‘Being a designer isn’t really a job, is it? I get to sit alongside people with galloping imaginations – that’s an absolute privilege’ Rob Howell
A Christmas Carol is the ninth production Rob Howell has done for The Old Vic, and five of those in Matthew Warchus’ time, including Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, The Caretaker and The Master Builder. He has also worked extensively for The National Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, the Almeida, the Young Vic, Chichester and the Metropolitan Opera and is currently working on The Ferryman in the West End.
‘There’s this sort of weird myth that the designer goes off to the studio, and works away for a few months and then reveals the look of the show to the creative team; that couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are weeks and weeks and weeks, hours and hours of meetings and discussions, where we’re just sort of lost and frightened, and there’s nothing going; we’re just sort of throwing ideas backwards and forwards. I actually don’t remember a moment when this was revealed, it just sort of crept up on us all. And that involves a widening group of people – model makers, drafts people, technicians and engineers. It’s quite hard to retrace our steps to when that moment did arrive. Ideas percolate and bumble along and they become something you hang on to because they join with another idea, and gradually this thing bolts itself together.
For me, the trick is never being afraid to have a rubbish idea. It’s terrifying but if you have somebody alongside you and a group of people, a whole bunch of creatives who I trust, and Matthew Warchus trusts, to pierce the ridiculous bubble that you might want to send out there. And if you’re lucky, you’re comfortable having the bad idea, and believe me you have many bad ideas along the way. So, that’s a necessary cradle to be able to sit in. And if you’ve got that, it’s genuinely very hard to retrace your steps and say when did that shape occur. I actually can’t remember it but it did.
A model box exists on every show, to varying degrees. The model box for A Christmas Carol is to the scale of 1:25, so everything you see in that box is 25x smaller than it is on stage. What we didn’t model, but had lots of different computer and 3D models of, was the seating arrangement, which is very different from what you’re used to. Something like this is essential for me to work out how the thing sits in the space and then I’ll show it to Matthew and he’ll have his thoughts. And Sound Design, Lighting and Choreography will have their thoughts. And at no point does anybody say ‘well, that’s what it is’. Everybody has a say and gets involved.
It’s accurate, it’s beautifully made. I’m lucky to have some of the best model makers (I think) in the world looking after me and my projects. You can describe something, and in your head it seems very clear, but unless you can point to something it’s very difficult, and it’s dangerous, not to point to something.
On the costume side of things, it’s like the model process. For example, the ghosts in A Christmas Carol are very accurately described in the novella, and in Jack Thorne’s stage directions they’re also very accurately described. But, like all conversations Matthew and I had, we didn’t see the need to go down that route. Matthew had a big idea about who the ghosts should be. But that meant that I didn’t have any anchor point about what they should be wearing. And it’s scary, because we went into rehearsals and I had no idea what they were going to be wearing. My drawings of the costumes, just like the model; they’re things that exist only so we can point at something and say ‘it’s like that’.
There is a brilliant wardrobe department at The Old Vic with two permanent staff, Fiona and Louise. They are capable of making anything but they’re far too busy with the day-to-day running of the wardrobe, so the costumes aren’t normally made in-house. There’s an incredible amount of maintenance that goes into the costumes that no one knows about.
There’s also a place called Sands Films which is out in Rotherhithe. It became famous when they costumed a film of Little Dorrit. It’s a beautiful jewel, an old warehouse, and they’ve got rails and rails and rails of Victorian clothes. You can turn up with an idea or a sketch, or magazine tear, or a postcard or something, and they’re full of amazing people who respond to those slightly loose descriptions. Next, we took all the actors there. It’s polite to give the Company a moment to say whatever they want to say. It’s not only polite, it’s important. Just as with the set, even though I’ve drawn those costumes, that’s not necessarily what they’re going to wear; that’s just something to respond to. It’s ridiculous to think that any good actor would accept just walking into a fitting room trying on a coat, and saying ‘Well, you’ve made it so I’ll wear it’. That just doesn’t happen. It’s a conversation up to the point where we have to commit to making if we’re going to make. We made the ghosts’ costumes for example.
Something I hope people see in the show is that I’ve tried to create a kind of roughness and history: not history in the moment, but previous life to the clothes, so nothing should feel like it’s a year old – it should feel like it’s 10 or 15 years old. And that’s not to nail the time or the period, it’s just to bring with it some sense of history. And, if you go to a costume house like Sands Films, you can do that. You can say ‘well, we’re in 1850 but I’m going to steal clothes from 1830/1840’. It’s a fluid thing. Costume houses allow you not a flexibility but a possibility of working like that. So I did these drawings with my supervisor alongside me, we’d look through them and she’d say ‘so when you drew that, did you mean it?’, and I’d have to admit that I didn’t mean it. Or that I did. And her attention to detail would make me think about whether I did actually mean it or not. And on we go.
I have two teenage boys who literally accuse me, almost on a weekly basis, of not having a job. Some part of that is true. There’s some sort of cliché somewhere that we’ve all heard about being paid to do something that you love, and I do get paid. So if that means that this is a job, then yes I have a job. It’s sometimes torturous but nonetheless constant pleasure to do what we do, and it is a tremendous privilege that I have to keep reminding myself about. I get to work with the best actors in the world, I hear the best orchestras in the world, and The Old Vic really is, I promise you, one of the best theatres in the world.’