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Profile: Natalie Johnson, designer

Monday 10 June 2024

Profile: Natalie Johnson, designer

Theatre & Performance Design graduate Natalie Johnson (2017) was named as runner-up, with director Sam Woof, in this year’s JMK Awards for their proposed treatment of Colder Than Here.

The JMK Awards is set up to support emerging theatre-makers with the winners given an opportunity to stage a full-scale production at the Orange Tree Theatre in London.

We caught up with Natalie, who’s about to finish a 12-month design bursary at the National Theatre, to find out more about the JMK Award and what she’s been up to since leaving LIPA.

Congratulations on being runner up in the JMK Awards. Can you tell us about your work with Sam Woof and Colder Than Here?

With Colder Than Here, Sam and I were both drawn to the joy and uplifting quality of the play in contrast to its tragic storyline. Though the text deals with loss and grief, to us the more pertinent feeling was that of change and acceptance. We wanted to shift the lens to how families persevere beyond their grief, and how things around us leave impressions on our lives and surroundings.

The play flips between interior and exterior settings with each scene, and we weren't interested in trying to achieve big scene changes while in the round at the Orange Tree, so instead we made this domestic setting that slowly disintegrated to a bright blue sky. Items of furniture would gradually be removed from the space and leave behind impressions on a carpet. The focus was a space that remembers what was once there and is forever changed because of that.

Since graduating in 2017 you've been very busy as a designer, associate designer and assistant designer. Which production are you most proud of and why?

In 2021 director Matthew Iliffe contacted me and asked me to read Bacon by Sophie Swithinbank. I'd not read something so devastatingly great before, so I was desperate to design it. We agreed that we wanted to present an abstract space that was dynamic and operated by the actors, so that they conjured their worlds and not us; the production team.

Bacon is a two hander and the power and energy constantly shifted from one character to the other like a Newton’s Cradle. I'd read somewhere this idea that there are no public spaces for teenagers; they're too old for parks, too young for bars, so often they reclaim playgrounds and make those spaces their own. All of this led to our big concrete seesaw that two wonderfully talented actors commandeered.

This was one of those projects where everyone really believed in the concept and were totally supportive of building the show to embrace this moving piece of scenery. I felt super lucky to have that faith from the whole team.

Bacon photography: Ali Wright

What's the most important thing you've learnt since graduating - and what was the most useful thing you learnt at LIPA?

LIPA taught me on day one to know that everyone you meet could be your next employer or collaborator. And that is really how it has felt since - like one giant networking event. Sometimes that's great and sometimes it's like every day is a job interview, but even that is exciting. More recently I've been assisting some more established designers, and they've sort of indirectly taught me to confidently take up space in the production team. I think as an 'emerging' creative you're sort of expected to feel lucky to get a job as a designer rather than confident in what you bring to a process.

What's next for you?

I'm coming to the end of a 12-month design bursary that I've had with the National Theatre to develop my practice and making work at scale. My role is basically a resident assistant designer here, so I’ve supported across most productions which has been hugely inspiring, and a really welcome pause to the hamster wheel of freelancing. Up next is a production that will start at Roundabout in Edinburgh and transfer to Hampstead Theatre about two bellringers awaiting an approaching storm. It's deeply moving and really funny, and only has the very simple task of making mushrooms grow live on stage... which we haven't quite worked out yet.

You can find out more about Natalie’s work at her website.