Interview with Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime set and costume designer

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Ahead of Red Riding Hood The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime opening at City Varieties Music Hall on Friday 29 November 2019, Kelly Scotney, PR Manager, talked to the supremely talented Judith Croft, Designer, who has been working on Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomimes for over 20 years.

Q: This is your fourth year designing the set and costumes for The Varieties Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto, how did you get involved?

A: I originally worked with Peter Rowe (creator) at The Gateway Theatre, Chester. When he started to work on the Rock ‘n’ Roll concept at Theatr Clwyd, Wales, he wanted me to join him as designer. I did it for 18yrs at Clewyd before moving to The Varieties.

Q: Aside from the original tales and drawings, where does the inspiration come from for your designs?

A: I try to find a different world for every new production I design to save trotting out the same ideas. This means a lot of research that inevitably throws up interesting information and resources.

For Cinderella in 2018 I was influenced by traditional 50’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, whilst this year’s inspiration is a Bavarian Christmas market – imagine a lovely snowy alpine landscape and a cosy window-lit village. I researched so many Christmas markets to design the set, and similarly the costumes which reflect traditional Bavarian dress e.g. lederhosen.

Q: Are you given free rein to design the set and costumes, or are their specific guidelines and restrictions that must be adhered to?

A: There are very specific requirements when designing the set for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime e.g. there needs to be a large space for the band, a flat space to dance on and access from both sides of the stage. Ordinarily at The Varieties actors can only access the stage via the left which means I must build a crossover – a means by which the actors can access the set from both sides. This is usually done by constructing a bridge behind the set which results in lots of running around backstage!

But to be honest, I am generally given the freedom to run with my imagined world. Occasionally a director might have a specific idea e.g. they might like the colour blue, but usually they’re happy for me to be creative. This is so important for a designer as this is when we create our best work.

Q: Do you have a favourite character that you like to create for? If so, why?

A: I enjoy designing for all the characters. If pushed I would say the villain or the walk down dress for the princess or heroine but I like them all; I like creating a theme that runs through all the costumes.

Q: Is there a specific pantomime you would like to design the set and costumes for? Again, if so, why?

A: I think I’ve done them all! I’ve probably designed Aladdin more times that any normal human being should; I may have run out of ideas for Aladdin! They’ve all got something great about them.

For a completely different reason, I really enjoyed working on Beauty and the Beast because the setlist contained the Nilsson song Without You which I loved when I was young!

Q: You have had a very varied career, what has been the highlight to date?

A: I’m particularly proud of two things: firstly, when I was at the Library Theatre, Manchester, we did a site-specific production of Dicken’s Hard Times in a disused mill; it was a massive project, involving lots of people. The space itself was huge, spread over two floors, I designed a number of sets within it and some fabulous costumes that swept through the space. It was a totally immersive and stunning production. Secondly, I designed the set for Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a Neil Simon play in the west end starring Gene Wilder. It was great fun having a show on Shaftsbury Avenue and feeling in the centre of everything. But honestly, I enjoy my work so much that there are barely any shows I haven’t enjoyed working on.

Q: What advice would you give to people starting out in a similar career to yours?

A: It takes 50% talent and 50% doggedness. It’s not a job for people who are easily disheartened. In all aspect of theatre there is rejection, and this is no different for designers, largely due to the lack of opportunity. Because there’s very little work, you must be able to prove your experience when starting out. I gained mine by building a portfolio of student productions when I was at college, but I didn’t just design at my own college, I had friends at other colleges, and I designed for them too. Always say yes. Make costumes for nothing, build sets for free. If you don’t have a total passion or can’t give it your all, it’s not the job for you. It’s a fantastic job but there’s very little of it around so you really must stand out as willing.

Q: What designer has most inspired you? And why?

A: So many, I almost don’t know where to start. With every new job I do I research and delve into new worlds and discover new designers. For every new show it can be somebody completely different, from James Turrel’s lighting designs to Bob Crowley, Caravaggio or Van Gogh. You root and rummage through your memory and the visual references available to you.

Red Riding Hood The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime is at City Varieties Music Hall from Friday 29 November 2019 to Sunday 12 January 2020.