There isn’t currently a right lot of design happening. In idle moments, I’ve become mildly obsessed with the idea that an empty packet of crisps might have blown on to the main stage at Shakespeare’s Globe, and that would be the extent of the set design for the empty summer season there.
I also keep picturing a brave rat, lit beautifully with a single bulb, venturing out on to the stage at London’s Royal Court – and we all know how much we love an animal on stage. He’s about to give an entirely improvised performance, to a fly in the upper circle, which will later describe the show as “actually quite good”.
So what actual options do we designers have to make work right now? And why am I clinging to the symbol of those empty stages more than the hundreds of hours of wonderful theatre work I can access via this very laptop?
Essentially, theatre in lockdown has taken three forms: 1) Recordings of live shows. 2) Zoom monologues. 3) Me puppeteering my house plants for the enjoyment of my pet fish. All of which have at moments really inspired me, but have, except for 3), been lessened by the presence of a Perspex screen acting as a proscenium arch.
There’s a reason TV and film sets don’t look or work like theatre sets. Both art forms have evolved to best engage the viewer. We expect screens to give us a specificity; we also expect that on a screen anything is achievable.
But, as we’re reminded by watching recordings, the liveness and limitations of theatre give it a different alchemy. I find myself resentful of every blissfully unaware recorded audience; it has become another screen showing you how happy your ex is with someone else.
What I wouldn’t give to see the detail on Gillian Anderson’s silk dress, to feel the vibration of the music in Barber Shop Chronicles, to squint into the beam of a bright backlight.
The Zoom format also has its design peaks and troughs – designer Sam Wilde’s cardboard creations for Little Angel Theatre’s I Want My Hat Back are utterly jaw-dropping in their intricacy.
Sadly, most of the time I’m just genuinely nosing in actors’ houses, craving a whiff of artifice, of design, of magic, and am left just remarking on their very nice kitchens (I’m looking at you, David Tennant).
I’m sorry to be such a killjoy. I’m just jealous. The outpouring of creativity in this time is overwhelming, inspiring and poignant, and I’m out here trying to work out how to break into a theatre with a rat-sized ruff.
In the words of director Peter Brook: “A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
We have walkers, we have watchers – they’re just separated by digital windows. But while ‘making do’ and staying positive, we need to acknowledge and remember the importance of design, and how much we miss it.