This month I managed to sneak away for a weekend holiday. But just as I was getting into it, the inevitable happened. Shortly before jumping gleefully on to a train out of town I looked at my phone and was filled with dread. It dawned that I had forgotten to send some technical drawings off to the production team. Cue the noise of a spinning plate smashing on the floor.
It’s normal for theatre designers to work on three to five shows at any one time, often out of necessity, and designers are always on call. Whether there’s the purchase of a 1970s teapot on eBay to approve, or a show report about a wonky cupboard door, people need quick replies and speedy solutions. Then there’s the actual job of coming up with a set design. That’s a full 24-piece crockery set to spin.
It’s very British, and very showbiz, to constantly talk about being stressed
It’s very British, and very showbiz, to constantly talk about being stressed. As if being on the brink of a stomach ulcer shows appropriate work ethic.
My theory is that we’re all so grateful that anyone lets us do this creative job that we have to flog ourselves with ‘doing it’, and then show each other the wounds. As a member of the Instagram designer conglomerate, I’m all too guilty of posting yet another Sunday-in-the-studio snap as if it were a badge of honour.
So what happens when that difficult work/play balance tips over? It can see you sat in a Paris hotel room on the phone exclaiming: “What do you mean we didn’t get flame-retardant tarpaulin!?” There’s only so many times life is going to mouth “close the office” before it goes to the Eiffel tower without you.
At that stage we’re creating art about life, but without the luxury of having an actual life to reflect. We’re just watching theatre, and making theatre. If designers don’t go to art galleries, don’t sit in cafes, don’t look at trees and clouds passing by the train window, then eventually the well runs dry.
Where’s inspiration more likely to strike? In a studio, pulling your hair and trawling Pinterest for some smidgen of a eureka moment, or doing almost anything else? Designers’ phones contain note after note of seemingly unconnected words and names, and thousands of images of pavements and doodles on napkins – revelations archived when we’re out doing other things.
I love my work, and I know I am incredibly lucky to get to play in one of the best jobs ever. But as my train rolls slowly into London King’s Cross – and I get an impending sense of doom from another work-based Sunday email – I’m standing up in front of the group and saying, for myself, and anyone else a little strung out this summer… I will not feel guilty about that two-hour trip to the butterfly farm anymore.