'You have to be a jack of all trades'

Tom Piper, 42, is a freelance theatre designer and associate designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company

What do you actually do?

A theatre designer creates the world in which a play takes place: the set, the props, the clothes worn by the actors. It involves reading and understanding the play - the period, time of day and location in which it is set - and discussing how to interpret it with the director. I look for references online and in books, then sketch and make a detailed model of how the set will work in the theatre. The model is costed to make sure it's within budget, and goes through hundreds of variations before the set is finally built.

What's a typical day at work like?

There's never a typical day. I might be putting things together with the lighting designer, discussing the finish of a set with the people painting it, shopping for fabric, doing a costume fitting, or talking to an engineer about welding. Or I might be at home, working on a model, and then going to the theatre to talk to actors. I'm very involved in rehearsals, when things often have to be changed in response to how the actors interact with the set - a set typically takes six months to complete. In a busy year, I might take on 10 overlapping projects.

What's the greatest thing about your job?

It's that creative buzz of seeing your work brought to life on stage. It's the actors being applauded, but your work is part of it, too. There are subtle things you can do that can lift a show. At its best, the work helps the actors and director to tell a story. The other great joy comes from the creative relationships, working with an exciting director, for example, or an imaginative lighting designer.

What's tough about it?

It's very badly paid, especially when you start. The hours are long. There's a misconception that it's airy-fairy. When I began, I built the sets and sourced all the props myself, and regularly survived on three hours of sleep. It can be emotionally demanding, too. You have to keep your judgement, even when you're exhausted, and deliver your ideas to a deadline.

What skills do you need?

The most important thing is to be practical. It's a job for people who like finding out how plays work in performance - there are endless ways of interpreting a text. Change a teacup into a martini glass, and you've got a whole new story. You have to be a jack of all trades, doing technical drawings, telling a costume-maker which way a seam should run. And you always have to be open to learning new things. If you're doing a play that's set in a period you've never worked on, you have to master new information very quickly.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted your job?

Be open to as many experiences and ways of working as possible. Find out what kind of theatre you like, and get hands-on experience. Before doing a postgraduate theatre design course at the Slade, I was in student drama, working with an old school friend who happened to be Sam Mendes. He's now a Hollywood director, married to Kate Winslet. We'd go into student theatres and just lash things together. You could design film or TV sets, or even Santa's Grotto in a store. You can start on your own, or earn extra by working for another designer.

What's the career path and salary like?

The work is generally on a freelance basis, and income varies depending on experience and what you're working on. When you start out, you might only get paid £100 to design a set for a Fringe show at the Edinburgh Festival. For a regional show, you could earn £4,000; for a big Royal Shakespeare Company or National Theatre show, the set designer might earn £10,000.

For details of careers in theatre design, see the Society of British Theatre Designers' website: www.theatredesign.org.uk

For information on the Royal Shakespeare Company: www.rsc.org.uk