Being a freelance designer is like rocking up to a house party and changing the music to your most obscure guilty pleasure. That’s because you do months of work on a show having only met the director – you know what you’re bringing to the table before the invites to the party even go out.
On top of that, most of the time you’re leading a team who work in the building, together, six days a week. Production, wardrobe, props, marketing are all in full swing, with their own party politics, an institutionalised sense of taste and a shorthand for working. Meanwhile, you can’t even find the theatre’s stage door.
And when you do find the stage door, your opening gambit to meeting these new colleagues (who, as I mentioned, all know each other) is the model box presentation. It’s your big pitch for how they should spend all of their time, energy, and money. “I’m expensive” the model box yells as they walk in. “Of course, this is just the first draft,” you mumble.
Then comes first day of rehearsal. A room full of incredibly talented actors, excited to shape and create the characters and the production, have to stand there with a 1:25 scale fully realised idea in obnoxious model box form. “Hi guys,” yells the model box, “do you like my tricky-to-walk-on, uneven floor?”
Then there’s the whole wall of costume drawings that prescriptively and aggressively tell each actor: “I hope you like the famously tricky-to-wear yellow colour.” The designs that you’ve spent months scrutinising are now as brash as Aqua’s 1990s classic Barbie Girl. Full blast.
If you’re lucky, that subsides. As rehearsals kick off, you look around and read the party, going for a slightly less obscure song from your guilty pleasures playlist, taking suggestions from the actors, from the technical team, from your fellow creatives. Soon you can’t tell whose idea is what – you’re all just dancing and partying to music chosen through a collective consciousness.
By the time you hit tech, if you’re lucky, everything clicks into place. The tech team and crew rally behind that odd and slightly expensive choice because it makes more sense in the shared ether than it did as a half-formed gesture in your lonely studio space. The actors see each others’ costumes, and work with the difficult, uneven floor, because it hasn’t been thrust upon them but analysed with them. And you look around at every compromise and see each as an improvement on what was in your head before.
It’s our job to keep our eyes on the big picture, but that doesn’t mean continuing to cling to the privately painted original canvas. It’s about allowing the picture to evolve by getting invested in the party itself, and enjoying that community voice, because pretty soon you’ll be back out on the street, looking for the next stage door with a shouty model box and your mixtape.
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart