Sometimes, as theatre designers, we’re left on our own in the auditorium. Maybe it’s a lunch break during tech and we’re tweaking the pictures hanging on the set; moving them millimetres at a time, putting as many screw holes in the wall as possible. Perhaps it’s late at night and we’re waiting for the scenic painters to arrive, scribbling notes desperately. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning, and we’re just staring into space, wondering if the whole thing is totally wrong.
It’s at these moments – these calm interludes in an otherwise hectic schedule – that I’m reminded that people often think theatres are haunted.
I can see why. They’re spooky spaces. Even with the house lights on, there are often areas of the balcony that you can’t quite see. Staring out at so many seats as yet unfilled can be very eerie, creepy and unnerving. In the larger theatres, the scale of the emptiness – the complete silence – is deafening. And then there are the ghosts themselves.
No, this is not about spectral figures in white sheets or rattling chains, but the ghosts of previous, better designs; the spirits conjured up by imposter syndrome.
Just like an actor playing an iconic role, it’s impossible for a designer not to think about what has come before; the comparisons of other productions of that show, other sets that have sat on that stage. This is the auditorium where so-and-so did such-and-such and you saw it and it made you want to do this.
Except your work isn’t as good as so-and-so’s. And now, you’re alone in an auditorium, with the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, listening to the snarky theatre ghosts mock and deride you and your wrongly positioned picture frames, while you think of every good set design you’ve ever seen.
I keep hearing these horror stories about (often ‘up and coming’) designers dropping out of the game because of the pressure. Pressure to get the work, but also pressure to deliver. Pressure to be as good as the phantom design that was there last week. I’m guessing that’s why we’re often in the theatre working away, all by ourselves, during the lunch breaks.
Who knows what the answer is, or how we exorcise these spaces of the spectres of dead, old white men looking down on us. I’d love to know how to get rid of the spooky voice echoing from the circle, telling me I’m here because of luck, or worse.
My guess is we do it by talking about those ghosts, and telling each other that it’s okay to mess up. It can get lonely in the empty auditorium (the real as well as the metaphorical one), but it’s important to try not to get spooked, because we all worked bloody hard to get to be the people spending their lunch breaks in there.
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart