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Grace Smart: Designers always put something of themselves in their work

A scene from Blasted at Styx, London. Photo: Kathy Trevelyan A scene from Blasted at Styx, London. Photo: Kathy Trevelyan
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“And the whole thing is a whale carcass… because of… fear…” I tail off in a room of creatives stunned into silence. I am showing them my model box, wondering whether whale carcasses are the stuff of only my nightmares.

At this stage I’m also wondering whether I’ve led everyone down this route because I am terrified of sea creatures and watched Pinocchio too many times as child. That quickly segues into wondering how much of ourselves we put in our set designs.

I know some directors worry about what people will think of them using their own Spotify daily mix in shows. They fear it could be a sign that they need to branch out more in their artistic choices – that they should be bringing themselves closer to the text, rather than the text closer to them.

On the other hand, why shouldn’t we put ourselves, and what we love, into our own work? Isn’t it our job to make the artistic connections that only we could make?

There are the obvious ways in which designers become part of the show, as part of what we do involves our personal taste. We deal in composition, beauty and creating attractive images. But where does this stop?

I worked with a designer who hated tracksuit bottoms that went in at the ankle. To his dismay, they kept coming up in the research for his show

I worked with a designer who hated tracksuit bottoms that went in at the ankle. To his dismay, they kept coming up in the research for his show; he didn’t like it, and we found different tracksuit bottoms. I don’t think that this is wrong or right and I don’t feel that strongly about tracksuit bottoms that go in at the ankle either way. But that’s the thing: he did.

And then sometimes I’m putting my nightmares, my taste or my actual possessions into a show not just to express an atmosphere or a character, but for some deeper, more confusing, reason.

It has dawned on me that I have the habit of trying to protect the female – often badly treated – characters in plays I work on by putting them in my clothes. When I worked on Saint Joan, I became so entwined with the character that I insisted she take my old jeans, and my battered Dr Martens. When I did Blasted, I gave Cate some of my beloved trainers, and socks. Don’t worry, I washed the socks first.

Now I’m designing Killer Joe, and I’m desperate to wrap Dottie in as many of my treasured black Casio watches as possible. Is it a talisman from myself to the character? For a storyteller in a piece about women being abused, does giving her my watch somehow show a character I am her confidante? Or is it just that my wardrobe contains my taste in clothes, items I liked so much I bought them – my metaphorical preferred type of tracksuit bottoms?

My point is that I’m the only person who knows what my nightmares look like. I just hope my sense of atmosphere and fear is good enough and well-researched enough – and, most importantly, evoked from the text – to act as a lightning rod to spark a similar feeling in the audience.

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