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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Production designer Rose Montgomery on opportunity and serendipity

Canberra-born set and costume designer, Rose Montgomery, says the core things she loves doing are being creative, learning about the world and working with other people in a collaborative way.

For Rose, following these passions and her gut instinct has led to work in theatre, opera, film, TV and music videos, at home and abroad.

Rose Montgomery with a model set design. Supplied.

When the former Lyneham High and Narrabundah College student finished school, she says she had no idea where she would end up.

Before completing a Master of Fine Arts in Design for Performance at the National Institute for Dramatic Arts (NIDA), Rose studied international studies and spatial design, with a focus on interior architecture, as an undergraduate at the University of Technology in Sydney.

“It was like throwing my hat into a ring. But looking back on it now, I’m so glad I trusted that gut instinct of mine.”

Rose says this is where she found a love for design and storytelling.

“It was such a great foundation for me, learning about bodies and space and creating a story around the built environment.”

As part of international studies, Rose explored cultural studies, with a focus on France and the French language.

“I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was perfectly aligned [with production design] – it grounds designs within a rich cultural and historical context.”

Although she was falling in love with designing spaces, Rose’s preference was for more creative, ambitious plans than were practical in the “real world”.

One of her tutors noticed this tendency and gave Rose advice.

“They steered me towards production design in terms of it not being something permanent, and not tied to convention or architectural rules,” she said.

“You can do anything. You don’t have to have a staircase with each stair a certain height. It’s about telling a story with the space.”

A NIDA production in 2018, for which Rose was set and costume designer. ©️NIDA, Lisa Tomasetti.

Gaining all sorts of experience

In the summer between finishing her undergraduate degrees and heading down a new path at NIDA, Rose won a place in an exchange program called MADE – Multidisciplinary Australian Danish Exchange – jointly run by the Sydney Opera House and its architect Jorn Utzon’s trust.

During the design residency, Rose spent time in Spain and Denmark living and working with five others, collaborating with engineers and architects.

“A huge part of my love for working with people from different disciplines came from this. It was transformational, bridging gaps and designing from different perspectives.”

After graduating from NIDA, Rose moved to London where she lived and worked for a year and a half, until early 2020 when she returned to Canberra for refuge.

“In March, when COVID was at the height of hysteria, it was definitely time to come back. As a freelancer and as an Australian, there wasn’t enough support.

“While I was there, I dived into the live performance scene, working as a designer and assistant designer on theatre, dance, opera and events.

“I built up a certain community there and loved working with them. I loved how busy and vibrant the theatre and live performance scene was.”

Her experiences overseas were wide and varied, including designing a pop-up store for Australian DJ Flume and working on “awe inspiring” operas with the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera. 

Rose is planning to go back as soon as it’s safe to do so, and in the meantime, she’s been fortunate to find work and receive grants in the heavily compromised industry at home.

Now living in Sydney, Rose works 12-hour days as a set and costume designer for Home & Away, while picking up freelance work for a pop-up theatre production and Australian pop duo Lime Cordiale’s most recent music video.

Earlier this year Rose was recognised as an emerging voice in Australian creative industries when she was awarded a spot in the inaugural ABC Top 5 Arts program.

In the new year, she and four other creatives will undertake the collaborative residency with Radio National at ABC Melbourne.

Rose recently worked on ‘This Modern Coil’ at The Pop Up Stairs Theatre in Redfern.

Source of inspiration becomes mentor

During her childhood and teenage years in Canberra, Rose frequently attended live performance with her parents.

“I do have a lot to thank Canberra for, and my upbringing in Canberra,” she said.

“My parents would always take me to see shows at the Canberra Theatre and a lot of live music, that’s always been a huge part of my life thanks to them.”

Some of the most memorable performances were from Bell Shakespeare and the Sydney Theatre Company. 

“For me, sitting in some of those shows I started to wonder if I could be involved in this world.”

Rose is a member of the Australian Production Design Guild and, as part of its mentorship program, she is now being mentored by award-winning set designer, Anna Cordingley, the creative behind seven Bell Shakespeare sets. 

“All those shows where I was sitting there being totally knocked off my feet – she’s my mentor now.”

“Serendipity can happen!”

Rose can see parallels between her and Anna’s visual interests and storytelling techniques, and she’s found their styles of communication a natural fit.

“She told me to pursue every opportunity and I’m definitely someone who vouches for that.

“You never know if something can lead to something else.”

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