3205 – Emily Collett, Theatre Designer

Emily Collett, Theatre Designer, Melbourne
Emily Collett, Theatre Designer, in South Melbourne for Tenant Magazine

I’ve decided that I’m a fan of days that just don’t turn out as planned. Of course, not in a ‘disastrous news’ kind of way -– no one likes them. No, I mean the days when your routines give way to an exciting, unexpected happenstance.

It was on a day like this that I met Emily Collett. I was on a lunch break in South Melbourne; she was working at a shop called Mr Darcy; I was browsing, and we got to chatting.

I had recently booked a plane ticket to New York and mentioned my excitement about seeing some shows on Broadway, to which Emily spoke of her study, and her work around theatre design. She had recently been travelling herself and had worked for Donatella Barbieri, a performance design academic at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Our conversation yielded some great information on the international theatre scene and cemented my decision to book a Punchdrunk theatre experience in New York. A few months later we arranged to formally catch up for a TENANT interview about her work, including designing for playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaption of Eurydice which will performed by the Red Stitch theatre group (who’s alumni members include Kat Stewart, Tim Ross, Peter Mumford and founder Vince Miller) in Melbourne next month.

Emily Collett, Theatre Design, Eurycide for Red Stitch
Emily Collett, Theatre Design, Eurydice for Red Stitch

Hi Emily, thanks for your time today and for speaking to TENANT about your work in theatre design. When did you decide that theatre design – both costume and set design – was for you?

Broadly speaking I’ve felt a strong desire to be involved in the performing arts since I was very little but my decision to work in theatre design hit specifically in 2006. I remember feeling a bit lost in life and I was mindfully looking for inspiration and direction. One day I spied an ad for the VCA School of Production in a newspaper, and I knew on the spot that’s where I was meant to be.

What brought you to Melbourne, if not theatre design?

I’m a country girl and I was sent to boarding school in Melbourne for my last three years of schooling, and I ended up staying on for university. I studied Interior Design at RMIT and it really wasn’t a brilliant match. I wanted to be more creative and practical than was encouraged… but I stuck it out.

Emily Colett, early university design work
Emily Colett, early university assignment work

I worked for a few years after graduating, then when I decided to study set and costume design as a postgraduate at VCA, I felt like I had come home. It was a quite a gruelling course – in fact they’re now changing the one-year course I did into two years – but that hard work was very grounding and prepared me well for the demanding and rewarding roles I’ve had the opportunities to take on since then.

Emily Collet Design Details
Emily Collett  original costume design details

Is there anything you don’t like about your industry?

Yes – but the things I like still win out over those that challenge or irk me.

I really like that I’m always meeting new people and developing new creative relationships. I meet people who challenge and push me, teach me new things and help me to see the world in different ways. What’s not to love about that?

I also really like the depth of work being created in Melbourne. I think we are so lucky to have such a strong independent theatre and dance industry – there’s always something new and exciting to see, at every price point.

But I don’t like how important it is to be able to network and promote yourself. I’m terrible at this and don’t find it particularly enjoyable. I think I’m definitely a wallflower at heart, but I am trying to get better….

Well while I am prodding you into self-promotion – can you tell me what you are most proud of professionally? And do you have a dream project waiting in the wings, or a person you would love to work with?

I’m proud of every, single, opening, night! They are simply my favourite moments.

And yes, I do have a dream project, but it feels too big to talk about. It might be a few years off and I don’t want to jinx it by putting it into actual words.

If you weren’t doing theatre design what would you be doing?

I honestly don’t know. I just can’t imagine not doing what I love, no matter how many casual jobs I have to have along the way to make it happen!

I grew up in Portland in country Victoria – close to the South Australian border. My mum and dad met putting on an amateur theatre production and as a family we used to travel to Melbourne to see various theatre shows.

I have memories of being absolutely entranced by a production of The Phantom of the Opera; being too small to fill the lush, red, velvety theatre chairs and too little for my feet to reach the ground. When my mum recalls that day she says I barely moved watching that show.

I also danced for about ten years when I was growing up, which really developed my understanding, appreciation and love for stage production and theatre.

You mentioned earlier you were in London recently? Can you tell me more about your time there?

At the end of my postgrad year I worked constantly. I was driven to say yes to pretty much everything, and learnt an enormous amount in the process (including that working on three productions at one time is a terrible idea!).

Then I decided I needed some time out of Melbourne so at the beginning of 2011 I went overseas. I travelled for three months and landed in London where I ended up working for Donatella Barbieri– an expert in my field of interest.

Dona is Italian-born and studied at Central St. Martins in London. She’s an inspiring and passionate advocate for the importance of costume design in performance and during my time with her (about 18 months) I started to develop a strong interest in the academic side of design. I assisted in research for publications, interviews and organising master classes and lectures with various European designers, artists and academics. It was a brilliant experience and so inspiring.

