When one lecturer started talking about the male and female parts of a connector, Minto didn't know what he was on about, and only when she put her hand up to ask and it was explained that the male part had prongs on and the female part didn't did the penny drop.
Twenty-five years on, Minto is one of the most prolific theatre designers in Scotland, who has worked with the likes of the National Theatre of Scotland, Grid Iron and Vanishing Point as well as most building-based companies in the country. Last year she capped off more than two decades of experience as associate designer of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow, and actually designing the closing ceremony.
This year, in the thick of a busy year which has already seen her win plaudits for her design of Dundee Rep's production of Great Expectations, Minto has seen her work honoured in exhibitions in Nottingham and Prague before transferring to the V&A in London this week.
Make/Believe: UK Design For Performance 2011-2015 is a quadrennial exhibition presented by the Society of British Theatre Designers, and which this year took place in Nottingham. As one of more than a hundred exhibitors, Minto's work was represented in both film and photographs by her designs for White Gold, the site-specific spectacular produced in Dundee by the Iron-Oxide Company, and the car-based Ignition for the NTS, which took place on Shetland.
Twenty-two exhibitors were selected from Nottingham to represent the UK at the Prague Quadrennial of stage design, with Minto being the sole Scotland-based contributor before an expanded version of the show transfers to the V&A this week.
“It's nice being in the same building as Alexander McQueen's exhibition,” says Minto. “Prague was brilliant as well. It was lovely to be picked, and when I looked at other people chosen from the UK like Es Devlin and Neil Murray, it was such an honour for my work to be seen alongside them.”
Devlin has worked extensively for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and designed the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Murray was for several years associate designer, and was Olivier nominated for his design for Kneehigh's production of Brief Encounter.
“You get to meet loads of different designers from all disciplines,” Minto says. “It's a bit like going to the Edinburgh Festival, but just for designers, and it's good from a research point of view as well, because it's good to see what other designers are doing.”
To this end, Minto's designs also sat alongside designs for The Passion, the Port Talbot-based promenade spectacle that starred Michael Sheen as Jesus.
“Each country was asked to put things in a social and political context,” Minto says, “and I think with my work they seemed to like the sense of community in each project, and how we used different locations. Some of the other work in Prague were more like installations you'd see at the Venice Biennale, and the Estonian design that won the gold medal was a film about creating your own political party.”
As a child growing up in Garston, the Liverpool district which also sired the likes of actress Rita Tushingham, rock and roll singer Billy Fury and comedian Les Dennis, Minto had originally been attracted to dance. With a road accident so serious that she was read the last rites in the road putting paid to such ambitions, Minto replaced her passion with art and design, and became fascinated by the stage designs used by bands such as Kraftwerk and Japan who she'd see at the city's Royal Court theatre. After studying interior design in Liverpool, it was Minto's aunt who alerted her to the course in Wales, which was when she realised that you could actually design stage sets for a living.
Having been advised by leading designer Nigel Hook that there was a job going as a scenic artist and set painter at Perth Theatre, Minto moved to Scotland in 1989, where she has remained ever since.
“I learnt more about design doing ten shows a year for three years in Perth than I probably had anywhere up to that point,” she says about the job that led to her first design job at the Byre Theatre in St Andrew's, where she became resident designer for two years and designed more than twenty shows. More commissions came out of this from companies as varied as Wee Stories, the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh and Visible Fictions.
“I think I very much respond to the company, the site and the script,” Minto says when asked if she has a particular style. “I think over the years you develop a fell for what you prefer visually, but the foremost thing is to try and enlarge the piece.”
This was more than evident in Minto's design for Great Expectations, which took a brief from director Jemima Levick for a simple black space to create an inventive array of picture frames which both contained and served the onstage action.
Minto's experience on the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was something else again.
“It was amazing,” she says, “and was completely different to working in the theatre world. There were only actually two of us in the design department, and at one point we had to do 900 costume fittings in five days, then for the closing ceremony, we got in after the last medal was presented and went on at 8 O'Clock that night. The amount of talented people working on it was amazing, and to be part of it was a real honour.”
While Minto's enthusiasm for any job she works on is plain, each stands out for here in very different ways.
“There are some shows that you would go back and do all over again,” she says. “I remember doing Tryst with Grid Iron in Stavanger, where we were doing the show on an island with no distractions. I'd have happily gone home, washed my clothes and done it all again for nothing, but you take something special away from every job that helps you as a designer. Whether I'm sitting down with a director or starting a show from scratch I love being part of a team of people you collaborate with, and now these people you've been working with for years become your friends.
“I suppose one of the things that drives me is to always feel a sense of doing something that I've never done before,” she says, “and I suppose that's what we do, to never do the same thing twice, but to develop your own way of working and to think differently about everything. It's like with working on the Commonwealth Games. I've never experienced a show like that before, and I probably never will again, but I totally believe that every day's a school day.”
Make/Believe: UK Design For Performance 2011-2015, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, July 11-January 3 2016.www.vam.ac.uk
The Herald, July 7th 2015