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Interview · Alice Babidge

Creative People

24th May, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 24th May 2013

Steve Le Marquand, Pamela Rabe, Cate Blanchett, Peter Carroll, Amber McMahon in Sydney Theatre Company’s 'The War of the Roses'.  Directed by Benedict Andrews, Production Design by Alice Babidge. Photo - Tania Kelley.

John Leary and Patrick Brammall in Sydney Theatre Company’s 'The White Guard'. Directed by Andrew Upton, Production Design by Alice Babidge. Photo - Lisa Tomasetti.

Alice Babidge at work on her latest project, The Sydney Theatre Company production of 'The Maids', opening in Sydney next month.  Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Work in progress - Alice Babidge's early design ideas for The Sydney Theatre Company's 'The Maids', opening in Sydney next month.  Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Elements from Alice's scale model for 'The Maids' - TINY COAT HANGERS!  Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Alice Babidge in her home studio in Potts Point, Sydney. Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Today's interview is a first for TDF - we've never interviewed a theatre designer before (major oversight!), but I'm SO excited to remedy that today, with an introduction to the incredible world of Sydney production designer Alice Babidge!

Since graduating from NIDA in 2004, Alice has quickly gained a stellar reputation, working on a seriously impressive range of productions for companies including the Sydney Theatre Company, Company B and Opera Australia to name a few.  She's also dabbled in film, designing costumes for her first feature film, Snowtown, in 2010.  That same year, Alice took up the prestigious role of Resident Designer at the Sydney Theatre Company, working on an amazing stable of productions under the direction of  STC Artistic Directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett.  Safe to say Alice is doing A-OK in a notoriously competitive industry!

Alice's role within the STA's theatre productions usually incorporates both set and costume design.  It's a very collaborative role - and this suits Alice perfectly, as you'll learn below, she has great respect for her mentors, and she's just so inquisitive and endlessly cheerful, which always helps!  Aside from her immense talent and work ethic, Alice's key strength, really, is simply her infectious passion for her job.  She lives and breathes theatre design - and says she could never imagine doing anything else.

Alice doesn't really have a website, but she does have a profile on The Loop if you'd like to see more of her work.  I also LOVE this sweet little film profiling Alice, produced by Sydney's Belvoir st Theatre.  She's such a character!

If you're in Sydney, you should most def check out Alice's latest project, The Sydney Theatre Company's  The Maids, which stars Cate Blanchett and French actress Isabelle Huppert, and runs from 4th June to 20th July!

Tell us a little bit about your background – what did you study, and what path led you to what you're doing now?

I studied design at NIDA, where I completed a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts degree, specialising in set and costume design.

I had always had an interest in theatre, film, performance in general and in clothing, not so much fashion, more dressing people and constructing worlds – set and costume design just felt like a natural progression from that. It wasn’t something I consciously remember deciding on. It just happened.

When I was in my final year at NIDA a wonderful designer called Fiona Crombie, who I had assisted before I began my studies, suggested to Robyn Nevin, the then Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company, that they should meet me. She agreed and after a very nerve-wracking coffee said to me 'I guess I should offer you a job'. The next week I got another job with the company and it just carried on from then.

I’m sure our readers would be interested to know a little more about production design for theatre. Can you give us an insight into this world?!

Every project is different, every timeline different. Some projects are years in the making, some you have only days to prepare for.

Generally, I will read a script, have a discussion with my director, and then very simply begin to work on the world. This may be gathering images, resource material, drawing costumes or environments – it’s always different depending on the way in which the director works, and the demands of the project.

Often, once I encounter a project, I am compelled to begin investigating down a certain track - this could be an image I see in my mind, a piece of the text I am trying to unpack, whatever it is I will follow it until I find an end point, or until it veers off and becomes something else. I try and create a visual map of the world, a stockpile of images and thoughts that together give a sense of the whole. Then I distill it into some kind of tangible ‘design’.

Details from the studio of production designer Alice Babidge.   Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
What have been one or two favourite recent productions for you?

The War of the Roses at the Sydney Theatre Company that I did several years ago is a massive standout for me. It was a collaboration with my dear friend Benedict Andrews, and the scale of the project (it was 8 hours long and we rehearsed for 3 months, not counting the months of preparation prior to this) meant that it was a project I was able to completely immerse myself in. I was also petrified of it – of doing it justice, of being proud of the work – this is something I often feel at the beginning of a project I really love. It’s a good kind of fear – is this possible?!

My first feature film, Snowtown is another project that will always remain dear to me. I was lucky enough to work with director Justin Kurzel and production designer Fiona Crombie (both of who I have long-standing professional and personal relationships with). The difficult subject matter of the film, the way in which we worked within one of the most generous communities and groups of people I have ever known on the outskirts of Adelaide and the fun we had was extraordinary. I learnt so much, so quickly and under some incredibly trying circumstances. These moments make me better at my job in so many ways and make me appreciate it even more.

Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s 'The War of the Roses'.  Directed by Benedict Andrews, Costume Design by Alice Babidge. Photo - Tania Kelley.
Theatre is such a collaborative medium, which other creatives have you enjoyed working with collaboratively in the past few years?

I am fortunate enough to have many wonderful collaborative relationships in my life. Benedict, Justin and Fiona who I have already mentioned are all wonderful people I encountered very early in my career. I have learnt so much from them all and am so grateful that they are not only the ones I go to work with but that they are also dear friends who encourage and challenge me.

The dynamic and fiercely supportive Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett – two people I respect and admire so much, not only as artists but as a couple.

Dr Lisa Cooper, a fascinatingly talented and extraordinary woman who I first worked with years ago but who has taught me more about the importance of integrity and love in one’s own work more than anyone I have ever encountered.

