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John Napier: ‘We’re training too many theatre designers’

John Napier, left, with Bill Kenwright John Napier, left, with Bill Kenwright
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Designer John Napier has raised concerns that too many theatre designers are being trained for a diminishing number of jobs.

In a career spanning nearly 50 years Napier has designed a number of renowned sets and costumes, including the barricades in Les Miserables, the horse heads from Equus and the helicopter in Miss Saigon.

But he warned that a boom in theatre design in the latter half of the 20th century was over, and that an influx of people who became interested in design because of innovations in that time were now facing limited prospects.

Speaking to The Stage, Napier said: “To a certain extent, I feel marginally responsible for this – there was a kind of surge of British theatre designers through the late 1960s, through the 70s, 80s and part of the 90s, where we were regarded very highly around the world. And therefore a lot of people when they were young were influenced by it and thought: ‘Gosh, that’s really exciting, I’d like to do that when I get older’.

“The tragedy is that in those days, there was a real undercurrent of support from the government, through the arts council, with all the subsidised reps, and the theatre was buzzing and alive. But those positions don’t exist anymore. When I was at Central St Martins there were 10 people in a year. Now there’s something like, I don’t know, 35, 40, 50, 60… and I really don’t know where they’re going to find the work.”

Napier also said low pay was a problem for designers in the same way as it is for directors, a problem highlighted this week when former RSC boss Adrian Noble revealed he can earn five times more money by working outside the UK.

He said: “It’s a struggle. I probably struggled for 10 or 15 years in the early days literally living hand to mouth… but loving doing what I was doing.”

He added: “You don’t actually go into being a theatre director or designer with the intention or the expectation of becoming fabulously rich. You do it because you have a passion for it and because you love it.”

An anthology art exhibition of Napier’s career is to be displayed in Eastbourne from November.

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