Backstage with Natasha Mortimer
The path to a career in the creative industries is rarely straightforward. Many creatives are unaware of the opportunities out there, discovering dream jobs they didn’t know existed a few months ago. This is especially true in an industry like live events, where what goes on behind the scenes remains a mystery to many.
Natasha Mortimer began her journey as an architecture graduate before finding set design to be a viable career opportunity. Fast forward to 2022, and she now runs a design studio, Imagineerium, working with the likes of Netflix, Glastonbury and Boomtown.
What inspired you to get into set design?
Theatre is where it all started for me. My first memory of theatre is going to see Blood Brothers in Leeds when I was about 10. I was crying, laughing, and jumping out of my seat. A complete whirlwind of emotions I hadn’t experienced before from watching anything, certainly not from TV or film. And it was so creative in its storytelling.
I didn’t consider it as a career until I was at university studying architecture. Theatre to me had always been a hobby, something fun, and I didn’t work out that you could get paid to do it until I started getting involved in the Nottingham University student-run theatre. I designed and built six sets in my final year of architecture. I loved how hands-on it was. I was aware that architecture at university was likely a lot more fun than in practice and started to consider set design as a viable career.
My architecture tutors at Nottingham were hugely supportive, praising me for designing and building these sets even though it sometimes meant I didn't do any architecture work for up to two weeks at a time. One tutor put me in touch with a theatre designer who had come from an architectural background, Michael Vale. He inspired me further to go into theatre, and he gave me some down to earth advice about how to achieve it. Go travelling and experience cultures from across the globe, this will be your inspiration. And/or go and do a Master’s course for a year - you don’t need more than this.
There were a grand total of two MA courses in the UK, with a total of 14 spaces. So, taking Michael’s advice, I thought I'd attempt to gain a place on a Master’s course, and if that failed, I'd go travelling. I got a place at BOVTS, regarded as the top course in the UK.
I loved the course, it pushed me to my limits, but I learned a lot and gained an invaluable network of creatives. At the end, I was pretty broke, so travelling would be off the cards for a while until I started earning a decent wage.
You’ve worked on some of the most iconic UK music festivals. Can you tell us how you got involved with Boomtown and Glastonbury and what your experience was like?
After the sad realisation that trying to make it as a theatre designer was a lot of hard work with little monetary reward, I started looking for other career opportunities whilst giving myself a break and working my second winter season in the French Alps snowboarding. It was here I met friends who worked in the Alps through the Winter, and then at festivals in the Summer. I remember them showing me this festival called Boomtown, and I was blown away by the level of creative production. After that season, I got home and I applied to work at any creative festival I could. I worked behind the bar or at a food vendor just to get myself there, take everything in and have a look around.
I was working for Skewered at Love Saves The Day, giving away the leftovers to festival-goers, when I bumped into an old peer from BOVTS. Whilst chatting to her, she mentioned she was due to be taking the set down the following morning. I immediately asked how she was involved as I'd love to be designing, building, painting, etc., anything to be a part of the creative production. She told me to look up a company called Front Left. I did and one of the directors was involved with building sets for Boomtown! I attempted to cold-call them at their office with a portfolio, CV and cover letter in hand. I failed as I couldn’t find the entrance, so I rang up to see if they could let me in. They said they were busy but I could send a portfolio and CV to an email address.
At the end of this summer, I had already started to pick up odd bits of work for events through my BOVTS contacts in Bristol. I designed and decorated Bristol Beacon (then the Colston Hall) for its 150th birthday party. And I was draughting site plans for Richmond Event Management.
Front Left got in touch with me, and I asked them to meet me at Colston Hall’s 150th birthday event. They asked me to work as a CAD monkey for an exhibition all about ABBA and I gladly accepted. During my first week in the Front Left office I soon realised Front Left was actually a sister company of Boomtown, and they shared an office building. It was here that I met the Creative Director, Lak. He came down to the Front Left office asking Dan, Director at Front Left, if he knew of any designers who could do the Boomtown Christmas party. Dan pointed me out as a young budding designer and introduced us properly.