Ben Briand, a man who makes beautifully intelligent and beguiling film work – we have collaborated on many projects over the years and I always relish the opportunity to work with him. He is wonderfully generous and like many of my favourite people to work with, sweeps you up in the world in a way that makes you want to do it more justice than you thought possible.

What does a typical day in the life of Alice Babidge involve?

It’s always different depending on what stage of production I am at and where I am working, but at the moment, in week four of rehearsals at STC, it plays out like this…

I wake very early, TRY to get myself down to Rushcutters Bay for a walk and rare quiet moment. Once home, I have a very quick routine to get myself out of the house as I like to be at the wharf as soon as possible – the many cutters, builders and artists start at 7.45am so I like to be there to discuss things from the day before and what we need to try and achieve through this one. I then run between the rehearsal room where I watch my director (in this case, Benedict Andrews who is directing Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki in The Maids at STC) work with the cast; visit the various departments where things are being built; work in the fittings rooms and try to get out on the road to source anything from door handles to tea cups to designer shoes.

I rely heavily on the teams I work with but mostly, I turn to my amazing assistant Sophie who will always be near with a pen ready, a decaffeinated coffee and generally the answer to the question I was going to ask before I even ask it. She and I work as a little machine within a job that constantly changes schedule, environment, requirements and mood. The work day ends somewhere post rehearsals, often late into the evening with more planning, discussions and last minute changes to designs. Theatre is a form that constantly evolves and my work has to evolve with it to maintain a sense of relevance. My day ends somewhere way past this after a good dinner with great people and preferably some restorative margaritas…

We did not put this tape measure in Alice Babidge's designer handbag!  She has one at the ready at all times!  Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Which Australian creative people are you loving at the moment?

Benedict Andrews, director – Just being around him, let alone watching him work and the conversations we have, is exciting.

Sarah Mosca, artist – Such a wonderful use of scale and form. Her work is simultaneously familiar and foreign. We bought the most hauntingly beautiful photograph of hers for some dear friends who recently got married, there was something knowing and somehow appropriate in her work that we all loved.

Dr Lisa Cooper, artist – For reasons I cannot even explain. She is fierce and intelligent and exciting. Her work crosses may forms but is instantly recognisable. She is formidable.

Ben Briand, filmmaker – Such an exciting and different voice and eye to what we are used to seeing in this country. He is brave enough to continue to make and build on the work he knows is important and worthy.

Brenda Harvey, designer – A woman who makes the most beautiful leather goods, shoes and textiles with such integrity and taste. Seemingly effortlessly. And with the most beautiful daughter.

Kyle Montgomery, artist – An extraordinary young man who makes some of the most exciting and honest work I have seen in a long time. A multi disciplined artist whose work I would love to have a piece of on every surface in my home.

Kip Williams, director – A theatre director at the beginning of a very long and thrilling career. Fiercely intelligent and with a wonderful sense of emotional involvement he is one I am very much looking forward to working with.

Marta Dusseldorp in Sydney Theatre Company’s 'The War of the Roses'.  Directed by Benedict Andrews, Production Design by Alice Babidge. Photo - Tania Kelley.
Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media that you turn to when you're in a need of a bolt of creative inspiration?

I hang out a lot on Spotify, my mood dictates how I work and music dictates my mood.
032C MagazineI discovered this years ago when I was living in Berlin, it is beautiful and intelligent and always inspiring. I also love Self Service MagazineYimmy's Yayo blog, and anything by Juergen Teller.

What would be your dream creative project?

I am always working on my dream creative projects. My work is an extension of myself, it is very personal to me and wholly satisfying – so long as I believe in the work, it is beyond gratifying. The last project always makes me crave the next.

What are you looking forward to?

The end of the year! It has been huge for me this year already. I am going on a three day jaunt to New York in September to watch my brother marry his great love. I come home to rehearse Waiting for Godot for STC and The Ring Cycle for Opera Australia – two projects I am very excited about. It feels like this will send me straight to Christmas where, if luck goes my way I will be somewhere deep in England in the dark and the cold and the quiet.

Details in Alice's home office.  Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.


Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

My neighbourhood, Potts Point. I have always loved it but in the years I have now spent living there this feeling has really solidified for me. I am surrounded by my dearest family and friends, I am close to everything but when I am inside, it’s like a bubble. Sometimes I wonder if you ever really need to leave. It’s right near the city and the water, it feels crazily busy but beautifully suburban and the trees, especially the trees along Macleay St that I look out onto from my windows in any season, and any kind of light. I am so lucky to live there.

Your favourite fossicking spots in Sydney to buy the tools of your trade?

Sadly, one of my old favourites has recently disappeared. Oxford Art Supplies was my go to for model making card, tape, paints, watercolour paper, rulers since my days at drama school, anything I couldn’t find quickly enough in my studio I would replace on my weekly visits. Parkers Fine Arts in The Rocks has always been an old world love of mine so they are seeing me more than ever now. I am also a huge fan of HobbyCo in the QVB – scale grass, brickwork, carpet, tiny flesh coloured people, soldering supplies, I always walk out with things I don’t need and will never use but find strangely comforting.

What and where was the last great meal you had in Sydney?

Mr Wong. The sashimi salad. The dumplings. The duck. The brilliant wine list complete with the smart and witty sommeliers and the life-changing Johnny Rockstar manning the door.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

As with a lot of other mornings of the week, I can be found at Fratelli Paradiso with a table of my nearest and dearest. Where else is there?

Sydney’s best kept secret?

McKell Park in Darling Point. Dawn or dusk. With a drink and friend.

Details in Alice's home office.  Photo - Phu Tang, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email