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Meet ‘living legend’ Pamela Howard, the godmother of British theatre design

Pamela Howard
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Pamela Howard has created countless shows in her six-decade career, as well as training many of the UK’s top stage designers. She tells Tim Bano about her approach to visual theatre, working with Helene Weigel (Brecht’s wife) and French theatremaker Roger Planchon, and why she has no intention of retiring

Since turning 80 in January, Pamela Howard’s catchphrase has been: “Catch me while you can.” What she means is “eternity’s not on my side”, but it might be better understood in a slightly different way: between visits to Canada, Taiwan, Israel and her beloved Czech Republic, you’d be hard-pushed to catch Howard at all.

She is arguably the most influential theatre designer in the country. In fact, the Prague Quadrennial, the most prestigious celebration of theatre design and scenography in the world, has just named her a ‘living legend’.

One of her former pupils, Olivier-winner Lez Brotherston, says she “shaped what theatre design has become in Britain”. Bunny Christie, another student of Howard’s and another Olivier winner, calls her a “trailblazer”. She also taught Rae Smith, Michael Levine, Sandy Powell and Stewart Laing; the list goes on and on.

“People keep asking me all the time: ‘Don’t you think it’s time you should retire?’ And I say: ‘Yes, I do think I should retire: I should retire from dusting, washing, cleaning, weeding and hoovering.’ But no one tells you to retire from that. They only tell you to retire from what you can do and
what you love.”

Besides, even after more than 60 years working in theatre, Howard is nowhere near done saying what she wants to say. These days she has a voice that people want to hear, “and I think this is what you work for from when you’re 19”.

Talking to Howard is among the most entertaining ways to spend time. She is a paradoxical blend of cheeky humour and pure sincerity. Her fantastic stories run into the most unexpected corollaries – every anecdote is hilarious, moving or profound. One moment she will be explaining her philosophy of scenography, and the next recounting an incredible story about how her father’s cousins were Russian dancers who fled to Cardiff and danced for Queen Alexandra.

There’s a paradox, too, in the fact that this most influential of designers doesn’t like being called a designer – she prefers the term ‘scenographer’. What is scenography? Well, she’s written a book about it, which begins with 40 different definitions from around the world. Just published in its third edition, the book is a staple of theatre design courses across the country. For Howard, designer is “an outmoded term” whereas ‘scenographer’ represents her holistic approach to creating visual theatre, with a strong focus on drawing and painting.

In a quiet corner of the National Theatre foyer, she has just been sketching a girl sitting at a nearby table. “You know how people say ‘F-A-Q’ now?” – she leaves a delicate pause between each letter – “Well I get a lot of FAQ and one of them is: ‘What do I need to do to be like you?’ Can I just say, please don’t be. But one thing is: if you work in theatre you need to be a compulsive observer of human life. And you’ve got to have a way of remembering what you observe. I draw people.”

Drawing and painting are fundamental parts of Howard’s practice. Every production begins with them, and several exhibitions have been devoted to the colourful, cartoonish drawings that Howard creates for her shows. She sees herself as an artist who paints theatre.

‘People keep asking me if it’s time to retire and I think I should – from dusting, washing, cleaning, weeding and hoovering’

Although she has worked as a designer with the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Old Vic and other venerable institutions over the years, these days she is the “total creator” of her own work, conceiving pieces from scratch and collaborating particularly with contemporary composers.

“I just don’t want to repeat anything I’ve done before. In the 1980s I began to realise that I had to take my creativity into my own hands. It wasn’t enough for me just to design the background for a director who was male and was probably an English graduate.”

Around the turn of the century, Howard had a call asking her to design a new Uncle Vanya, because they were short of time and needed someone who’d done it already. “And I thought: ‘How many times can a girl draw a pair of black button boots?’ That was the moment for me. Even though we’re taught to jump like dogs when we’re young – I was a single mother with two kids so I know what that is – you do reach a moment where you need to be in charge of your own creativity.”

“I have a purpose,” she adds. “I want to do meaningful work. It’s become more important than ever to be able to inhabit your identity with courage.”

