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Grace Smart: Without wider awareness that theatre design is open to anyone, we will never improve diversity

Orlando Bloom in Killer Joe featuring set design by Grace Smart. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Recently, I’ve attended lots of discussions about the current state of theatre design – from the Society of British Theatre Designers conference about contracts with Equity to drinks with designer friends. I’ve come to the conclusion that no one knows what the hell designers actually do. “You’re a theatre designer?” I am often asked, followed by: “Which theatres have you designed?”

A lack of understanding of the process leads people to ask a designer to just “whip up” some concept drawings as part of the interview process, and it leads to the worrying new epidemic of job adverts offering a £200 fee for a set designer/builder.

I’ve heard a few interesting ideas about how we can better publicise the role of designers. These include weekly blogs and diaries or even strapping cameras to designers’ heads – cut to eight hours of staring at an empty model box with a soundtrack of groans.

One brilliant development is designers commenting on production shots on social media saying “Who designed this?” It is an act of polite protest that I am very much behind.

Working group established to advocate for theatre design in wider industry

When I describe what it is I do to non-designers, I tend to say things like: “We decide how everything in that stage picture looks, whether it’s layout of the space, or nail polish colour, there’s been a decision about every single thing.”

So what better way to make our influence clear than to credit us, with the photographer, on the images we create, right?

But this is a two-pronged issue: those within the industry who don’t understand our process, and the general public who may not know the role of a designer exists at all. Without wider awareness that theatre design is a job open to anyone, we will never break the diversity issue within it.

As a teenager, I did a theatre design course. I liked stories and I liked drawing and, to be perfectly honest, I thought it would be a bit of a doss. It didn’t occur to me that it was a career I could actually do. I was already learning quickly that being a woman was a hinderance to my wanting to be taken seriously creatively. Even if my work was largely nightmarish sculptures made out of Babybel cheese wax.

On the first day, I remember being told Es Devlin was the current exciting superstar designer, and being shown her work. Her drawings, her worlds, tiny figures on seemingly impossible landscapes. And then I saw a photo of her. With her long dark hair, winged eyeliner, and her being a woman, I thought: “She looks like me. That could be me”.

There are so many under-represented voices in the design department and, to put it simply, you cannot be what you cannot see.

There’s no easy way to make the world of design more diverse and better understood, but more recognition would help on both fronts. By celebrating the work of our designers, we make those roles better respected, fairly paid, and for some people, conjure the role up in their imagination as a job they too could do.

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