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Grace Smart: It’s time to let theatre designers do the talking

Kelly Gough in NST City's recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire with set design by Georgia Lowe; a show Grace Smart has longed to design for. Photo: The Other Richard
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There’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot this year. I heard it at Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled get together and at the Society of British Theatre Designers’ event, during Tom Scutt’s Donmar on Design festival. I even heard myself grumpily mumble it down the phone at an artistic director. The phrase is “design-led theatre”, and it’s often followed by a question. How can we have more of it?

Design-led theatre means different things to different people. To some it’s devising work from a design perspective – such as allowing a composer to craft the show musically, or a choreographer to let movement steer the way and it means letting the visuals start the conversation. To others, and to me at this moment, it is allowing us to generate the work we want to do. Like directors walking into a theatre with a well-worn script and proposing they do it, why can’t designers?

For example, I’ve been pitching A Streetcar Named Desire since the moment I first picked up a scalpel. Blanche’s faded white dress flitting around on my set has become my holy grail, my white whale. In an attempt to harpoon her, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen how bloody well I would design that show, and why I think that play is important. It worked. The collaborator I’ve badgered and prodded and persuaded the most is potentially programming it next year. But, for various justifiable reasons, with a different director and, therefore, probably, a different designer.

In many ways I’m flattered it’s happening, and I know I don’t have a monopoly on the play. But when the traditional hierarchical way of picking a team means I have to fight to work on a project I galvanised, then the crusade for designer-led work excites me more than ever.

The industry events mentioned at the start, alongside endless discussion with designers, have led me to one overwhelming thought: set and costume designers feel as though no one knows what we do. That nobody knows we run large teams. That we do dramaturgy, we come up with concepts, we know how much a show costs and manage the budget, or that we line up whole personal seasons of work. All these skills involve being a person who can take the lead, whether that’s for a one-off project, in an associate role for a company, or even the artistic director of a building.

This might be what it takes to transform the way we look at theatre designers in this country – what it takes to convince those at the top to give designers the steering wheel more often. I can think of numerous designers who could send a theatre in an extraordinary new direction, rather than just fix up a few old model boxes.

So I’m putting out the cutting matt-shaped bat signal. This is a call to arms. Let’s give theatre designers, scenographers and drama school doodlers the keys to more than just the paint cupboard. Let’s listen to the projects they’ve longed to do, and trust them to lead us somewhere interesting.

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