Q&A Pamela Howard

Where was your first professional theatre job?
Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

What is your next job?
Ballad of the Cosmo Cafe, Insiders Outsiders Festival, London.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
No one told me anything. I always knew that if I wanted to do anything I’d have to do it myself. So I don’t really ‘wish’ anyone had told me anything.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
The French director Roger Planchon, who taught me everything I knew.

If you hadn’t been a stage designer, what would you have been?
I might have been a concert pianist. Or a revolutionary.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?

Starting out

An important part of Howard’s identity is her eastern European Jewish heritage. Her grandparents emigrated from Latvia to Newcastle and Howard had barely been born when her father was conscripted into the army during the Second World War. He came back in 1946 to “a wife he hardly knew and a child he’d never met”. Back then, her name was Hoffman. But one day soon after he returned, her father went to a phone box and opened up the telephone directory to H-O, shut his eyes and put his finger on the page. When he opened them he was pointing at the name “Howard”. He immediately changed his name by deed poll, returned home and told seven-year-old Pamela that her name was Howard. “That was when I lost my identity,” she says. “Or I lost one identity.”

Returning soldiers were given the offer of a house “where no one else wanted to live”, and so the Howard family moved to Birmingham. They were also given £25 to buy a ‘demob suit’, but Howard senior instead bought a piano. Young Pamela wanted to be a concert pianist, until a physiotherapist told her: “Your little fingers will never be strong enough.”

But music is still incredibly important to her. In fact she says: “It’s my life,” and recent productions have included stagings of works by Janacek, Martinu and Carl Davis, as well as Bizet’s Carmen. She is now working with contemporary Czech composer Ales Brezina. “I send him a drawing and he sends me a musical response, because he says: ‘Colour is sound and sound is colour.’ ”

‘I thought you started with dead leaves, then you made live leaves, and then you possibly made flowers – I was that naive’

After her dreams of becoming a pianist were quashed, she didn’t get on well at school: “To make a long story short, I’ll just say that I got expelled”. The only thing she could think to do was go to art school, helped by the fact that it was the first page she opened in the phone directory. Under ‘A’ was Art School of Birmingham.

“I had no idea that you had to apply or anything like that. I had a drawing in an autograph book called the Wilting Iris and I thought: ‘Maybe they’d like to see my Wilting Iris,’ so I took myself to this art school. I went into this historic building in Birmingham, I saw a door with ‘principal’ on it. I opened the door without knocking and there was a huge desk with a very small man sitting behind it with a brass ear trumpet. He said: ‘Yes?’ And I said into his ear trumpet: ‘I’ve come to the art school,’ and he said: ‘Well you can’t because you have to have a grant.’ I asked: ‘Where do you get a grant from?’ thinking it was like a key or a shop or something. And he said: ‘Go to the education offices.’ So I said: ‘All right, thank you. Would you like to see my iris?’ He said no.”

Howard forged her father’s signature on the grant application and a few weeks later a letter arrived. Inside was a cheque. Although she wanted to do theatre design, she was told that there were no students on the course so she’d have to do embroidery instead. But she tracked down the man meant to be running the theatre design course, Finlay James, who was resident designer at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. She found James in the theatre’s paint shop. He reluctantly let her work at the theatre.

“There were piles of ropes and old canvas cloth on the floor. I had to cut out dead leaves and wire them to these ropes and paint them.” The paint was made from rabbit glue that was cooked up on a large pan in the paint store, then mixed with what Howard remembers as “very poisonous dyes”. Every day they’d mix up this paint in the pan, and then the following morning James would cook bacon and eggs in the same pan.

Meanwhile, Howard made endless strings of dead leaves. “They were always doing plays like The Potting Shed or things set in country houses, but the canvas flaps of the set never met and there was always a gap. So you had to drape these dead leaves down the gap. In my mind, I thought the way to become a theatre designer was you started with dead leaves, then you made live leaves, and then you possibly made flowers. I was that naive, I’m sorry to say.”

