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Grace Smart: Producers need to take more risks on young designers

White card design by Grace Smart. Sometimes the most simple and naive designs are the best
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Lately there has been a lot of discussion about how designers can progress in this business. Whether it’s a gap between graduating and getting work, or what the hell you do after you’ve ‘emerged’, there seem to be a lot of rungs missing in this ladder.

This was underlined when designers Tom Piper and Chloe Lamford joined the chorus for more career development opportunities.

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

We like novices in theatre. We’re excited by a budding, enthusiastic director. We embrace a fledgling playwright with a hot new take on how to tell a story. We always enjoy the unveiling of the next acting star… “Did you know they’re only 19? So talented!”

But the feeling when it comes to design is that the reverse is true. The world of British theatre regards the role of a designer as a craftsman – that our life cycle is similar to a carpenter, vet, or fancy wine taster with skills that take years to hone. The more experienced the designer, the better the design – so the theory runs.

This is debatable. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the set designs I did at university are some of the best I’ve done yet. Why? Because I was an idiot.

I didn’t know what I was doing. Those designs are rough, stupid and brilliant. But after graduating I started being told there was a ‘correct’ way to design. I stopped inadvertently screwing with the status quo. Now I really have to work to do that.

Of course, there are some things you need to know. Most of the time, if you choose an Olivier award-winning set designer over a recent graduate, you’ll get a better set. It’ll be less work for the production manager, costume supervisor and director to support and it’ll be guaranteed to work. There are also revolutionaries at every level, and I’m not pooh-poohing them.

I was lucky enough to win the Linbury Prize, which allowed me to design a show for the main space of a theatre as a total rookie. And thanks to the support of everyone there, it was bloody great. But the Linbury prize only gives four designers, every two years, the chance to do that.

So what if more theatres took it upon themselves? How difficult would it be to set up a scheme that interviews a local, exciting design talent for one show a year? Well, probably more difficult than I’m imagining. That’s why I’m a designer – and self-proclaimed idiot – and not a producer.

I’m equally inspired and excited by the work I see in the portfolios of those starting out as I am by a Google image search of the country’s top designers. So why shouldn’t we take more risks on inexperienced, undisciplined, naive idiots?

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