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Grace Smart: Theatres may favour house cats, but designers are feline left out

Marley and Pirate, the Bush Theatre's resident cats. But set designers might make even better theatre lodgers, says Grace Smart. Photo: Courtesy of Bush Theatre
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Cats. Not the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but the domestic-pet-turned-furry-internet-phenomenon. They’re cute, they’re loveable, and they’re the hot new theatre accessory to any friendly building. Cats are entertaining, low maintenance, and don’t need a lot of space. However, I believe that a set or costume designer could be an even more beneficial accessory to any building.

Who would you rather see padding through your local cafe: Es Devlin or Sylvester? Christopher Oram or Garfield? Hello Kitty, or Alison Chitty? The next big designer is out there, studio-less, right now and it takes only a small amount of room to get them there.

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An artist’s studio space in London costs roughly £260 for 100 sq ft (roughly the size of the Olivier’s 1:25 model box) per month and is often quite far out of town.

Even well-established fringe theatres can pay as little as £1,000 for a designer’s fee. Which means the average ‘emerging’ designer has to have a show every four months just to break even on renting a space to work.

Outside London, things aren’t much better. Yes, a studio of the same size costs roughly £100 per month, but we’re also talking smaller fees, more isolation and less work. This can lead to a lovely studio with very little happening inside it.

The nature of designers’ work means we can’t take a laptop to a coffee shop, or a notebook to the National. Meanwhile, bloody Mittens is lapping up the communal element of being in a theatre

I used to share a lovely space in Shadwell with powerhouse designer and occupational other half Frankie Bradshaw. It was fun, communal, buzzy, and just about affordable.

Now, however, we both work from our respective homes. Our exciting work serves as the backdrop to our domestic lives. And we’re lucky enough to just about afford some amount of space. As students and then graduates, we used to flip coins to decide who gets the dining table, and who’s stuck sprawled on the bedroom floor.

A lot of emerging talent is likely still to be found on bedroom floors. The nature of designers’ work, and the amount of equipment we require, means we can’t take a laptop to a coffee shop, or a notebook to the National Theatre. Have you ever tried cutting a straight line while propping the cutting matt up on a mattress? It ain’t great for the mental health.

Meanwhile, bloody Mittens is lapping up the communal element of being in a theatre, wandering through all those empty and unused rooms I’ve spotted around the place, and not even having the nerve to run its own social media account…

So, if you’re looking for a new lodger in your office, building or theatre, and you have a room full of broken par cans, or an empty desk, or a Harry Potter-esque cupboard under your stairs, then I suggest you consider getting in a local designer to use it.

We’re entertaining, low maintenance and don’t need a lot of space. Plus, we come with the added bonus that very few people are allergic to us.

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

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