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Grace Smart: In theatre, even designers have to perform – however unwillingly

Soutra Gilmour's model box for National Theatre's Antigone in 2012. Photo: James Bellorini Soutra Gilmour's model box for National Theatre's Antigone in 2012; a design that did make the final cut. Photo: James Bellorini
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There is a certain level of irony in the concept of the ‘model box presentation’. Designers are possibly the furthest thing from a performer in any theatrical room, yet ahead of each production they have to stand up in a room full of people and sell their ideas. At least three times. And sometimes for as long as 45 minutes. All about this thing they’ve made in the seclusion and safety of the studio.

Without wishing to make gross generalisations about my lovely set and costume design community – and there are definitely a few in there who secretly harbour the feeling they could give the onstage talent a run for their money (you know who you are; and you’re wrong, by the way) – on the whole, we are a reserved, small group-chat kind of bunch.

For example, I feel much more suited to the conversation element of collaboration: passionately talking about the play with the director; disagreeing, duelling, deciphering their ideas and pitching my own. Debating a lighting designer on the conceptual meaning of a fourth-wall break. Discussing, in depth, the exact connotations of a particular shade of denim with an actor. Design, from the off, is a conversation. The most important one being between our world and the minds of the audience.

Standing up, palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy, and confidently doing a stand-up set about something you’ve been working on for months – mostly in private – can be a little daunting

Which is why standing up, palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy, and confidently doing a 20-minute stand-up set about the various attributes of something you’ve been working on for months – mostly in private – can be a little daunting. There are three presentations a design, or designer, withstands. The white-card presentation, in which the model – devoid of all colour – goes up in front of the producers, the production manager, stage management, and set builders.

Here, it is judged for two key things: conceptual rigour and affordability. These two aspects of design stand at opposite ends of the ‘practical brief’ versus ‘pure art’ spectrum. The questions buck wildly and confusingly between the two: from the types of wood needed to ‘What does grief look like?’. Then the final model. Four weeks of solid work, every colour perfect, every brick in place, and every passionate reason behind every choice vanishing completely from your mind.

Another month or so passes and it’s the first day of rehearsal. The scariest yet. The model box has been off around various departments and workshops and, as ever, looks heartbreakingly worse for wear.

This is often the nicest presentation to do, because actors are usually the loveliest about your little one-man sideshow act. There’s a part of me that believes the whole reason we make the model so small and cute is for the ‘awww look at the tiny things!’ moment.

Essentially, I’m looking for sympathy for myself and the designer community here. Years of being an only child, moulding Babybel wax into tiny figures, has meant that I have the best job in the world. But I wish I’d known I’d have to do quite so much talking to rooms of people who are all much better at talking than me.

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

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