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Designer Grace Smart: The show can go on without design, but a character will be missing

Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox and Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal – a show with a minimalist set designed by Soutra Gilmour

I’m going to admit a shocking truth that could see me exiled from the design community: if the van with the actors doesn’t show up, you can’t do the show. But if the van with the set doesn’t show up, whether we like to admit it or not, you can.

Now, I hear the gasps, the horror, the Victorian lady fainting, but that is a paraphrased quote from the mother of modern design herself, Jocelyn Herbert, and I think it’s important for designers to remember it.

Why is it important to remember such design-based blasphemy? Firstly, because we should all be comfortable trusting that the script and the actors are talented enough and powerful enough, and the audience imaginative enough to suspend disbelief.

We’ve all watched – or, even worse, performed – the miming of an invisible door being opened on stage. Did anyone lose the plot from such a heinous act of mimicry? In fact my research shows, surprisingly, the miming of an imaginary door has caused no spontaneous combustions, death by embarrassment or expulsion from drama school.

Secondly, it’s important because it reminds us what we are there to do. The acknowledgement that the story can, in the most literal sense, still be told without our van showing up, allows our work to be the ultimate enhancer.

The Archive: Jocelyn Herbert – design’s quiet revolutionary [1]

Design is another character on stage, but without lines – a character with a purpose that we as designers get to decide. Perhaps it is surplus to necessary requirements, but it remains a character with dramatic intentions that do a huge amount of leg work beyond the literal.

Sometimes design is a character that has a lot of movement, sometimes it’s very loud, other times, stoic. A design can be the story’s claustrophobic oppressor, or the safe space the other characters need to survive. And its ability to perform is not deemed by how much of it there is.

And that’s the reason I bring it up, even in front of the elders of the design council, because I think there’s a belief from some that as our van is just there to enhance, maybe there’s no need for it to exist at all. And that’s where I take issue.

When I hear whispers that a director has decided the set will be minimal, and so there’s a suggestion that maybe a designer isn’t needed, shouldn’t be hired, well it’s just wrong. It’s wrong to puncture the tyres of a van before it even exists.

Because painted wood and steel deck does not a design make, a minimalist space is as much a character as any filled-to-the-brim room. And therefore needs a designer.

So yes, I guess if that van, whether it’s packed with objects or containing just one chair, doesn’t show up, then the show can, as it always apparently must, go on. But there will be a character missing and, even with no lines, you’ll seriously miss its voice.

Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart [2]

Meet ‘living legend’ Pamela Howard, the godmother of British theatre design [3]