Lak interviewed me and I did the Boomtown Christmas party. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was managing many of the other core Set Design Managers for Boomtown’s main stages and districts to build the Crew Party set. It's probably best I didn't know as I think I might have been a bit starstruck and felt the pressure more. Anyway, I blew them away and they asked me to take on a district, The Main Drag, for the next festival. Soon after, they asked me to also take on The Mansion, Info & Merch, The Gates and the site-wide signage.
It is worth mentioning that as a set design manager you design and manage the whole thing from start to finish! Design, technical design, fabrication, crewing, RAMS, sourcing materials, on-site build and break. EVERYTHING. I was chucked into the deep end.
It was at Boomtown that I met others working across other festivals, including Glastonbury.
I imagine a very challenging aspect of your job are the tight timescales you must set up / set down within. How much does this influence your design?
I would say timescales do not influence the design. There is always a way. I’ve seen Saudi Arabia produce insane amounts of creative production (I didn’t think possible in six months) in the space of just four weeks. I’d say usually it’s the budget that can influence the design. We’ll always nail the concept first - not thinking about the budget. Then once we’ve got a strong concept, we’ll work on the best design possible based on the budget available. With festivals, the challenge is the biggest wow factor possible with the budget available.
Do you have any ‘pinch me’ moments from projects you’ve worked on?
The first moment I see a member of the public see the final result, seeing their jaws drop in amazement is the best feeling in the world!
The best was the moment The Forge was introduced to fellow Boomtown crew. It was the first music stage I had designed. At the crew party, no one knew they were going to open the triple-height warehouse space with mezzanines as it hadn't been open the year before. It was 10.30 pm, and suddenly the roller shutters opened up to a pitch-black room filled with smoke. As the smoke started to clear, the band started playing and the lights slowly teased, showing bits of the stage in short flashes. Then as the band went into the climaxing chorus the whole stage lit up. Watching everyone go wild was a moment I will remember forever. The lighting designer did an amazing job to show off the design.
If you could go back in time and offer advice to a young Natasha, what would you say?
Great question. Don’t ever let anyone tell you “The arts aren’t viable”.
When the pandemic started, I lost all my work, a career I had worked so hard to create was lost in a flash.
I was in the depths of depression, as were many of my friends and colleagues working in the events and theatre industry. When Rishi Sunak effectively told us the arts aren’t viable anymore, and to retrain, some people took it as a chance to move into other industries with their skills, but I wasn’t ready to give up on what the events industry could offer me. Eleven months ago, I officially started a company with another design colleague. We are Imagineerium, a creative agency fueled by the creative process. We bring stories to life with cutting edge technology, expert craftsmanship and theatrical artistry. Our spaces are created to inspire people to do amazing things.
Nearly a year in, we now have a design studio with eight desks, permanent staff and we’re only getting bigger. We have worked with clients such as VICE MEDIA GROUP, Netflix, Glastonbury, Formula 1, etc., to name a few!
It's been amazing to see many new ventures born in Bristol over the pandemic, including Lost Horizon and Propyard. I feel proud to be part of these other phoenixes rising from the ashes.
First gig, last gig, favourite gig?
First gig: Busted - I was an obsessed teenager
Last gig: Jungle at the Brixton O2
Favourite gig: Fighting my way through the busy crowd with my brother and sister to stand on the back of the MOJO barrier, with the best view, to watch Gorillaz at the Lion’s Den, Boomtown. That’s closely followed by doing the same thing to watch Andy C the following evening at Sector Six.
Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood?
- Two Fish and An Elephant, Khruangbin - a newfound love and feel-good song.
- Did You Really Know, Mungos HiFi - reminds me of the Main Drag district first opening on-site at Boomtown.
- Blackbird, Fat Freddies Drop - reminds me of snowboarding in Meribel.
- June Afternoon, Roxette - reminds me of car journeys with my mum when I was young.
Which artist/band/performer would you like to see perform at YTL Arena Bristol and why?
Fleetwood Mac. They’ve been on my wish list to see live for a long time and I’ve not quite managed it yet.
And finally, can you share a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?
Jungle - The Heat.