Pamela Howard’s top tips for scenographers

• Be organised and methodical. Whenever I pass a shoe shop, I collect shoe boxes. I have hundreds of them. I’ve got sticky labels on the outside that say “old men”, “young women”, “fat men”, “thin women” and so on. And so when I make a drawing or I go to a gallery and buy a postcard, I file them. That means I’m not sitting all the time in front of my computer looking at Pee-Interest or whatever it’s called that won’t let you download anything.

• I always tell my students they need to have dreams and ideas because someone could ring you up and ask: “Have you got any ideas?” And what are they going to do if you say: “Well, actually, no, but I’ll send you an email in about two weeks”? I can tell you: you’ve already lost the job.

• A lot of young people come to my studio. I pick them up from Chichester station and give them lunch. There’s a bed in my studio and tissues ready: they lie on the bed and cry about their fate, and I talk to them. This young man came to see me and I asked: “Have you got anything to show me?” He pulled out of a folder a vile drawing done with a biro. I asked him: “Do you like this drawing?” and he said: “Am I supposed to?” I never show anybody anything unless I like what I’ve done.

Birmingham Rep was where Howard met Albert Finney, a man she credits with shaking up the stale, old-fashioned theatre world. Finney came with word that, down in Coventry, some guys called Arnold Wesker and John Osborne were doing “plays that are actually about us”. If they finish the M1 motorway, Finney told Howard: “I’m going to hire a van and go down.”

“But my friend Susan’s parents forbade her to go because they said she’d die of ‘motorway madness’. It was the first motorway, and they believed there were mad dogs that hid on the side of bridges and jumped out on the car.”

Moving to London

After four years at Birmingham Rep, Howard went to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, living on the Finchley Road, where she had the idea for a show that would only be made almost 60 years later: The Ballad of the Cosmo Cafe.

In the meantime, she created designs for countless theatre productions, then worked for a decade in France under the great Roger Planchon, funded by the Arts Council. She was also part of the first all-female designer-director team with Di Trevis at the National Theatre in 1987.

In the early 1980s Howard became a teacher at Central St Martin’s – at that time one of very few theatre design courses in the country – and those years of running the course have made a huge impact on British theatre design.

Christie describes Howard as “a formidable and brilliant teacher”. Brotherston agrees. “One of her mantras was: ‘It’s all in the text.’ You’re not imposing something on it, you’re pulling something out. It was quite rigorous. She was a tough teacher. We’ve all had things ripped out of model boxes by Pamela Howard,” he laughs.

The days of dead leaves, Howard thinks, are almost unrecognisable compared with theatre today. She has seen Wesker and Osborne come and go and she’s seen physical sets become “a lot of people in black lycra jumping in front of a projection”. She even saw Brecht change theatre in a fundamental way.

Her friend and mentor Jocelyn Herbert had recently come back from Germany where she’d been working with Brecht. “Brecht had told her that you don’t have to build a whole house on stage. You could just put a string with a line of washing and a chair and people would know it was a house.”

Later, when the Berliner Ensemble came to the Old Vic in 1965, Howard was seconded to work with Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel, the first Mother Courage. Howard still has a book that Weigel gave her 54 years ago.

Forging a new way of working

Another huge change Howard has seen is in hierarchy. “When I started out, at the top was the director, who I always thought was like my father and you had to be respectful. But what we’re looking at now is a more horizontal structure, with the creator in the centre, and on my left hand, say, the composer and on my right the movement director or the librettist. You can create your piece without having to slot into this paternalistic structure I grew up with.”

That’s the way she works now, particularly on two interconnected pieces. The first is Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play With Music, which is based on the German artist Charlotte Salomon who was killed in Auschwitz at the age of 26.

Howard was walking down Piccadilly and saw a poster for an exhibition of Salomon’s work at the Royal Academy. In hiding in the South of France, Salomon had used just three colours – red, yellow and blue – and from her memory created 1,200 paintings depicting her life. She called it “Life or theatre? A tri-coloured play with music”, handed it to a friend and said: “Take good care of it. It is my entire life.”

