In this column last month, I bemoaned missing the display of Ivan Kyncl’s theatrical photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There’s a new reason for you, and any other lovers of theatre you know, to visit the museum. Up in the theatre gallery, you’ll now find Staging Places, an exhibition of theatre design work from British-based designers over the past four years.
Think about that: the best of stage design is now on show at the world’s leading museum of art and design. The work we do is on display among some of the most remarkable artefacts of culture and design from around the world through all of history. That’s quite a thing.
We owe this honour to the Society of British Theatre Designers, which, every four years, curates the British entry for the international Prague Quadrennial stage design exhibition. The show took place in June this year, where the SBTD’s display sat proudly alongside work from 78 other countries.
The Prague exhibit has been reworked to suit the V&A. The SBTD team, led by curator Fiona Watt, has been keen to show a wide variety of work from many designers, as well as different styles and scales of shows.
It was also keen to emphasise that designers don’t work alone, but as part of a team bringing a show to life – “building the content to tell the stories” as the organisation puts it. And to show that designs don’t just appear on the stage fully formed, but are the end result of much work along the way.
If you’ve been part of this process, all of this will be familiar to you, of course. The fascination will be in seeing the work of others. But to me the real joy is that people who have never been part of this process will get a glimpse of it.
One of the best exhibits is a video of a series of quick white card models for a production. It shows a design evolve as one rejected quick-sketch idea evolves into a new quick-sketch idea and leads, step by step, to the show’s final physical form.
Alongside this are intricate, beautiful final-set models, which will surprise and delight those who don’t know that shows exist in detailed miniature before they get to the stage.
The display shows that every single thing you see in a performance has been carefully considered and precisely thought out – for the most part, it’s the result of skill, graft and experience, not just chance. To some of the public, that will be the biggest surprise.
If you can’t get to the V&A, the SBTD has also collected much of this online (stagingplaces.co.uk), but just as live theatre is better than a YouTube video, it’s worth a visit to the real thing if you can. It’s on display until January 2020, admission is free.
Rob Halliday is a lighting designer and programmer. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/Rob-Halliday