Every emerging artist dreams of landing the big break that reveals them as a star on the rise. For multi-award-winning theatre designer Gabriela Tylesova, that crucial watershed moment would prove to be even more significant, with her first major professional commission also marking the start of what would become the most enduring creative partnership of her career.
In 2001, having only graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art the previous year, the Czech-born designer was tasked with creating the costumes for Opera Australia’s new production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. As early career opportunities go, the stakes could hardly have been higher. Not only was this a coveted engagement with the nation’s flagship opera company, but the show was also to be helmed by one of Australia’s most high-profile directors: Simon Phillips, at the time the artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.
For many fledgling talents, taking on such a make-or-break gig would be an intimidating prospect, but Tylesova accepted the job with an almost prescient fearlessness.
“It didn’t scare me at all, I don’t know why really,” she candidly admits. “I was just really excited by the work, the chance to create something on that scale. To be honest, I’ve never really ever worried about my work. In a way, I’m just like a child. I just think, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, I want to do that.’ I don’t let worry get in the way.”
Confident as Tylesova may have been in her ability to deliver costumes worthy of Opera Australia’s high standards, she was still an unknown quantity to Phillips, who had approached her on the recommendation of the production’s set designer, Michael Scott-Mitchell. However, even from their earliest meetings, it was clear that the pair shared a similar vision.
“When I saw Gabriela’s first designs for the show, I remember thinking she was the most incredible painter I had ever met. Just in terms of what she could deliver with a paintbrush, her designs were exquisitely beautiful,” Phillips recalls. “And that really resonated with me, because I’m very susceptible to that way of imagining a show. Whether or not the costumes themselves had actually worked was another thing, of course! But seeing her drawings for the first time was definitely a ‘wow’ moment.”
Fortunately, the reality of her designs for The Elixir of Love more than lived up to the promise of their sketches, earning her the first of many Helpmann Award nominations. She’s since racked up no less than eight Helpmann wins for both set and costume design, including one at this year’s awards ceremony for her last collaboration with Phillips, MTC’s 2018 production of Twelfth Night.
Tylesova’s triumphant 2001 debut propelled her career on an upward climb that would see her collaborating with Phillips again and again over the next two decades. The pair now boast an impressive portfolio of productions together, encompassing not only opera, but also theatre and big budget musicals including the Australian premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, Tim Finn’s Ladies in Black, and the recent smash-hit adaptation of Muriel’s Wedding.
The secret of such a fruitful partnership seems to be twofold: a distinctive appreciation of OTT theatricality – their shows are known for their bold, often opulent aesthetics – and a simpatico connection that has never yet put them at odds.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a time when I’ve said, ‘No I don’t think that’s right.’ The way Simon thinks about theatre, the way he talks about emotion, it always makes sense to me,” Tylesova says.
“Fundamentally, the thing that unites us is that we’re inter-encouraging,” Phillips adds. “Gab is not a designer who goes, ‘Leave me alone.’ She isn’t territorial about her part of the process. Our shows often start by us deciding that we want the show to feel a certain way – to evoke a certain emotion – and then everything grows and forms out of that idea as we work together.”
Their latest show is a perfect case in point. MTC’s new production of Shakespeare in Love – the stage version of the Oscar-winning film, created by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall in 2014 – will feature lavish, carefully observed Elizabethan costumes, but the show will still boast plenty of Phillips-Tylesova-ian twists.
“It’s not just a slavish reproduction,” Phillips says. “It’s almost like a collage in a way: elements of the film, of history, of our own vision for the play, and we’ve kind of ‘Dada’d’ them together.”
“There’s Shakespeare’s theatrical world on stage, but we needed another world outside of that, the world of 15th century England,” Tylesova explains. “So it’s quite a layered, meta-theatrical idea.”
“I still get thrilled by the solutions that Gab comes up with,” Phillips adds with a smile. “I’m like a kid in a candy store when she starts pulling out ideas. Every time, without fail, she always puts in something which I would never have thought of in a million years. But then again, that’s what I expect her to do, ‘cos she always does.”
Shakespeare in Love is at Arts Centre Melbourne until August 14.