A Design for Life

My recent time in New York opened my eyes to a lot of different ways of thinking, and flagged up some big differences between the ways we collaborate in the UK from how they do in the US. One of the main differences which stood out – and something which I’ve often questioned myself – is how designers seem to be considered a much more crucial component of theatre making on the other side of the Atlantic. It begs the question – why are we not collaborating with designers at an early stage in the creative process?

For years I’ve been fascinated with the work of designers in theatre, and how much good design can enhance a production – from early theatre visits to see work by the likes of Complicite and Kneehigh, I was struck with just how much the visual and aural elements added to each piece. Seeing how the likes of Ultz, Miriam Buether, Jo Scotcher and Laura Hopkins are being increasingly recognised for the quality of their work – not to mention the lighting and sound design by artists such as James Farncombe, Adrienne Quartly and Malcolm Rippeth – is heartening, but being already established is a somewhat luxurious position to be in; so, how do we support the development of emerging designers, and get them the recognition so many of them deserve?

Within the many creative development programmes that exist for artists, there rarely seems to be an opportunity for designers; writers, directors, actors and producers are supported well, but there is either a resistance to supporting designers or an uncertainty of how best to do so. To bring a designer on-board is often an individual choice by a director or producer, one which can be brought about through working with a previous collaborator – I’d be keen to see directors encouraged to think about working with designers at the initial stages, and to find a common language in the early development of a production. As well as aiding the development of a designer, this would also help a director still honing their skills to be supported in realising their ideas by someone who specialises in a particular field – allowing them to spend more time on dramaturgical development and the nuts and bolts of directing.

Programmes such as the Directors’ Lab at the Lincoln Centre in New York bring designers into the process of creating work almost immediately – but they are brought in to think about the design, not to deliver something. Allowing for such blue-sky thinking is a great opportunity for them – liberating them from the financial restrictions often posed by working on a small-scale – but also gives the rest of the creative team an insight into their process, and hopefully encouraging them to engage in more active dialogues with designers in the future.

In the UK the Motley Theatre Design course hass undoubtedly been the best place for designers to hone their skills – but recently its future has been under threat due to funding cuts. In the current climate, it is imperative the school is able to continue supporting designers; whilst support is still lacking for them to develop, we cannot afford for the few opportunities for designers to fall by the wayside. For many graduates, assisting a more established designer represents one of the most obvious routes into the industry, and no doubt observing the work undertaken on large-scale productions can be hugely beneficial – but through representing a level of work which is not reflective of their own opportunities, how much of this knowledge can be fed into their own work? Is there also a danger that emerging designers can feel a need to replicate the work of others in order to achieve success, instead of being encouraged to develop their own style?

Many of the problems faced by designers could arguably be applied to most other disciplines, but with less formalised support structures in place the possibility of learning from mistakes is less present for them. We all learn from our mistakes, but often we need someone to catch us when we fall; let’s try to offer that to designers, too.


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