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Tom Scutt: ‘Design isn’t about drawing, but talking’

Tom Scutt. Photo: Stuart Armitt/courtesy of Auditorium Magazine Tom Scutt. Photo: Stuart Armitt/courtesy of Auditorium Magazine

“I’m a bit of a design heathen because I don’t do a hell of a lot of drawing,” Tom Scutt says to me, a mischievous grin spreading across this affable designer’s face. “I just don’t. I do a lot of writing and emailing and a lot of talking. Ultimately, I think that’s what it’s about.”

CV Tom ScuttRather than a heathen, most people think Scutt is a design prodigy. Since graduating from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2006, he’s already an established theatre designer at the tender age of 31, with a portfolio that includes work at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, West End, Broadway and recently  (he’s production designer for the MTV Video Music Awards) Hollywood. He’s also associate at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton and less than 10 years after winning the Linbury prize, he’s a judge for it. You wouldn’t blame him for being precocious but he’s the complete opposite – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ambitious for sure, but generous too and – in professional journalist terms – a total sweetheart.

We’re sat on the Young Vic’s balcony in the sun and I can see a scalpel tattoo peeking out from beneath the sleeve of his T-shirt. “I mean I love a good model, everyone loves a good model,” he continues. “But some of the best designers, their models are awful. But they understand that the job is sort of an anthropological study. I mean for some people it is about making beautiful things, but for me I feel like I’m veering towards a more intangible, ideas-based approach.”

Since industrial design giant Dieter Rams wrote the 10 commandments of ‘good design’, this moniker has been the measure by which any designer is marked. By anyone’s measure, Scutt is a good designer. If good theatre design is about talking, he’s a pleasure to talk to – attentive, informed, inquisitive and funny. If good theatre design is about creating successful sets – a horribly simplistic way of describing his job that would make him wince – then he does that too.

His work illuminates the plays it supports; his cluster of white balloons for Constellations spoke of quantum physics, brain tissue, the joyous feeling of falling in love and the storm clouds that follow. His giant black box for 13 plugged acutely into the claustrophobic, entrapped feelings of both Mike Bartlett’s play on the Olivier’s vast stage and the increasingly bleak vision of austerity-led Britain that surrounded it.

His working process for 13 is as illuminating to his own practice as his designs are to the plays he tackles. It’s a way of working that sees design feeding into every aspect of a production, from dealing with the insecurities of an actor at a costume fitting (“There’s a bit of social work going on because, ultimately, you’re representing everyone,” he says. “For the designer and the director it’s a bit like parenting”) to informing the world of the play as much as reflecting it.

“It was amazing to work with Mike as he was developing the text,” Scutt says. “He started to develop it with the design in mind. He rewrote whole scenes based on the box – the Richard Dawkins scene where he comes out and says ‘I have in my hand a box, do you open it and stare God in the face or live your life in fear and wondering?’, that all came out post-design. It got to the point where I was like, ‘Can you stop writing it into the play because it looks like a really simple design choice.’” He laughs in mock exasperation. “People will go, ‘well obviously it’s a box because it’s there in the text’ but that’s really interesting about how people perceive the design process to work – you take a text and respond to it but design can springboard a writer in a new direction and that’s really exciting.”

A scene from English National Opera’s production of Wozzeck at the London Coliseum in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from English National Opera’s production of Wozzeck at the London Coliseum in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton

His frustration is still light but it’s real too. Scutt is a passionate advocate for a clearer understanding of the complexities of the role of designer. But to leave it at that would be to do him a disservice; he’s actually campaigning for something more radical, a democratic approach to making theatre that sees everyone working together equally. “There’s a dangerous hierarchy where the theatre picks the director, or the writer and they sort of speed date the director and then the director picks the team,” he says fidgeting slightly, “and then everybody from that part down doesn’t have a voice, which gets incredibly stale.”

He’s relishing the chance to be part of a wider organisational discussion at Nuffield as well as the richness of work that results from getting to know and nurturing a long-term relationship with a space and an audience.

“You start to key into who the people coming to see the shows are and what they want, so the work is only ever better,” he says. He also believes there’s pragmatism to such programming that should be celebrated. A Number’s immersive design was born from practical thinking. “With A Number we had a whole different plan originally – an end on design for the full theatre – which we binned really late on in the day. But we scrapped it and it became about how do we contact these people,” he explains. “It’s tactical, you know you sort of go ‘450 seats or 200 seats and a much better experience?’ There are purists who say it’s all about the text but it’s not, it’s about invigorating a new approach, a new sort of dawn in Southampton and ticket sales.”

He laughs with a look of faux horror. “How do you sell it? is a question that’s sometimes looked down on like it’s a dirty secret because it doesn’t feel pure. But we wanted to get more people closer to the set, we couldn’t fill a whole auditorium and we wanted to give these people a much better experience and out of those ideas sparks started to fly and we began, horrible pun, to think outside of the box.”

Surely even when he’s working independently he has a voice now? “Yes that’s definitely there now, which is lovely, but it’s very easy for theatre companies to just go to a safe pair of hands. The more that people can go ‘you know what, let’s search and find a really interesting young voice’, the better,” he brightens with a laugh. “I’m probably doing myself out of some jobs here.”

King Charles III is about to open on Broadway. Photo: Johan Persson
King Charles III is about to open on Broadway. Photo: Johan Persson

I don’t doubt his sincerity but with Constellations embarking on a UK tour while wowing New York audiences, King Charles III about to open on Broadway as well and A Number about to begin a run at the Young Vic following a hit run at Nuffield, Southampton, I don’t think he needs to worry about that. Moreover, he’s judging the Linbury Prize only eight years after winning it.

He laughs when I point this out, totally savvy to the bonkers brilliance of this ascension. “When I took part in 2007, we had to write a little blurb saying where we think we’d be in 10 years and I said something like ‘the constant shifting nature of the theatre landscape along with the nomadic lifestyle of the designer makes judging where I will be in 10 years an impossibility’. But this rogue comma got printed so it said ‘judging, where I will be in 10 years, an impossibility.’ God it was awful,” he says, grinning at the irony of this editorial mishap.

He’s proud to be involved with something that does such a strong job of promoting theatre design both within the industry and to a public that may not hear the role talked about enough. “It’s very easy as a designer to be in your own little world,” he says. “I have no idea about how other people design shows, there’s no gateway to talk about it and the more we can crack open that box and share and talk about it, the more young people will go ‘hey I want to be a set designer’.”

His own understanding of design was shaped by frequent trips to the RSC with his father, an English and drama teacher, and how to bring design into education is something he’s clearly passionate about.

“I ran an education workshop at the National on how to approach design and one woman asked me, ‘But how do I teach design? How is it going to help grades?’ And that is incredibly hard to answer because design is about expression, there’s no right and wrong. You’re basically saying ‘think for yourself’,” he says ruefully grimacing, “which isn’t very on trend with policymakers at the moment. But we’ve got to try. The more we can feed back into education the better,” he stops to smile happy with the thought, “that’s my dad.”

And with that he’s off to another conference call to LA, something he seems to be spending his life doing in the run-up to MTV. “Actually design is like an old school phone exchange,” he says as he’s packing up his bag, “it’s about plugging people into other people. When it works best it’s always the result of ongoing conversations and trying to connect everybody.”

Tom Scutt Q&A

A Number runs at the Young Vic until August 15

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