It’s well known that theatre designers are busy. Directors always joke about it. We’re always going from tech week on one show to the rehearsal room of another, then back to a messy studio for five minutes to come up with ideas for a third.
So designers counter that stereotype of always being on the go by not talking about their other shows: their mistresses. The belief is that we should keep one director them blissfully unaware of any other directors ever existing.
It’s the classic ‘two dates to the prom’ farce, in which a character must run feverishly from one romantic excursion to another, making excuses, changing lapel flowers and, in the end, getting caught out and humiliated.
It’s a hard thing to talk about, being busy. First: it’s been pointed out to me that complaining about having no time is the worst way to get job offers. Second: because I’m aware how lucky I am to be busy in such a competitive field, why would I bemoan it?
But more than that, it’s hard to talk about, because it’s drilled into designers not to discuss other work in front of their current collaborators. I’ve heard the situation compared to that of an elicit affair.
I’ve surreptitiously turned my phone over in a meeting, hiding a text from one director when sat in front of another. I’ve bitten my tongue when excited by another project and covered up model boxes when people visit the studio. And as much as I love the hilarity of the previously mentioned situational farce, I think this is a serious problem in our industry.
Let’s ignore the icky fact that a young woman is being made to carefully nurture and worry about the delicate egos of her often male superiors… Because – as mentioned – I’m too bloody busy to pull at that patriarchal string. I think there are also big mental-health ramifications. Plate-spinning various shows, while simultaneously sweeping up broken crockery and hiding the plates from each other, is simply too much for a lot of my contemporaries. It takes a toll on both emerging and established designers.
Hiding everything under a veil of capability means we aren’t addressing the central issue of how design is – or isn’t – valued. I don’t do nine shows a year because I’m greedy or a straight-up masochist.
The sad truth is that we rush around like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, because that’s what we need to do to survive. I would absolutely love to be a monogamist, to live in one show at a time, to take one date to the prom. But the money isn’t there. So why should I carry the guilt of my show polygamy?
I’m urging designers and producers of all levels to stop the farcical slapstick routine and really think about the day rate for designers and how far that money gets us. It should not fall on designers to pick up the slack – and therefore stress – when it comes to this cross-industry issue. And we shouldn’t be the ones picking up the pieces, alone and in silence, when another plate smashes.
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart