A Conversation with Penny Simpson

Penny Simpson is a costume designer and visual artist. After completing her theatre design studies at Sadlers Wells Design School, she returned to South Africa and began her career by joining CAPAB and designing for several of their productions. She has devoted more than 40 years to the theatre industry and has designed costumes for notable productions including; Hadrian VII, Miss Julie, Mother Courage and her ChildrenPresent Laughter, Relatively SpeakingShow BoatThe Diary of Anne Frank, Exit the King and Fiddler on the Roof, to name a few. Her most recent theatrical credits include; Blood BrothersSunset BoulevardCabaret and Rocky Horror. During the last several years, Penny has focused her attention on portrait painting. Several of her paintings can be seen displayed in the foyer of Theatre on The Bay. Currently. Penny has returned to her theatrical roots by designing the costumes featured in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, which is currently running at Theatre on The Bay followed by a run at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino in Johannesburg.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

Growing up, I had little to no theatre exposure. My career in theatre came about via a friend who was involved in amateur theatre. During my last year of Fine Arts at Wits, a person who could wield a brush was urgently required and I stepped forward. That year, I was approaching graduation and facing a year at Teachers Training College, to become an Art Teacher. The excitement backstage before the curtain went up and the smell of glue-size, that which was mixed with scenic paint, got under my skin. My brief stint as a set painter persuaded me the theatre was where I wanted to go but I needed further training, which was not available in South Africa in those days. After graduation, I escaped Teacher’s Training and went to London for a year and stayed for almost four years. In my last year, I found the Theatre Design course I was looking for: one post-graduate year at the Sadlers Wells Design School, headed by Margaret Harris of Motley Theatre Design Group, thus followed one of the best years of my life.

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Photo credit: Dean Roberts

Do you remember what the first professional production you designed for?

The costumes for Hadrian VII, part of the opening season of the Nico Malan Theatre. I was then the assistant to Raimond Schoop, who was contracted by the English Drama Department of CAPAB at that time.

The Performing Arts Councils still existed when you were beginning your career. How did that impact your career?

I was very fortunate on my return to South Africa in 1971 to be appointed design assistant to Raimond Schoop. He was a very experienced and exciting set and costume designer. At the time, all the Arts Councils received Government funding, therefore, theatre reached a very high standard during those years. Foreign directors and designers and performers were regularly invited to share their knowledge and experience with the drama departments and the opera and ballet departments. A fully equipped wardrobe existed with costumiers, seamstresses, a tailor and assistants, millinery, costume jewellery and wig departments. Actors were contracted, which meant stability for them and the opportunity to grow. Very good theatre was created during those years and I was very lucky to be part of that.

The Producers marks your return to the theatre after a few years away. What was it that attracted you to this production?

Michael Mitchell was approached to design The Producers. He did not see his way to design both costumes and sets in the time allowed and he approached me to design the costumes to which I agreed. Neither of us knew the play nor the musical, however the opportunity to work with Joseph Pitcher was not to be missed.

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Photo credit: Dean Roberts

Where do you start when it comes to creating costumes for the stage?

You read the piece thoroughly, research the period, the background, complete a costume and scene breakdown and then meet with the director, who in this case was Joseph Pitcher, who is UK based. So a two week period was set aside for us to meet with Joe in Cape Town to discuss the concept. Thereafter, it is back to the drawing board and when ready, designs are sent via a dropbox to London for the director’s perusal and comment. Meanwhile, the search is on for experienced and reliable cutters, seamstresses and prop makers who may be available to work on your project.

Has this production posed any unique challenges?

There are many! The Producers is a very frenetic piece with a relatively small cast and with many complicated costume changes in a very tight space. This poses many problems for the costume designer to create multiple characters successfully to change in double-quick time. Details are discarded and compromises made with both set and costumes therefore much is lost in the process which is unfortunate but necessary to keep the pace.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What would you say is the biggest misconception that people might have about the world of costume design?

Most, if not all, professional theatre wardrobes have disappeared. No workrooms of costumiers, seamstresses, tailors, milliners, wig makers and costume artists exist any longer. I was very lucky to head a very well equipped wardrobe for twenty years and am still able to call on some of those retirees to return to get the costumes out in time. But It has become a struggle to put a team together of experienced theatre-makers, and one has to outsource much of the work. In addition, we are in competition with the ever-expanding film industry, who are able to offer greatly superior salaries and we consider ourselves lucky to steal someone who is “resting” between films. The role of the costume designer has become a “one-man-band and bandleader.”  

Seguing into your visual art career, what is it that you like about working within the medium of portrait painting?

Portrait painting has been beckoning on and off for some time before I finally retired from theatre design. Faces and masks fascinate me for some reason, and oil painting was my favourite medium as an art student, so it made sense to put the two together and I recall when I graduated, our professor recommended I specialise in portrait painting. I ignored her comment and studied theatre design. It has taken some time to get back into painting, but it is now a source of great pleasure. I chose to paint the portraits of all those actors [and] designers I have worked with or have known over the past 40 years. It has been a fascinating experience and one I hope to continue until I run out of faces to paint, which I hope will never happen.

You had a big commission for the renovation of Theatre on The Bay where your work forms such an anchor of the newly renovated foyer. How did that come about?

What a marvellous commission it was! Pieter Toerien heard I was painting theatre portraits and invited me to call in at the theatre to discuss an idea he had. The outcome of this meeting was a commission to produce fifteen portraits to be positioned over the stairwell of Theatre on The Bay. I am eternally grateful.

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Photo credit: Dean Roberts

In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?

Theatrically, there are a few productions, set and/or costumes of which I can be proud which could probably be counted on two hands, out of hundreds of designs. One is never entirely satisfied. Latterly, my first solo exhibition I consider an achievement.

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

To name a few… From the art world: Judith Mason. From the theatre environment; Diane Wilson, Sandra Kotzé, Antoinette Kellermann, Sibongile Khumalo, costumier Eva Parsons and Margaret Harris, head of Sadlers Wells Design School and too important to leave out.


The Producers will run at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from February 5th until March 28th 2020. For tickets, click here.

The Producers will run at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino in Johannesburg from April 3rd until May 31st 2020. For tickets, click here.

Special thanks to Dean Roberts.

All photos were taken by Dean Roberts on January 22nd 2020 at Artscape

Dean Roberts maintains copyright over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.

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