Local mainstage theatre designers are rare in Queensland. It’s a problem we come up against year after year. Together with the Ian Potter Foundation, Queensland theatre set out to fast track the development of the next generation of design professionals.
Designers run a never-ending sprint from the role of conceptual artist to hands-on builder, fulfilling everything in between. They have to be lofty in vision but thrifty in purchase, ground breaking in offers but conservative in ambition, and advocates of the big picture but masters of the fine detail. They balance the needs of the story, the actors, the audience and the bottom line, while making use of a unique artisanship that takes years to hone.
Three years ago the team at Queensland Theatre talked about the challenge of keeping these creative gems in the state and helping emerging artists to develop their skills. We pitched a Resident Designer program to theIan Potter Foundation; they recognised the critical shortage of practitioners and generously accepted our proposal. With this support, Queensland Theatre could offer two emerging designers one-year residencies at the Company. Each resident would receive mentorship from the nation’s best practitioners, advanced practical and technical training, and the role of assistant designer on large-scale Queensland Theatre productions.
Their first protégé Anthony Spinaze came to us directly from NIDA, where he attained a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts (Design). The Brisbane local was thrilled to find a paid position at home. After being immersed in the workings of Queensland Theatre and mentored by Artistic Director Sam Strong, Spinaze worked under the esteemed Richard Roberts as the Assistant Designer onMuch Ado About Nothing. The show was a huge undertaking: a Shakespearean production with a cast of ten, a large-scale revolving set and the multitudinous props that comedies require. According to Roberts, Spinaze was more than up to the task.
Naturally, the next logical step was to throw Spinaze in the deep end. He was employed as the designer for Queensland Theatre’s 2016 productionSwitzerland, Joanna Murray-Smith’s reimagining of the death of the reclusive and infamous author Patricia Highsmith. Spinaze created a version of her Swiss chalet that both honoured the original and evoked a mood consistent with the play’s thriller genre.
It was a resounding success. The set’s sloped ceiling and straight lines created a sense of claustrophobia and knife-edge tension, and Spinaze integrated a film-noir aesthetic with a naturalistic attention to detail. He even included the bizarre plastic bag that hung from the ceiling of Patricia Highsmith’s real-life kitchen, and an open tin of cat food (refreshed each night) on the bench. The design garnered Spinaze award nominations from both the Matildas and the Australian Production Design Guild. Spinaze then designed the set for St Mary’s in Exile, and spent the rest of his residency constructing a professional portfolio and a plan for securing work post-residency. One of the jobs lined up for 2017 was again with Queensland Theatre, designingConstellationswhich also toured regionally. Over the past year, Spinaze has gone on to design for companies like La Boite Theatre Company and JUTE Theatre Company, and secured a contract with the Commonwealth Games.
Queensland Theatre is strongly committed to gender parity, so it was fortunate that the best applicant for our 2017-18 Resident Designer position was Vilma Mattila.
Mattila studied Scenography at Finland’s Aalto University (Film, Television and Scenography) before life conspired to make Australia her home. She has spent the past few years working across Queensland’s independent theatre sector, most notably designing the critically acclaimed set for La Boite’s 2017 production A Streetcar Named Desire. Her residency with Queensland Theatre began in May 2017. The past year has seen Mattila take on assistant design roles for the mainstage and as a designer for the Company’s Education and Youth Programs.
Sustainable careers in design require versatility, and youth programs can offer consistent work opportunities between mainstage contracts. Mattila designed the set for the Senior Youth Ensemble’s production ofConstellations. She faced the same aesthetic and narrative challenges as Spinaze did with this multi-linear story, shifting across time and space. Unlike Spinaze, she didn’t have the same resources to work with. Mattila 's set ofConstellationsmay have been minimal, its impact was anything but. Who knew tinsel could be so mesmerising?
Her second design project for the Education and Youth team was more difficult again. The script for The Scene Project 2017 (Queensland Theatre’s in-schools script development program) wasSix Hundred Ways to Filter a Sunset by Daniel Evans. The play explores the potential ramifications of genetic engineering, and spans 100 years into a dystopian future. Once again the budget was limited and the intellectual scope vast, but The Scene Project was also set for a regional tour. That meant Mattila’s design had to be transportable. In a single suitcase.
Mattila also worked alongside Renée Mulder on An Octoroon, Tracy Grant Lord on Twelfth Night and, most notably with designer David Fleischer onScenes from a Marriage. TheScenes from a Marriageset was elaborate, detailed and large-scale: the perfect testing ground for an assistant designer with a wealth of experience in the independent scene. The spectacular woodland backdrop was researched, sourced and drafted by Mattila, with the final touches added by Fleischer and a graphic designer. Mattila is originally from Finland, so Fleischer found her eye for Scandinavian design “invaluable” in completing the naturalistic design.
When asked if he thought Mattila’s residency contributed to her professional growth, he answered wholeheartedly in the affirmative, “…any way that a young creative can gain insight into the industry is immeasurably useful in their preparation for the workforce.”
On top of her Resident Designer commitments, Mattila continued working in the local independent scene. Her relationship with the Gold Coast’s physical performance companyThe Farm also saw her design for two works programmed in the Commonwealth Games Festival 2018.Tide, presented by The Farm and Bleach* Festival, won the 2018 Helpmann Award for Best Visual or Physical Theatre production.
Perhaps most telling of the program’s success is that Anthony Spinaze and Vilma Mattila will return to Queensland Theatre in 2019. This time as independent artists. We were thrilled to offer both designers contracts in our next mainstage season, and look forward to working together for many more years.
Queensland Theatre’s Pathways Program helps artists make a life from what they love, cultivating careers at all levels of experience, from all backgrounds. We are so proud of our inaugural Resident Designers, and once again wish to thank the Ian Potter Foundation for supporting an invaluable stepping stone in the careers of two exceptional talents.