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Tom Piper and Chloe Lamford join calls for more career opportunities for theatre designers

Leading theatre designers including Tom Piper and Chloe Lamford have joined calls for more career development opportunities in their sector.

They join early-career designers including The Stage Debut Award winner Rosie Elnile [1] in arguing that there are almost no open-application development schemes aimed solely at designers, in comparison to those aimed at directors and other creatives.

While there are existing initiatives such as the Linbury Prize for stage design as well as assistant design posts at organisations including the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and the National Theatre in London, designers have argued that there are not enough options and are calling for more short-term schemes and development opportunities that “aren’t so outcome based”.

Set and costume designer Piper, who set up the Royal Shakespeare Company’s trainee designer scheme in 2006, said: “There is a huge gap. You might get a traineeship at the RSC or get the Linbury Prize – but where do you go next?

“The main route is by being an assistant, but this way you learn from only two people. There are very few opportunities for young designers.”

Piper said that while some good initiatives did exist, organisations needed to be more coordinated in their thinking and find ways to engage people outside London. He also called for more funding from educational bodies for design initiatives.

He added that the lack of opportunities was especially problematic regionally due to funding cuts, a point backed by sound designer Ben Ringham, who said that as regional theatres were doing more co-productions “there are less opportunities”.

Piper went on to argue that the lack of opportunities for young designers meant only designers with “private means” to support themselves doing low or unpaid work could break into the industry.

Costume and set designer Grace Smart said that opportunities for people on assisting, fringe or graduate levels as resident associate or assistant designers were “often massively underpaid”. She said they could be taken only by “people who can work for free, again, shutting the door to anyone not mighty privileged”.

Lamford, who designed current National Theatre production John, said there was a shortage of development schemes for designers in comparison to other areas of theatre, and called for more mentoring opportunities.

She added: “It would be really great if there was a way you could attach [an emerging designer] to a couple of other designers, giving them the the chance to work with people at different levels.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman from the Association of Lighting Designers said that “outside of ad hoc manufacturers’ or suppliers’ own product-focused sessions” the organisation, which has set up a scheme for emerging lighting designers [2], was unaware of any existing development schemes aimed solely at lighting creatives.

The spokesman said: “Development is often focused around directors and administrators, audience development, outreach, writers’ workshops etc, but designers rarely get an opportunity to discuss and debate how the staged work is created.”

He added that such opportunities were essential to enable lighting designers to keep up-to-date with new technologies and develop their craft.

Other artists, including designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, called for more opportunities to experiment. Kuyck-Cohen said more opportunities were needed that “aren’t so outcome based”.

Kuyck-Cohen, who launched a debate on the subject on Twitter, said: “While there are opportunities for young designers out there, many of these are more like apprenticeships, with an aim to learn through assisting or an opportunity to design a show, but that often comes with set parameters and an agenda.”

Elnile concurred: “In British theatre at the moment people are trying to experiment with new forms in telling stories. Design is form. If we want to experiment with form, we need opportunities to do this in design.”