Cool Jobs Q&A: Set and Costume Designer

Maclean’s Cool Jobs: Camellia Koo, a set and costume designer in Toronto, explains how a typical day on the job is anything but typical


  • Set and costume designer, Toronto
  • Education and training: Four-year bachelor’s degree in performance production from Ryerson University; Apprenticed as an assistant designer for several more established designers; One-year master’s degree in scenography from Central Saint Martins at the University of the Arts London
  • Average yearly income: $60,000-$70,000
  • Years on the job: 16

How did you get into this field?

My whole family is in the arts. We would always hang out backstage at my grandfather’s performances. In high school, I helped out with the musical, but I knew I didn’t want to be on stage. After high school, I went to Ryerson. I worked for free and as a volunteer at the SummerWorks and Fringe [festivals] during those years, assisting other designers. Then I was lucky to hook up with [designer] Michael Levine. He’s been my professional and personal mentor for all this time.

Describe a typical day on the job.

There isn’t a typical day on the job. Every day is different, because every show is different. I started the day working on one show, doing costume-fitting and measurement for an actor. Tonight when I get home,
I’ll be working on a set for a different show.

What’s your most memorable moment on the job?

I got to go to Japan. I was an associate designer for this other designer. He wasn’t able to go. The project was Candide. I was assisting Michael Levine. I had to help build a model for it. When a company in Japan was going to revive it and Michael couldn’t go, he asked me to go for him. So I got to Japan for seven weeks in 2010.

What advice do you have for aspiring costume and set designers?

Make sure you really love what you’re doing. The first seven to 10 years are going to be a ton of work and you’re probably not really getting paid very much at all. Don’t give yourself a deadline and say, “I need to make this much money, or work on these types of shows by this age or I’ll quit.” I’ve seen people do that and it’s really sad.

Which projects are you working on right now?

I’m working on a very classical ballet, Sleeping Beauty. I’m doing a show at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto called Wormwood. It’s a pretty cool play, but it’s hard to describe. In January, I go to Edmonton to work on Carmen, the Opera. There’s a show at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre called The 20th of November. I’m pretty booked until June.

Is it typical to have so many projects going on?

I try not to overlap them too much. There are people I really want to work with. Some people don’t take no for an answer.

Do you have a preference between costume design and set design?

If it’s a modern-day piece, I’d rather do set. If it’s for opera or ballet, like a period piece, then I like to do both. I will very rarely, only once in the past 12 years, come to think of it, do just costume. I think I’m a better set designer.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.