Backstage with Alana Ashley

Backstage with Alana Ashley
Backstage with Alana Ashley

One of the most delightful moments when watching live theatre is the feeling of being completely transported into a new world. It goes without saying that great acting will achieve this, but the level of detail, creativity, and imagination that goes into the set design can at times be the most memorable.

This week we go #BackstageWith Alana Ashley, Masters graduate of Bristol Old Vic Theatre school, founder of the Whitecard Collective, makeup artist and set designer! Keep reading to find out how a script and some ideas can be transformed into a vibrant set.

Where did your passion for theatre come from?

From a young age I’ve been exposed to the world of theatre. I have five sisters and we were often   performing in the local parish theatre shows together. My parents are great fans, and we would go to the West End on special occasions to see the great musicals. Even now, every Christmas we get together to take all our kids to the Pantomime, all 22 of us. As you can imagine we take up a couple of rows. Sharing the magic of theatre to the next generation!

When did you realise you'd rather be backstage instead of onstage?

My career backstage came even before I started designing. I’ve been a makeup artist for nearly  20 years and would grab any theatre job I could. I love the energy of it all and being a part in making it all happen. There is something so wonderful about working with an amazing team of talented people to create a whole other world of sights, sounds and action. Ready to take the audience on an unforgettable journey.

And I was rubbish on stage!

Let The Right One In. Set design by Alana Ashley.
Let The Right One In. CAD model of set.

For those of us who just love to watch plays, with very little knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes, could you explain what the set design process is like for a new play?

This is a great question! It is a lengthy process that includes many different stages, requiring different methods, skills, and processes.

You generally start with a script, a director, a venue and an idea. I have to create a world in that the play exists. Originally working closely with the director to get the foundations down and then with all the teams that make it happen, scenic, construction, production and stage management, lighting, sound, costume and many more.

So many things need to be considered and realised. Once the aesthetics, budget, era, challenges, moments and movements are decided, the design is then built around the language and locations in the play. Each scene is dissected with a fine-toothed comb; who’s in it, what action that takes place, what props are needed, what is the meaning behind it, what’s the mood/ feeling, any challenges or special moments and then how can it transition to the next scene.

A basic, but to scale model is made from white card of the initial design. This is where all departments can see the shape of the design, the transitions between scenes and the movement and scale of the set elements. Walked through scene by scene, with a mood board to show colour, texture, lighting, projections and any other visual elements.

Every designer has their own method of communicating their ideas, mood boards, sketches, digital drawings etc. and this can change with each show depending on what is needed.

After the preliminary whitecard model has been confirmed, a more detailed finished model is made. Including all scenic finishes, props, set elements, and tiny little actors!

Complete digital drawings showing the dimensions and workings of the set and props for construction are completed. In-depth scenic plans, prop and set list are also finalised.

Then working closely with all departments it starts to take shape and come to life.

Most set designers also design the costumes as well…and that’s a whole other process added on top!


From whitecard to stage. Shirley Valentine at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.

Why did you create the Whitecard Collective and what have been some memorable achievements since the group started last year?

Whitecard Collective was born out of a need to connect and communicate to other graduate theatre designers. Shortly after completing my Masters at Bristol Old Vic Theatre school, the pandemic hit. My fledgling career had been abruptly halted. Like many others, the lack of social connections left me feeling isolated and a bit lost. So, I reached out to my fellow graduates and found that many of us felt like this. We created our own online community of graduate designers and now have over 400 members on our Facebook page.

It was a well needed platform during lockdown when all theatres were closed. In a time of uncertainty, it was place where we could support each other, share information and plan workshops to keep our skills and learning going. To still be part of the theatre family, even though the industry was dormant. We also saw it as a time and place to try and create a better working environment for early career designers, determined that when theatre opened again, graduates would be given better opportunities and pay.

We organised creative industry workshops, which also generated work for more established designers.

One of the highlights were our workshops in collaborating with Young Vic theatre. We invited graduates from different departments and explored the collaborative process, learning and understanding each other’s roles and how we can interact better.

How would you describe the Bristol theatre scene and why do you think it's so unique to other cities? 

The Bristol theatre scene is so exciting. Not only do you have the influential and supportive power houses like Bristol Old Vic, but there are so many current, young and really important theatre companies like the Wardrobe Ensemble and groups like Bristol Design Assembly.

Bristol is such a progressive and vibrant city, and this is reflected in the theatre that is happening  all over the city. There are so many creative people and opportunities/locations to make things happen here and a real sense of unity and support from fellow creatives.

First gig, last gig, favourite gig? 

My first memorable gig was Stone Temple Pilots at the Brixton Academy when I was about 14 - life changing! 

My last gig was Foo Fighters at the Milton Bowl.

My favourite gig was Chris Cornell, sadly, one of his last gigs. 

Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood? 

Guilty secret but I love Hold The Line by Toto.

Which artist/band/performer would you like to see perform at the YTL Arena Bristol, and why? 

I'd love to see Slipknot at the YTL Arena, what a show that would be! 

Can you share an all-time favourite song/a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?

It has to be back to my first ever gig - Stone Temple Pilots, Interstate Love Song.

To listen to our Backstage Playlist on Spotify, click here. For exciting updates at the YTL Arena Bristol, follow @ytlarenabristol on social media or sign up to our newsletter.