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Interview with Bettina John – MA Theatre Design student

Bettina John’s design for ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ at The Arcola Theatre
Written by
Sophie Kassay
Published date
23 August 2018

Bettina John is a graduating MA Theatre Design student, and is also a practicing theatre and costume designer and visual artist.

We caught up with Bettina in the lead up to the MA Show to discuss the work she will be exhibiting, her background in designing for dance and opera productions and her experience of the MA Theatre Design course.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to study at Wimbledon?

Before coming to Wimbledon, I studied a fashion degree in Germany and then an art degree from Goldsmiths, and I had been working in theatre already for about six or seven years. My career was going well, but I felt because I never had any formal theatre education or training that I was a bit behind. I often felt not that confident in my job. So I thought I should do an MA in Theatre Design and get a really good foundation, re-focus on pure design and learn to understand set on a large scale.

I applied to Wimbledon and came for an interview and talked to Michael Vale, the Course Leader. He said the course could be very beneficial for my career, and a lot of other people I spoke to about it said the same thing. It was one of the best decisions I could’ve made. It gave me the opportunity to think big and have confidence in my ability, and provided me with all the knowledge to back up my ideas.

A group of people sitting and standing on a stage in costumes.
Bettina’s costume designs for the ‘Goddess’ postgraduate contemporary dance show at The Place

Can you talk about your theatre and costume design practice?

I’ve worked a lot in dance, for example with The Place in London and also Trinity Laban, and I have also worked on musicals. None of these productions have involved a lot of set design; they were mostly costume design projects. I like to do both costume and set design for a production because then you have more control over the final outcome.

The last production I worked on was The Rape of Lucretia at the Arcola Theatre, which is a fringe theatre in Dalston. It’s a highly regarded fringe theatre; they do really good productions and everything is done in-house. The production was a part of Grimeborn Opera Festival 2018.

Opera is where my heart is, and an opera production was actually the first job I had when I first graduated from university in Germany. Designing for opera is where I want to be. It’s is a very different world to theatre. Your designs can be more crazy, abstract, symbolic, fantastic and surreal.

A stage set with a woman lying on the floor, a man sitting over her holding her hand and three other figures surrounding her.
Bettina John’s design for ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ at The Arcola Theatre

What work will you be exhibiting at the MA Show?

I’m going to show three pieces definitely, but maybe four. One is a Royal Opera House model box based on a Wagner opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen, another is a performance of Miss Julie at The Royal Court Theatre, and third is The Threepenny Opera by Brecht at The Dorfman in the National Theatre.

The reason why I chose Wagner for one of my designs is because he works with mythical figures, and I like the mixture of the real world and then the world that is hidden, but I believe is there. Opera is the perfect medium to access that world and make it visible. But also, Wagner used these stories to comment on the human condition, and he was actually a Marxist, which I found out only recently. When he wrote this first piece he was becoming very interested in the stock market, and a lot of his work is about the imbalance in society.

That’s what this tower I have made is about. It’s an inverted pyramid, with the most well-off at the top and the disadvantaged at the bottom. Most people are labourers, and the economy that the rich people benefit from is built on the backs of these labourers, but they have the least space, the least money, and the least facilities. That’s why the pyramid is upside down, it gets wider and more visually appealing towards the top, with brighter colour and a better finish.

I’m interested to see all of my classmates’ work in the MA Show, because it’s just amazing what everybody comes up with. I find everything really creative, amazing to look at and really inspiring.

A collection of colorful stacked boxes creating a house.
A work-in-progress shot of Bettina John’s Royal Opera House model box for Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, to be featured at the MA Show

Who are some of your design influences?

I follow quite a few designers that lots of people know like Es Devlin, Leslie Travers and Gary McCann. I love their stuff, but my work doesn’t look anything like theirs, no matter how much I try to do something different or achieve a different aesthetic. I’ve also recently been looking at more German designers and directors, because the industry there allows for a more radical approach to both design and interpretation of the text.

What have you enjoyed the most about the MA Theatre Design course?

I’ve really enjoyed having an exchange with a theatre design professional, Michael, on a regular basis. He’s helped me a lot and I’m going to miss that. I like the routine of the regular classes and the constant input and learning. I’m also going to miss the Library. Browsing books on a shelf feels so much more inspiring than looking on Amazon, because you might discover something amazing that you weren’t necessarily looking for.

An old woman lying on the floor with her head on the bed with another woman sitting over her holding her back.
Bettina’s set and costume designs for Menotti’s ‘The Medium’ in Germany

What’s next for you after you graduate?

I’ll stay here in London and I will apply for assistant jobs and awards. I’ll also go on my honeymoon! I got married last year. In terms of my art practice, I will be exhibiting some of my paintings in two upcoming exhibitions in Germany; one is a solo show and one is a group show. And hopefully the theatre and costume design work will keep coming in!

You can find out more about Bettina and her work by visiting her website and following her on Instagram.

The MA Show is taking place from Thursday 6 September (private view 6pm – 9pm) – Thursday 13 September. Find a full list of opening times on our website.

Find out more about studying MA Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Arts.