Emerging theatre designers have a mantra: last one standing. They see their careers as wars of attrition; a matter of hanging on and holding out while others fall by the wayside and the pack thins out. Success comes to those who survive.
Theatre is an overcrowded industry and such thoughts are doubtless familiar to aspiring actors, directors and writers as well. Even so, the would-be designer’s is a particularly difficult lot. Sticking it out is not easy. Making your own work – an essential part of breaking through – is incredibly hard at a fringe or independent level and there simply aren’t enough supporting structures in place across the subsidised sector.
For any theatremaker, a large part of staying the course is the ability to support oneself through the emerging process. One has to earn a passable living while seeking opportunities that might enable a breakthrough in your chosen field. Here designers are at a massive disadvantage.
Firstly, assistant designers are often employed on a much more ad hoc basis than other entry-level or experience-focussed positions. They’re often employed by the individual designer, rather than the theatre or production as an assistant director would be, meaning that fees and hours are far more arbitrary. (Remember that not all designers are natural born assistants, given the focus on technical skills such as model-making and computer-aided design usage.) There are theatres and companies that offer equivalent employment – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s year-long trainee contract and the Michael Grandage Company’s rolling assistants, for example – but these are the exception rather than the rule.
Second, the time commitments and rhythms of a design process are such that it’s very hard for emerging designers to commit to even part-time or temporary jobs. They’re usually involved very early on in the process with several intensive bouts of work – research, model-making, sourcing, tech weeks – required en route.
Work on the fringe – as a designer needs to do for early credits – earns relatively low fees. Of course, there are unpaid and profit-share productions, but where performers are paid a small weekly fee, designers will generally receive a single lump sum. More often than not, total earnings will be less despite equivalent or larger time commitments. All of this means that many emerging designers remain reliant on council tax reductions on account of low incomes.
Of course, taking low paid work is an investment and it should benefit the designer in experience, exposure and portfolio material. However, limited budgets (and small-scale, semi-professional spaces) often result in significant compromises of a designer’s work. It’s common for budgets to fail to cover builders’ fees and transportation costs. Then there’s the expense of stationary and modelling material, meaning that, in a bid to prove themselves, designers can easily end up out of pocket.
Breaking through is no mean feat. Nor does it come quick. Christopher Oram, I’m told, endured ten years of assisting before his career took off. More recently, Chloe Lamford, who has designed for the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Court and Headlong, won an emerging artists grant earlier this year, a decade after graduating from Wimbledon School of Art. The truth is that, without winning the Linbury Prize or the Jocelyn Herbert Award on graduating, most designers will take that long to achieve stability. If, that is, they last the distance. Many don’t.
At the same time, there simply isn’t sufficient support to ease that process of emergence. Writers – 150 a year, in fact – benefit from the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, with a dedicated festival happening biennially. Directors – more than 700 of them – have the Genesis Directors Network courtesy of the Young Vic. These offer educational opportunities, support-in-kind and – crucially – community and contacts.
There is no real equivalent for emerging designers. The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill has a similar remit – which it fulfils as best it can with the Jerwood Young Designers programme that funds designers’ fees and budgets for four productions a year. For those involved, this can be the launchpad into regularly and properly paid work elsewhere, but it can only benefit four designers a year. Nor does it offer a support network or a database of emergent talent. The Gate is a small theatre. It can only do so much.
We are at a point where British theatre design is really blossoming, with a newfound spirit of boldness and diversifying starting points that means naturalistic sets are no longer the norm. Additionally, established designers frequently go on to work extensively beyond theatre in more commercial realms, such as concerts and events, so they can be of significant economic value.
In a moment of stretched arts funding, theatres are unlikely to be able to increase paid opportunities alongside the process of emergence, but with the right networks and support in kind, they can – and should – help speed it up.
So what would a designers’ theatre to compare to the Royal Court or the Young Vic involve? It could offer development courses and mentorship, perhaps compensating for the closure of the Motley Theatre Design Course. Peer support networks? Hook-ups with emerging directors? Studio space for designers in residence?
But it also begs a bigger question: what might a design-led form of theatre look like?