How did that experience affect your work? What do you draw on for your work inspiration right now and why?

When I’m working on the design for any production my first step is always research – immersing myself in the world of that particular show be it a period in time, a place, a fantasy… It was always that way but my time in London pushed my commitment to research and my interest in academic discourse to another level.

I am still a doer at heart and won’t let the ‘devil in the detail’ interfere with production and deadlines, but I do enjoy academia and the way it focuses the connection of my work to other philosophies and disciplines.

I would say my main source of inspiration at the moment is books and Google. I’ll come across an image in a book or online that sparks an idea. More generally I love going to exhibitions and permanent collections in galleries and museums; they keep me inspired to create. Dance remains a passion, and really clever choreographers inspire me.

Currently I’m enjoying the old and new work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan, Lea Anderson and the collaborative work of Sylvie Guillem.

Now you’re back, in Melbourne – how does the city (its people or other aspects) influence you?

Melbourne was the place I first experienced the joy and magic of theatre – from big musicals, children’s puppetry, pantomime and ballet. And being here, living in this city connects me with that childhood memory – that early inspirational spark when I just knew I loved theatre.

You live in South Melbourne (3205), what is it about the suburb that you like?

I’ve lived here since 2004, except for the 18 months recently when I was living in London. I love the beautiful old buildings, the South Melbourne Market where I buy my favourite bread every week, the lines of cafés and pretty shops.

I also like that I’m close to the arts precinct, and that I can walk into town. I love being near the Botanic Gardens and ‘The Tan’ (I’m on my jogging L plates), and I like being a short drive from the bay. Most of all I like the sense of community and pride found in the heart of our area.

Emily Collett - Home details, images of her family farm in Portland
Emily Collett – home details; images of Portland where she grew up.
Emily Collett - home details
Emily Collett – home details

I work in South Melbourne at the moment, I have on-and-off for over a decade, and have found it to be a creative, diverse and thriving village – and it only seems to keep getting better. What are your favourite places?

I love the South Melbourne Market, Chez Drez for a meal (if some one else is paying!), the $4.50 toasties at FT Tuckshop and Grey’s Second Hand and Antique Store on Clarendon ‑ do you know it?

Know it!? I love that place! So many precious items that make my house a home were found there, including the best mid-century chairs ever! Steven is an absolute gem. (If you have not been – GET THERE PEOPLE!).

What are the things you are most proud of in Melbourne?

I am proud of the dance, the theatre, the galleries and the exhibitions. And the Baker D. Chirico bread!.

What changes would most like to see in Melbourne?

Ooohhh that’s tough! Better public transport. Better manners ‑ I don’t know if people have less respect for each other these days, or if I’m just noticing it more after travelling the world a little, butit doesn’t hurt to smile, and a kind word doesn’t cost you anything.

I love that you said this! I agree. I think people are pressed for time, and spend a lot of it interacting online and  that simple standards and old-fashioned (good) manners are suffering as a result.

What do you think Melbourne will look like/be like 50 years into the future?

Fuller. Sadly the area I live in is being built-up completely with new apartment blocks. Four new ones in the last few years of around 15 stories each. And the TV studios we look over have just been sold for development, so, bang goes our view. The impact on our streets is already quite bad, so much so that I now try to plan my day so I don’t have to drive anywhere between 4:30 and 7:00pm if possible, because it’s a nightmare.

OK, rant over. Hopefully Melbourne looks greener in 50 years too!

What is Melbourne’s best-kept secret? (Where you might take a visitor for example, or someone who thought they’d seen all of Melbourne?)

I don’t know about any of these being a huge secret, but a few of my favourite places are the FT Tuckshop that I mentioned previously, just off Coventry Street in South Melbourne – yummiest jaffles served from a little window (always with a big smile) for $4.50. Winner! And again just off Coventry Street a little further up, and the other end of the price scale, Chez Drez for coffee, breakfast, lunch or, treats. In the city, my absolute favourite thing to do is walk through Block Arcade and up into Royal Arcade. I buy a little treat from Haigh’s to nibble on the way, look in all the windows, and have a hot chocolate upstairs at Koko Black looking out the semi-circle windows.

And lastly, my pass-it-on-question: what Melburnian would you like to introduce to TENANT ‑ and why?

I would like to introduce playwright Emilie Collyer. We met last year when I worked on a show she’d written for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. She’s a very talented writer, very clever lady, and my namesake to boot!

Thanks Emily. Good luck with your work, and studies. I’m looking forward to seeing your work in Eurydice next month. (Tickets are now available on their website.)

I can also see your work on the screen, and in music videos clips. Good luck with it all and stay in touch!

[Post Script – Emily just emailed to let me know that she will be working with AACTA Award-winning costume designer Marion Boyce on a new film project starting next month! Go Emily!]

Emily Collet for Tenant Magazine
Emily Collet for Tenant Magazine

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