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Why the Linbury Prize is a signpost for designers

Linbury Prize for Stage Design winners Jen McGinley, Camilla Clarke, Philippa Brocklehurst and Grace Smart with Anya Sainsbury (centre). Photo: Sheila Burnett Linbury Prize for Stage Design winners Jen McGinley, Camilla Clarke, Philippa Brocklehurst and Grace Smart with Anya Sainsbury (centre). Photo: Sheila Burnett
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Last week marked one of the most important dates for graduates of theatre design courses, when the winners of the 2015 Linbury Prize for Stage Design were announced at the National Theatre.

Grace Smart, from Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, was announced as the winner. She will see her design for St Joan produced at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, next year.

Three other finalists (two from Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and one from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) will also see their designs realised. Camilla Clarke will design Human Animals at the Royal Court, London, Jen McGinley will design Autumn for the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and Philippa Brocklehurst will design A Passage to India for the Nuffield, Southampton. And, in conjunction with the British Council, a further winner, Minglu Wang (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama), will design a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale in Ukraine in 2016.

All the finalists’ work is currently on exhibition in the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Lounge until January 3, and it’s worth taking a look to see the bold approaches to scenography that our future designers are taking.

The importance of the Linbury Prize can’t be underestimated. Four theatres in the UK have taken a big risk in partnering with a finalist designer. The work is not theoretical – these designs will need to be fully realised, to budget, in major UK theatres. They will need to work for the actors and directors who will inhabit them, they will need to be practical, and, of course, they will need to unlock the texts visually.

A look at some of the past winners gives you a hint at how significant this award can be: Tim Hatley (Great Britain at the NT, and Shrek the Musical in the West End and on Broadway), Anthony Ward (King Lear at the NT) and Es Devlin (whose design for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, London, attracted large amounts of discussion and debate).

It is also worth taking a look at where all the finalists have come from, as the 12 finalists all hail from a handful of courses – namely Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, Central St Martins, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and, most notably, a total of six finalists come from the Royal Welsh College.

If you were looking to train as a theatre designer, it’s a fair bet that these are the courses you might want to start with. Designing for performance is an art form demanding a unique set of skills. Unlike other artists, a theatre designer cannot present a finished work of art – the design can’t tell the whole story (otherwise there’d be no need for actors, directors or a text – the design would have become an installation). Equally, big spaces such as the Olivier, National Theatre, or the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre cry out for bold and visual explorations of the text. As John Napier, the designer of Les Miserables and Cats, commented on BBC Radio 4 recently, theatre design isn’t simply “interior decoration”.

If you are thinking of training as a designer, make sure you note where the Linbury Prize winners came from

Designers have to be sculptural, they have to understand colour and texture, and they have to consider the movement of the stage. The designer Christopher Richardson once demonstrated how silly an inanimate object looks if it scrolls past the audience from one wing to another. He showed it to great comedic effect using a door on a track, and went on to demonstrate how the same object ascending from below, tracking from upstage to downstage, or flown in from above creates an entirely different story.

Designers also have to have a technical awareness around construction. It’s no good creating a beautiful design if your production manager tells you it isn’t physically possible to achieve.

And finally, nine times out of 10, the designer is responsible for both set and costume, meaning they will have to have a clear understanding of clothing, fabrics and textiles.

It’s a dizzying array of skills to learn from a three-year course, or from a one-year MA, and the need to train designers to cope with the increasing technical demands of our theatres and the increasing expectations of audience and director is incredibly important. The old-fashioned way of teaching theatre design was through a series of ‘paper’ projects, where students would take their design up to the model box stage. But this way of teaching theatre design is often quite isolating, whereas true theatremaking is collaborative. It also never allows a student to see whether their vision holds fast when created at full scale. Does it work with actors on it? Does it have the same impact? Does it overwhelm the space? At the heart of the success of these schools is that they provide opportunities for students to realise designs as part of the course, to take them through to completion.

The courses also allow for collaboration between design disciplines, supporting students as they work with lighting designers, sound designers, costume supervisors, as well as, of course, actors and directors. And it is this collaboration that is at the heart of great theatre design and great theatre design courses. Theatre is a collaborative art form, and nowhere is that more apparent than with theatre design.

With the announcement of the winners of the Linbury Prize, National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris commented: “Theatre design is a four-dimensional craft, and the health of theatre rests in large part on the excellence of the artists who excel at it. The Linbury Prize is the great springboard and showcase for the next generation of designers, and so is a unique and crucial part of the great theatre ecology of this country.”

And the Linbury Prize is not just a great showcase of the next generation of designers, it is also a great showcase of the UK’s progressive theatre design courses. Modern theatre is a visual medium and to create truly great theatre, we need truly great theatre designers. That requires ambitious courses that understand both the aesthetic and practical needs of theatre craft.

If you want to see where the future of theatre design is, take a look at the Linbury Prize exhibition, and if you are thinking of training as a designer, make sure you note where the designers came from.

The Linbury Prize for Stage Design Exhibition is at the Lyttelton Lounge, National Theatre, until January 3