Our series of photographic portraits by Charlotte Stone shows Bristol people at work
Emma Cains freelance theatre and costume designer


I regularly work with Bristol Old Vic, designing sets and making costumes for their many and varied productions. This Christmas I’m working on their revival of Swallows and Amazons, the 2010 smash hit which toured the UK, had a run in the West End, and has now returned home. The show was originally designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, so it’s important to me that the set and costumes remain true to his original production design. Very few pieces have survived from the original staging of the show, so it’s my job to oversee the remaking and reworking of new elements which will sit alongside the existing ones in harmony, while giving a new and fresh feel to this current production.

The great thing about working on this show, is that a lot of the costumes and props mentioned in the script are conjured from the characters’ imaginations, so in order to do this justice, you have to put yourself in the mindset of a child at play. We have had a great time re-creating the costumes for the show, and have tried to find fun and universal references within them that everyone can identify with from their own childhood. It is always a joy to work with the Bristol Old Vic.

My Dad used to take me to see the Christmas shows there when I was little, so this theatre is very dear to my heart, and was partly responsible for my decision to pursue a career in theatre design. I remember the moment I discovered this job existed at aged 16, and I decided there and then that this was the perfect opportunity to explore such a creative career, blending my love of art, music and live performance. It’s a unique and special experience to be part of the rehearsal process, watching the creativity of the actors in the room, adding incredible touches and nuances to bring the show to life. And then to sit anonymously in the audience with your work showcased on stage, gauging the audience reaction.

During previews, you might be able to spot the creative team – we’ll be the ones sat near the back fidgeting, gripping the arms of our seats and furiously making notes about how to improve the show for the following night’s performance. Being a part of any theatrical production is exhilarating, challenging and above all extremely hard work, but the best thing is working alongside all the other amazing creative individuals who help to create a magical experience for our audiences.

Emma has been working professionally in theatre for the past 13 years, after completing a design degree at Nottingham Trent.She has designed over 60 theatre productions, and also worked in various roles for film and television, as well as running workshops and lectures on stage design.