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National Life Stories: An Oral History of British Theatre Design

The recordings within this collection cover a significant period within the history of British theatre design, documenting the emergence of revolutionary approaches to theatre making alongside the growth of theatre design as a subject within higher education.

English National Opera set design [34KB]

Valkyrie, the 2004 English National Opera production (photo: Robert Workman)


During the second half of the twentieth century, British theatre designers received unparalleled international acclaim for their work, yet access to information about the profession that realised this success has been limited and theatre designers’ own perspectives have rarely been documented.

Initially consisting of six recordings, the collection has been expanded to include a further 23 theatre designers as a result of an AHRC-funded PhD project in collaboration with Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London (completed in October 2009). In addition, An Oral History of British Theatre Design includes a number of recordings charting the influence of the practitioner and teacher, Richard Negri.

The collection uncovers a rich web of otherwise undocumented knowledge and reveals threads of commonality across generations, bringing to light influences and shared values across the period. Listeners to the recordings can hear practitioners such as Yolanda Sonnabend recalling the first time she designed a tutu for the Royal Ballet; William Dudley describing his work on the acclaimed National Theatre productions of The Mysteries; or Alison Chitty reflecting upon the teaching she received from Ralph Koltai at the Central School of Art and Design, amongst a wealth of other fascinating material.

Partners and sponsors

  • University of the Arts London
  • Wimbledon College of Art
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council

Research advisory team

  • Principal Investigator: Hilary Baxter
  • Director of Studies: Professor Rod Bugg
  • Supervisor - oral history: Cathy Courtney
  • Supervisor: Dr Robert Perks
  • PhD Researcher: Elizabeth Wright

Related recordings

  • For other oral history collections relating to theatre and design see visual arts and crafts and performing arts. These collections include life story recordings with Jocelyn Herbert and Margaret (Percy) Harris.
  • For other relevant material and live recordings and performances see drama: audio and video collections.
  • The Theatre Archive Project was a five-year collaborative project between the British Library and Sheffield University, and funded by the AHRC, to reinvestigate British Theatre history between 1948 and 1967. For more information, visit the Theatre Archive Project homepage.

Accessing the collection

To access oral history material:

  • Search for oral history recordings held at the British Library using the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue (see useful advice on searching the oral history collections).
  • Onsite access to oral history recordings: The Listening and Viewing Service in St Pancras provides free public access to the oral history collections on an appointment basis. Many digital recordings are also available via SoundServer, a computerised listening facility located in the Humanities Reading Rooms.  SoundServer is also available at the British Library’s site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
  • Internet access to selected oral history recordings: The British Library Sounds website gives remote access to a selection of interviews from the Library’s oral history collections. Some recordings are currently only licensed to Higher and Further Education users in the UK, others are available for full public access.

Further information

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

T +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History  / Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Curator, Oral History / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Archivist, Oral History)