The Weird, the Wonderful and the Whimsical


The Weird, the Wonderful and the Whimsical

FINCH Scholarship Recipient Rebecca Howarth On Her Journey Into The Film Industry

“If you’re not creating something that gives you chills, that makes you laugh and cry and gasp no matter how many times you watch it, what’s the point of creating it in the first place?”

Watching Rebecca Howarth talk about production design is like watching a kid on Christmas morning – only without the threat of tantrums or a newly gifted nerf gun. An emerging talent who’s just completed her BFA at NIDA, she sits across from me musing on the craft she loves. “I think the thing about design is that it’s beautiful because you get to put a lot of yourself into a work, and then you get to sit back and watch it. It becomes its own entity.” Her eyes gleam and her voice bubbles with that kind of pure, unadulterated passion you can’t help but be drawn in by. 

It’s this passion that has propelled Rebecca to where she is today. She initially pursued a degree in history and philosophy at Sydney University, but devoted herself to community theatre on the side. “It was volunteer work. That was the joy of it. It was just this freeing side of my life”. The way she talks about this time is fast paced, animated – it’s clear the places and people still hold a lot of weight for her. It was on a production of My Fair Lady that Rebecca met her now partner of nearly six years. He stepped in when a cast member left the show weeks from opening, and she offered to teach him the waltz they’d been rehearsing. Sparks flew and were kindled over long nights of painting the columns of Covent Garden and lavish hues of Professor Higgins’ library. 

Eventually Rebecca decided the degree in history and philosophy wasn’t for her and decided to give production design a real crack. She was awarded the FINCH x NIDA scholarship for the unique perspective expressed in her work and has used the experience to build relationships and get hands-on experience in the industry. “I’m glad that I’ve had this opportunity. It’s amazing to see how welcoming people are.”

At NIDA, Rebecca cut her teeth on big-name productions. When I spoke to her, she’d just finished on a production of The Coronation of Poppea. It was the national premiere of Monteverdi’s opera with new orchestration by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. This new version, she tells me, is “a bit of a contemporary twist on an old classic”, an opera that includes “electric guitars and saxophones and things that didn’t exist back when it was first composed”. 

Rebecca developed the original design for the show, working closely alongside costume designer Cosette Mangas, as well as eminent Australian theatre director and former Associate Director at Sydney Theatre Company, David Berthold. “Every day I’d bring him a sketch model made out of foam board and pins, and we’d pull it apart, reshape everything, and then pull it all apart again. A lot of directors are afraid to go too big but David never said never.” This emerged in ambitious design that pushed the intense and erotic elements of Monteverdi’s drama. “We managed to put on a show with a mechanized toilet emerging from a trap door, a bathtub of water, and blood pouring from a tap all over a performer.

Rebecca is drawn to “the weird and the wonderful and the whimsical. Something that’s going to make an impact on people but also intrigue and enchant them.” She finds inspiration in fantasy and sci-fi work including the art of H.R. Giger, the Alien films, Lord of the Rings and Labyrinth with David Bowie. She chuckles, “I’m really obsessed with puppets and muppets and that kind of world.” 

She had the chance to develop this style in the NIDA x Triple J project, which sees NIDA design students paired with MFA directing students to create a music video for an artist chosen by Triple J. Rebecca created a music video for band Peach Fur alongside directing student Mehhma Malhi. “We went nuts with it. We went really weird and made a bunch of puppets.” The film clip has a sun-drenched, laid-back quality, following the band as they adventure through a leafy forest and interact with a number of playful puppets including a human sized dragonfly. To date, it’s one of Rebecca’s “proudest achievements” and she feels lucky to have made “a lifelong friend and collaborator” in Malhi along the way.


Having graduated at the end of 2023, Rebecca keeps her mentors’ voices in mind and speaks about the importance of questioning everything “Why is this thing great? Why is this necessary? Why are we going with this texture?” The FINCH scholarship has opened her eyes to the commercial world and moving forward she’s interested in balancing work in theatre and set design with film and screen projects like music videos, short films and TVCs. She laughs “I’ve been given a taste for it and now I’m insatiable.” 

Hit her up for production design work. Or a fascinating conversation about puppets and muppets… trust me, her passion is contagious.