Tony Winner Bunny Christie Says a Designer Should Have 'Wild Ideas and Imagination' | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Tony Winner Bunny Christie Says a Designer Should Have 'Wild Ideas and Imagination'

The set/costume designer on creating an immersive space for the Guys and Dolls revival in London.

Graphic by Vi Dang

Tony winner Bunny Christie—whose work was most recently seen on Broadway with her scenic and costume designs for the Tony-winning revival of Company—is currently represented in London with the hit immersive revival of Guys and Dolls.

The Scotland-born artist designed both the set and costumes for the acclaimed revival of the Frank Loesser musical at the Bridge Theatre, where she previously designed a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Evening Standard Theatre Award winner Guys and Dolls is currently running through August 31.

In addition to the recent staging of Stephen Sondheim's Company, Christie's Broadway credits also include set and costume designer for both James Graham's Ink and Simon Stephens' The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She was Tony-nominated for her scenic design for all three productions, winning the prize for Company and Curious Incident. She has also received four Olivier Awards for her set designs.

Christie has worked extensively at the National Theatre, designing in all of their theatre spaces; initiated the National Theatre Design Bursary, which supports two emerging designers each year; and is a founding member of Scene Change, a collective of theatre designers. She was also awarded an Order of the British Empire for services to the U.K. theatre industry. 

Christie's current projects include an adaptation of a Dickens novel for the National, as well as the forthcoming Broadway transfer of Elton John's London musical Tammy Faye.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Christie explains the challenges of designing a production that allows the audience to move around, and whether Guys and Dolls will transfer to Broadway.

Company of Guys & Dolls Manuel Harlan

Where did you train/study?
Bunny Christie: I went to Central School of Art, where I did a foundation course and then a degree in Theatre Design.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
Mmmm, no not really. Pamela Howard taught us in first year and was very tough. When we were presenting our designs, she banned us from saying “sort of” or “um” or “ah.” Good training!

What made you decide to become a costume/set designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
I am from Scotland, and when I was at school, I went to see shows at The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. The theatre was in an area called The Gorbals, a very run-down working class part of Glasgow. The building was like a glowing palace in the midst of rain and run-down buildings. One of the artistic directors was Philip Prowse, an amazing designer, doing stunning decadent designs with small budgets and a company of young, beautiful actors.

It felt like a magical world that I wanted to be part of.

Did you originally set out to be both a set and costume designer?
Yes, that’s generally how U.K. designers work. I do love doing both and having a complete sense of the visuals working together. I like to be very involved in the whole production design so that all the aesthetics work together.

Cast in Company Matthew Murphy

Can you share one memory that stands out from working on the Broadway revival of Company?
Well, the biggest memory is Broadway closing down during the pandemic. We were in final preview performances and still making changes and reworking the show and playing to a packed theatre every night. News came through that all Broadway theatres were closing, and we were all in the theatre and onstage—it was so strange. We just went back to our apartments, packed, and headed straight to the airport in a horrible rush.  When I came back a year-and-a-half later, I walked back onstage with everything exactly as it was when I had left, but covered in a fine layer of dust. 

Another happier memory is that it was my birthday on our first preview, and at the drinks party afterwards, Stephen Sondheim joined in with singing me "Happy Birthday"—pretty special!

What are the particular challenges/considerations when designing an immersive production like Guys and Dolls? Any chance it might come to Broadway like the Company revival did?
I’d love to take Guys and Dolls to Broadway.

The challenge is finding or building a theatre that allows us to do the show as we do it at The Bridge Theatre. The audience moving around and being included in the performance is such a big part of the show. The set is constantly rising and falling, so keeping both audience and performers safe is a big part of the show each night. It was hard to rehearse that aspect and for the company to know how that would really feel and affect choreography and timing.

Alex Sharp and cast in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Joan Marcus

If someone were to ask you to choose one costume and/or one set design from any production to put in a time capsule that is representative of your work, which would you pick and why?
I would probably choose Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was a very special show, and I'm hugely fond of everything about that production and team and how exciting, fun, and satisfying creating that show was creatively. It's one of the few shows I've done where I knew it was really something as we were making it, and the design was so crucial to the style and energy of the show.

Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
Honestly, all the freelance theatre community—it's been really tough the past few years. Big respect due to everyone hanging on in there, making the work, and telling the story. 

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Be prepared for the long haul. Be on time. Don’t take on too many things at once. Take holidays. Re-charge. Be brave.

What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
It took me a while to realize that designers don’t need to have all the answers. We don’t need to know how to achieve something—our job is to have the wild ideas and imagination. It’s much more fun to come up with something that feels impossible or challenging and then rely on all the experts we work with to figure out how to realize our dreams. One of the best bits of the job is how many incredibly talented builders, engineers, painters, craftspeople, inventors we get to work with. All of these people work in the theatre because they like playing with idea and stories.

What is your proudest achievement as a costume/set designer?
I think surviving in a tough industry—keeping going and trying to stay true to the ideas and imagination of the writers and directors whilst having a family, bringing up children, and having a life away from work … I love it that no week is the same—that each project and team and space is so different. Some of the very best times of my life have been times spent on shows. Getting to travel and work in other countries or cities is a total privilege, and theatre people, especially performers, are really good fun. I've had so many hilarious, wild, playful moments.

I feel really lucky to have worked in an industry that is about giving people a great night out and telling stories and making pictures.

Photos: The New Cast of the West End's Guys & Dolls in Rehearsals

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