, I will draw up costume plates and provide images for reference and fabric samples.
Being around to see the designs evolve is great and letting others interpret your ideas is exciting. Seeing the design on stage for the first time never gets less exhilarating, and experiencing the performers and lighting design bring it to life adds a dimension you can never totally predict.
I’m normally working on about four shows or installations at one time, they will all be at different stages of the design process so there is always a bit of juggling to be done.
What advice would you give to students and new graduates starting out?
Think about what kind of designer you want to be because when you graduate you won’t necessarily walk straight into that kind of design job but if you have a goal, there will be a way to get there.
Make as many contacts as you possibly can, job offers come from all sorts of different places, not just directors and producers. Keep in touch with your fellow designers and peers from your course, it’s so important to have a group of people around you who understand what you’re doing.
Keep yourself educated about theatre and learn new skills to help you do your job.
Take the opportunities which come your way and push yourself when you can, hit your deadlines and be reliable.
Tell us more about The Envelope Room.
In 2013, I co-founded the Envelope Room with Lisa Sangster, it’s a network which exists to support, promote and connect performance designers based and working in Scotland.
Through funding support from Creative Scotland we run events like Portfolio Speed Dating, a chance for designers and directors to have a series of five minute dates to see if there is a ‘creative spark’ for future work and Meet the Designer an opportunity to meet a large scale designer and hear about their creative process.
We also provide training skills for Photoshop, Sketchup, social media, website building, designing more sustainably and portfolio creation.
The network is also a place for designers to connect with one another, designing can be a solitary role at times and working as freelance artists has its own challenges so having a supportive group of fellow designers around is vital to feeling part of the wider theatre sector.