Lee Newby has worked as an associate to set and costume designer Christopher Oram. He tells Giverny Masso about his West End design debut in James Graham’s Labour of Love…
You went from starting a maths degree at university to becoming a set designer – how did this happen?
When I was doing A levels I did maths, physics and art. I went to uni and did maths, but decided it wasn’t for me. I was living with some directors who went to the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, and they told me about the theatre design course there. It was the moment everything clicked into place; I thought: "Here’s a job that’s perfect for me."
How did your career progress after university?
My first job was with Christopher Oram with the Michael Grandage Company. Christopher has had a lot of assistants from my university. Christopher and Michael did a workshop at LIPA; I then wrote to Christopher, which is how I got the job. I was an assistant and then I became an associate. I owe Christopher and the Michael Grandage Company a lot, they have provided the building blocks for my career. Other people from my course have gone on to be costume supervisors and costume makers – there are so many different areas you can go into.
What’s has working on Labour of Love been like?
This is my first West End show. I’ve done about 12 shows on my own, including at the Southwark Playhouse. This is absolutely my big breakthrough. It’s an interesting play, a brilliant piece of new writing. It has its own kind of challenges, as it’s set over the course of 27 years in one office in a fictional constituency. I have to look at how an office changes over that time and how people change – 27 years could mean a lot, or not a lot at all. There are five versions of the office, so it’s like propping a show five times. We are using a lot of London-based charity shops. I have a costume supervisor, and we’ve been all across London, we’ve probably been to about 20 charity shops.
What is the most challenging show you’ve worked on?
They are all interesting in their own right. The challenge of it fascinates me, and every show gives you a new challenge. The most challenging, for me, was Carousel [at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera], working with an Italian artist who had never designed theatre – I was teaching him. He did a painting of each scene and I had to realise that.
Which designers have been role models for you?
Es Devlin, Bob Crowley, Anthony Ward and Tom Scutt. I was lucky to get to work with my biggest inspiration, Christopher Oram.
Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre in London from September 27 to December 2