- The Stage - https://www.thestage.co.uk -

Grace Smart: Move over PVA and matchsticks, the future is here – let’s embrace it

Rebecca Brower's model for Casanova, the Olivier theatre winning design (2011)

I step on to the stage from behind seamless black serge, dressed in a turtle neck. “The future is here,” I say. A beat. Anticipation. I hit the clicker hidden in my fist, the screen above bursts into life, stage lights criss-cross behind me. Hands aloft, music crescendoing, I cry: “The future is 3D printing.”

Theatre designers and techies jump from their seats, applauding, chanting, holding out fistfuls of cash. We all scream for the 3D printer – at least in my head – but are we right to?

It is a fast, effective way to make intricate models, which – as I wrote about before – are a huge part of how designers communicate their work. If you want to be a theatre designer, and don’t know how to make a bentwood chair the size of your big toe out of card and PVA, then you better learn quickly.

There have always been options for buying pre-fab models. The 4D model shop has the odd 1:25 chair and toilet for sale, and even Amazon has a few online options for quick, ready-made cheats. But 3D printing allows a designer to completely render a specific object on a computer and print a miniature version. Could it one day print the entire design?

‘If a tool will make our work better, we can’t and shouldn’t hide from it’

I talked to designer David Farley, who runs a 3D printing sideline (and has been printing some lovely PAR cans for me), about it all. He told me that first and foremost it’s a tool, which is better at making some things than others, but it’s incredibly useful when printing large multiples of small fiddly objects.

Great, but do we need to worry about the impact that mechanising even that smallish aspect of model-making will have on the world of assistant designers?

I assisted for two-and-a-half years. My best skill was the small and fiddly and the patience to replicate those objects. The 80 PAR cans I’ve had 3D-printed would have taken assistant Grace two days to make. That’s two days of paid work I’ve given to a glorified fax machine.

Read how 3D printing was embraced by War Horse designers [1]

But, just as the black cab of yesterday becomes the Uber of today, it’s inevitable, and it’s useful. To deny this great advance in designers’ working evolution is counterproductive. I spent the other 50% of my time assisting on Vectorworks doing technical drawing, which I’m sure my predecessors argued would put the drawing-board trained out of work. If a tool is going to make our work better, we can’t and shouldn’t hide from it.

So instead of throwing shoes at the fictional, turtleneck-wearing version of me, we should remind ourselves of the importance of the assistant role in creating the designers of tomorrow. And, eventually I guess, universities might have to start teaching rendering… But until then, let’s enjoy the early days of this budding new wizardry.

Next week: Young Vic head of costume Catherine Kodicek