“I walked into this exhibition and I just said: ‘Hello Charlotte,’ as if I knew her.” Working with Canadian actor Alon Nashman, Czech composer Brezina, and Monica Bohm-Duchen, the British curator of the Royal Academy exhibition, Howard created a piece of music theatre. “This is extraordinary. A lonely, only child in Berlin in the 1930s whose very short life was cruelly extinguished – how amazing it is that, through her, all these people all over the world are making a connection. And what this says is that art triumphs over tyranny.”

The other piece, which she came up with 60 years ago while walking along the Finchley Road (“I was too frightened to know how to use the Tube”), only happened because the right phone call came six decades later. Bohm-Duchen was planning a festival in London called Insiders Outsiders, celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture. She rang Howard and asked if she had any ideas. Howard replied: “I’ve been dreaming for years about The Ballad of the Cosmo Cafe.”

A bag of spuds – Pamela Howard on making the maximum out of the minimum

My studio is full of things that other people throw away. I never pass a skip without slowing the car down and having a look inside. When I was working on Elgar’s Rondo at the Royal Shakespeare Company, we went on a field trip to Elgar’s house outside Malvern. On his desk was a great big potato with pencils punched into it like a pencil holder. I thought: “What a brilliant idea.” When we got back to Stratford-upon-Avon, I asked the production manager for a big potato to go on the desk. A memo came round, saying: “Extra production meeting called. Agenda: discussion on potato. Needed: ground plan, measurements, choice of material (resin, canvas), budget, time management.” At this meeting about 20 people sat around the table discussing it. The budget for making the potato came to something like £2,500 including all the labour. But I’d been to the supermarket and bought a big bag of baking potatoes for 63p. So at the end of the meeting I said: “May I present the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a bag of potatoes?” There was a deadly silence as I put them on the table.

Near Swiss Cottage station was a cafe that became a second home for Austrian and German Jewish refugees who fled to north London. Howard walked past it every day, and after a while she plucked up the courage to go inside. She sat in a corner and began to draw four ladies in hats and wonderful dresses playing bridge.

An elderly Polish man sat down opposite her and started to explain who all the people were: out-of-work Viennese psychoanalysts, a philosopher who had been trying to get his book published for 40 years, a singing teacher called Alfred Wolfsohn – Charlotte Salomon’s one-time lover – who believed he had a mission to rebirth opera singers across the world.

These émigrés lived in single rooms across north London, with shared bathrooms and no kitchen, so they went to the Cosmopolitan Cafe at 8am for their food. “It became clear that everybody kind of knew each other, and he said these wonderful words to me: ‘You know I’ve lived here for 30 years and now I know how to go from Crickly-vitch to Vimbly-bush and back again without a hitch.’ Those words describe the state of the émigré.”

So the cafe has become a piece of immersive music theatre, where audience members become Cosmo customers and sit among the array of locals.

At the end of our interview, Howard fiddles with the clips on her case and pulls out some sketches that she’s taking back to her studio near Chichester. She unfolds them, spreads them out, until they fill the whole of the little white table.

It’s the Cosmo Cafe, remade from Howard’s old sketches, her memory and imagination. There’s Alfred Wolfsohn, standing on his chair, shouting: “I am the prophet of song”; there are the psychoanalysts, the philosopher and the ladies in their best clothes. And in the corner is a young girl, Pamela herself, looked on by her adult self with pride. This project is clearly very dear to Howard, a combination of her history, her heritage and her concern for a future where refugees may not find a home from home like the Cosmo Cafe. “This is where I am now,” she says. “And it’s a long way from dead leaves, isn’t it?”

CV Pamela Howard

Born: 1939, Birmingham
Training: Birmingham College of Art (1954-58), Slade School of Fine Art (1958-59)
Landmark productions:The Greek Passion, Opera of Thessaloniki, National Theatre of Northern Greece (2005); The Marriage, National Theatre Brno, Czech Republic (2009); Carmen, Slovenian National Opera, Ljubljana (2015); Charlotte – A Tri-Coloured Play With Music, Toronto (2017)
Awards: Leverhulme emeritus fellowship (2000); World Stage Design Taipei exceptional award (2017)

The Ballad of the Cosmo Cafe will be performed as part of the Insiders Outsiders Festival in London this autumn.

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