Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Braw and The Brave Meet.....Kirsty McCabe

Kirsty McCabe is a Freelance Theatre, Set and Costume Designer based in Glasgow. A Royal Conservatoire graduate (formerly RSAMD), Kirsty has sculpted a very exciting, successful career for herself. Her mantra is "work hard and be nice to people" and she's living proof that this is sound advice for any budding designer, having worked with the likes of Tron Theatre, Scottish Opera, National Theatre of Scotland and Scottish Youth Theatre on a variety of productions and projects. She designs and creates the most stunning sets and costumes and I personally adore her work....hence this interview! 

"To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul" (Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) 

 Body-swerving her dad's suggestion to become a dentist, Kirsty quite vividly remembers the moment she realised what she wanted to do. "I went to see 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' and I completely fell in love with it. I thought it was fantastic and the set was beautiful. I thought I could do that, it just clicked" . However her love affair with creating spaces didn't begin there. Much younger, at aged 8 she could be found, way past bed-time, rifling through Argos catalogues "designing plan views of homes and fitting in furniture to imaginary rooms". All through school she hadn't always realised or considered that her obsession with creating places and could be a career option. Deliberating over an Art School route vs a more practical Theatre production course in her final year at secondary school, it was a battle won by the latter, as Kirsty wanted to be around people and the initial idea of studying sculpture seemed potentially a rather solitary existence. Surrounding herself with like-minded people has been what Kirsty attributes to the success she's enjoyed thus far. Her studies introduced her to the world she was so keen to be a part of and she found herself, straight out of university, working at the Tron Theatre on her first design job. It's evident that Kirsty was meant to pursue a career in design. She'd been blissfully unknowingly preparing for it from a young age & her pockets full of stones & acorns were just the start of something beautiful.

A Present State. Photo by John Johnstone

'Here are a few of my favourite things....'

 Having worked with Kirsty on a few productions recently, I was interested to find out what exactly her creative process looks like from the get-go. As a Choreographer, I have came in to the equation in the later stages of the project where her vision and it's execution is already in full swing and so I haven't been privy to her work from the outset. Although each project will have it's own specific research and 'mood boards' of ideas to work from, Kirsty is on a constant collecting and creative adventure, looking at the world around her for inspiration. Taking photos, mental snapshots and picking up little treasures where ever she goes that she can keep and use as and when she needs them, it's something she's been doing all her life.  "When I was a child, I thought your 'collection' at Sunday School was your collection of things that you would show people, like everything in my pockets....". She works best in her studio, surrounded by her 'collection', sorting and sifting through everything she's gathered as inspiration, with a deadline but leaving things to the last minute. Personally, I can be the same with my work and can often be found apologising for the fact, when, as Kirsty says quite rightly, if that's what works for you, you shouldn't see that as a negative. If there's a hint of pressure that is often what can help you pick out the most attractive, best-fitting options from the jumble-sale of the ideas in your mind. They are all there, you just don't make your selection until you really have to. Kirsty calls this the moment when she feels like she's 'cracked it'. She knows what the language is and developing it now seems possible. Kirsty creates rules or parameters for herself, whether that be a distinct colour palette or certain materials used as a starting place and says it's all about finding the 'right' rules for the piece.

"If I can find that visual language...know the rules of the world I'm making then, it means that as things change, it's still what I want". Kirsty explains that her style is ever-changing with each project she works on but there are things she'll find herself going back to time and time again. Her love of a good pom-pom (who doesn't love a pom-pom?!) has meant she's been known to endure a repetitive strain injury to bring her vision to life. Talking to Kirsty, you can see she thrives on the creative process and is thorough in her practise to ensure the language she's created is clear throughout the entire design.

