Tiffany Abbott studied at Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), receiving a Bachelor of Production specialising in set and costume design and costume construction.
Since graduating in 2007 she has worked on a wide range of productions including musical theatre, dance, film, TV and drama theatre, gaining diverse experiences with countless techniques in costume construction and pattern making. In 2008, she was a recipient of the Besen Family Artist Program Scholarship and worked in the wardrobe department at Malthouse Theatre. While in Melbourne, she worked for the Melbourne Theatre Company, coordinating the construction of shows I Call My Brothers and Birdland. Tiffany was Wardrobe Coordinator for Short Black Opera’s production of Pecan Summer which toured to the Sydney Opera House, involving a cast of more than 50 young singers and over 100 costumes.
In 2018, she was the production designer for The Street Theatre’s literary classics Out Loud, War of the Worlds and Tourmaline.
THE STREET TALKED TO TIFFANY ABBOTT, DESIGNER FOR EPITAPH, LAUNCHING AT THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL IN OCTOBER.
HOW DID YOU RESPOND TO THE SCRIPT OF EPITAPH?
I found Ross’ writing extremely poetic, his beautiful descriptions of place, objects and the characters made it so easy for me to imagine the world we are creating. Whilst the story is brutal and honest in parts, it is also delicate handling of a difficult subject. I think that although the events happened almost one hundred years ago, it will still resonate with any audience and anyone who has experienced loss.
HOW DO YOU COLLABORATE WITH DIRECTOR SHELLY HIGGS?
This is the first time we’ve worked together and I’m really enjoying the process. We initially discussed our individual ideas for the piece, what Shelly wanted to achieve dramatically and what I wanted to achieve visually. Then I came back with visual references of my ideas. Shelly is really open to ideas and trying things out. She also has a great visual aesthetic about what she thinks will work. It’s been a true collaboration in the sense that all our ideas have been intertwined to create Frank, and the weatherboard house in Ballarat, and it has made this production a pleasure to be a part of.
TALK US THROUGH YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS WITH EPITAPH?
After reading the script a few times, I began with researching the period and the elements referred to in Ross’ script. I looked for interiors of Australian homes, and images of ordinary people at the time. I then produced an initial design concept which we had a two-day workshop to explore. This was a great opportunity for Ross, Shelly, Kristian and I to work through our ideas, what worked and what didn’t, and to build a clear picture of the story we want to tell. The workshop led us to simplify the design and strip everything back to the elements vital in telling the story. I then went back to my references and refined the final design based on what we had discovered.
TELL US ABOUT THE KEY ELEMENTS OF THE SET?
We are making the most of the venue presented to us by the Australian War Memorial. We have chosen an egg-shaped room, which has two windows looking out onto the exhibition hall. With the addition of a few simple props these windows create a great sense of ‘home’ and looking through them, a sense of the beyond.
A single chair enables Frank to manoeuvre the space, when it’s in one position he could be sitting in a train carriage, in another he is sitting at the kitchen table for tea. There is also a beautiful image of the chair vacant in the space, to remind us of those who didn’t come home. The third key element is a coat stand. Whilst a practical piece of furniture, with the addition of a coat and hat it creates the silhouette of a second presence in the room.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE PROPS FOR THE SET?
My preliminary design called for more props, extracted from what was written in Ross’ script, but after the workshop we realised that we only needed a few to tell the story. We wanted every object to have a purpose and carry a weight to it. So whilst Frank refers to many objects in the play, we rely on Kristian to make them real for us through his gestures and performance.
WHAT ROLE DOES DESIGN PLAY IN BUILDING THE CHARACTERS AND THEIR JOURNEYS IN EPITAPH?
The design provides the play and its characters a sense of time and place. It sets up the social standing and establishes for the audience the language with which we will be telling the story, without giving too much away. The simplicity of the design gives Frank more freedom to tell his story than if he were juggling too many props or set pieces. The design has been whittled down to the bare essentials, but still provides Frank a purpose and enough material to convey his message.
EPITAPH WILL BE PERFORMED AT THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL IN ONE OF THEIR GALLERIES. WHAT CHALLENGES DID THIS PRESENT IN YOUR DESIGN?
The staging of Epitaph in a museum certainly presented challenges I haven’t had to deal with before. The choice of venue was limited and unlike a traditional theatre we are unable to build our own set, so we had to find somewhere that worked with the story and provided a backdrop that we could take full advantage of. The show needs to be set up and down quickly by just a few staff, so everything must be compact and straightforward. There is no venue tech or theatrical lighting, so I had to be adaptable within the space. Having practical lamps that Kristian can operate himself are great tools in changing the emotion of the piece and don’t require technical support. Being a museum setting, there is also a level of historical accuracy that must be maintained, particularly in regard to military details.
WHAT IS ESSENTIAL IN YOUR KIT OF DESIGN TOOLS?
Reference materials, looking beyond the internet and its patchy reliability to books, magazines, museums and your local library. You also need adaptability and flexibility. Things change during the rehearsal process, ideas you once thought were perfect may no longer work within the production. Or there could be technical reasons why you can’t achieve the ideal outcome, so you need to be able to think on your feet and come up with other solutions. There also needs to be a degree of resilience, sometimes you have to cut an element that was close to your heart and it’s all part of the process of creating the best work ultimately.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Planning a holiday. Travel takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you experience new things. I soak up architecture, galleries, museums, local markets and anything new I can experience. When I come home I am always refreshed and ready to go with new inspiration. I’m also finding the Canberra spring magnificent. I’ve just survived my first winter and watching the seasons change has been really beautiful, the autumn leaves, the cherry blossoms, I can’t wait for the green leaves to appear. It’s so visual and something that you don’t experience in nearly the same technicolour splendour in Melbourne.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?
I’ve just finished the first season of The Detectorists. I love the unapologetically dry British humour, beautiful landscapes and whimsical score. I’ve also been enjoying classic films courtesy of Netflix. It’s refreshing to watch films that rely on impeccable writing and acting rather than CGI, such as Dirty Harry, Twelve Angry Men and It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m about to pick up The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I loved Arundhati Roy’s first novel The God of Small Things and am looking forward to her follow-up. Most recently I read Catcher in the Rye. I may have read it 20 years too late, as I found the protagonist Holden Caulfield to be a spoiled, obnoxious teen and couldn’t relate to him at all. I’m sure I would have responded entirely differently at 15!