Royal Opera House Design Challenge

March 24, 2021

Blog kindly provided by Sarah Waterman
Project Manager, Design & Make
Learning & Participation – ROH Bridge Programme Manager Essex
Royal Opera House.

In 2010 the Royal Opera House moved its set production facilities from east London to the new Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production workshop at High House in Purfleet, on the north side of the Thames Estuary. Every original set design for The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet is now built and painted in this workshop space by our expert team of craftspeople, before being transported to ROH HQ for construction on the huge stage. Once the production run is over, the sets are taken to the ROH stores in Wales, where they are kept until that piece of the ‘rep’ is revived in a future Season.

In moving this large operation to the Thurrock neighbourhood, it was important, right from the start that the community could see what goes on in this distinctive building, with its living roof arching into the sky above the Thames. If you ever travel on the Shoeburyness to London rail line, you will see the huge living roof curving elegantly up from the houses below. Among a whole host of other projects working with schools and various groups in the Thurrock community, the ROH Design Challenge competition was created to open a window for young people onto the world of set design and theatrecraft.

It has been well-documented that while the creative industries in Britain account for £111.7bn of the UK GVA[1], there is a looming deficit in the number of young people training in many of the specialist careers needed to keep our theatre, film and TV industries running across the country, and that post Covid-19 the diversity of this workforce will also be compromised.

Design Challenge was conceived as a ‘live brief’ project to engage young people studying Art and Design specialisms at L3 and above. The annual competition offers options to design sets, costume, hair, wigs and make up or a marketing campaign for an opera or a ballet featuring in the ROH Season that year. The brief is set by a professional opera/theatre director, who sets the practical parameters and frames the brief by giving four possible approaches (or ‘visions’) to help the designers focus their interpretation. We provide free CPD sessions for tutors and lecturers, where they meet the director and a professional set designer. These sessions offer the chance to get to know the opera or ballet material, and to discover some new techniques and tools to pass on to the students when back in the classroom or studio.

The project has a strong focus on the design process. We encourage the young designers to fully explore their chosen abstract through visual research, reflection and prototyping, and to document this throughout the project. Also key to the competition is the student designer’s ability to relay the narrative of their design decision-making process in a 90 second presentation – just like a professional designer’s portfolio pitch. At the end of the process there should be a finished piece of work: a scale model, a costume or toile, a make-up demonstration or an item from a marketing campaign. The tutor then undertakes to judge their cohort, using the criteria set by the ROH, after which they submit their finalists’ entries to us. All the submitted final designs are seen and scrutinised by judging panels of designers and makers at the ROH. These panellists admit to looking forward to this as a highlight of their year, as it is so refreshing and inspiring to see work by these budding designers. Winners and ‘highly commended’ designers in each category are announced nationally and invited to a day at the Royal Opera House to celebrate their achievement and to mount an exhibition of their designs. During the day, they meet designers and makers and tour behind the scenes at the Covent Garden theatre.

Participation in the programme is completely free. For more information visit or contact We believe it’s so important that we see new and diverse work and stories on our stages, and Design Challenge is one way we can inspire a new generation of designers to tell these stories.

[1] According to the Creative Industries Federation, 5th Feb 2020

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