Snow Pals, Tron Theatre, Photo by John Johnstone

Navigating through the Dragon's Den of Theatre Design 

 Aside from her own artistic style, as designer working with a team of other creatives, Kirsty has the (at times!) unenviable task of taking either a Director's very specific vision or trying to make sense of vague ideas as to how they see the performance and then shaping these with her own ideas to make it work. This is something she has mastered through experience.  Inevitably this is where self doubt can rear it's ugly head, when her suggestion for the look of a show needs to marry up with what the Director thought they wanted or be the missing jigsaw piece that she has been entrusted to find. Critiquing and doubting your own work is tough going at the best of times but handing it over for scrutiny in it's infancy? Now there's the rub. Her explanation of the initial production meeting where she presents her design to the Director and Technical team makes it all sound positively terrifying. "In that meeting there's no room for praise. If you're worried about it, you're not going to be consoled. That meeting is purely for my ideas to be picked apart, will it work?" Doubts or excitement for what she has planned aside, Kirsty explains that this, however painful, part of the process is essential and you just have to develop a thick skin to shield you from what feels negative to move forward. Consideration of cost, time and manpower required, it's all about finding a balance of what is feasible without compromising her vision."The team are finding all the negatives for you....You need to do that as you need it to work". Getting the team excited enough to want to make it all happen can also make things easier, especially when it involves them "flame-barring endless bales of hay in a paddling pool". Standing your ground on the must-haves, yet having alternative options on stand-by to pull out of your magician's hat when the final answer is no, is all part and parcel of Kirsty's role as designer. "It's a lot of diplomacy but it's satisfying once you get to the end and you've come through all of that and it still looks like what you wanted it to". 

 Preferring to be on board from the beginning of a project, she can then have a constant dialogue with a Director to construct something they both are happy with, that works best. Communication from the get-go makes for a smoother and more enjoyable creative experience. "As the years have gone on , the process is of making something has become more important for me".


 When your passion becomes your work it's difficult to power down from it all but this is something that Kirsty happily accepts. "I used to go see loads of theatre as a way to switch I go to see shows and most of the time I'm thinking about how I would have done it". The exceptionally long hours also aren't a problem when you love what you do and Kirsty just embraces the opportunity. "It becomes a piece of who you are as you spend so much time doing it and thinking about it". Aware that some family members and friends may not always 'get' what she does, Kirsty admits that it's only been in recent times that she has realised that she is, in fact, a business woman. Being immersed in what you are doing can often blind sight you as to the path you are on and who you are as a Creator. Acknowledging that she is actually running her own business has changed how Kirsty now sees her work. She advises that as freelancer it is useful to at points to "take your own personality out of the equation and think about what you can offer, what skills you have and how much value there is in that"When your personality and your life's work are so closely entwined it's important to view them as two separate threads and so when promoting your work, you aren't promoting you - it's your product. That's not to say personality isn't important in the industry and remembering that your reputation proceeds you will often be a key to your success. Kirsty is a lovely person who gravitates towards and values that in others. "I don't hire people, even if they're ridiculously skilled, if they're not good to work with. I'd rather hire someone who I can get on with"

Elf By Herself, Tron Theatre. Photo by John Johnstone

What About...?!?!

What’s on you iPod right now?
I just love 90's R&B! I'm loving the resurgence of Craig David..!

If you could have an unlimited amount of something, what would it be?
Extra Strong Mints - that's my complete go to.

 Favourite word?
Coorie! It's the nicest word!

Last book you read?
I'm reading Tennessee Williams' memoirs again at the moment.

Biggest pet peeve?
Rude people. There is just no need.

Favourite film?
Probably 'Clueless' right now!

Favourite smell?
Bread. All the bread!

What’s the best bargain you've ever got?
I got a brilliant leopard print pencil skirt for a £1 and I wore it endlessly.

Finish this sentence…. “I'm happiest when…..”
I'm in my bed....coorie in!

What’s the best invention ever?
Probably the coat-hanger..?

What advice would you give your teenage self? 
Chill out! Don't be so serious! 


Kirsty is always willing and aiming to try new things and branch out. From teaching herself how to design her sets on Google Sketch Up to mentoring students, she's keen to constantly diversify. There's no big grand plan or one route she is following but there's sure to be many journeys and adventures as she doesn't pigeon hole herself or limit her imagination. With an abundance of skills and armed with enthusiasm, Kirsty is keen to learn, know and create more. Her social media handle may be @youluckypanda but it's purely hard graft, talent and passion that has got Kirsty to where she is today! She is mild mannered, always smiling and all about the PMA! She has time and interest for what you are doing and although passionate about what she does, isn't boastful. Her work is beyond beautiful and her drive, inspiring. I'm thrilled to have had the opportunity to meet and work alongside her in recent times and hope to continue to.  She deserves every success and I'm excited to see what she does next! 

Get involved!

Kirsty is teaching Set & Costume Design Classes which start in the Autumn at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow.
The term starts on the 6th of September and runs on Tuesday nights, 7pm-9pm, until the 29th of November. 
Open to any adults interested in theatre design-no previous knowledge or experience necessary! The term costs £110 (£100 concession) and includes all materials. 
Secure YOUR place by getting in touch with the Tron Box Office on 0141 552 4267 or to find out more, contact 

Go follow Kirsty on Twitter @youluckypanda

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