Is ‘Theatre Design’ too limited a term?

Convener(s): Lucy Wilkinson [designer] 

Participants: Stuart Target [designer], Shanti Freed [ designer], Kathwerine Warman [ designer/dancer], Simon Wilkinson [ lighting designer], Jonathan Petherbridge [ London Bubble], Andrew Mulligan [Actor], Lucy Wilkinson [ designer], Jonathan Holmes [ director], Becs Andrews [ designer]

Others were present or dropped in and out but didn’t leave names.. sorry


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

What we all call ourselves as designers and how this affects how others in the business see us – discussion about the barriers, stereotypes, expectations, inhibitions created out of how one is labeled and how one thinks of oneself – for example ‘designers’ often take a  more subservient role because of the traditional expectations of directors, or because of a natural temperament to be less pro-active and more reactive/responsive [ often why they have chosen the role in the first place, often because they are women??]. The traditional pigeon-holing of roles still exists and also then contributes to a sense of who one is in the theatre world which can be good and bad – creates professional respect which is important, but designating a title to yourself according to what you have done limits the idea of what you can be, and stultifies creative collaboration.


Should there be distinctions and titles? Should we all be called ‘theatre makers’ with a bracketed specialist title if necessary?


What does ‘theatre’ mean  does it link what design does too much to a building thus reproducing the old fashioned view of design as akin to interior decoration, promoting an idea of design as pros arch structured, Victorian style? Should we create a term more able to describe the different performance spaces now regularly used? Is ‘Performance designer’ more accurate?  Or does this link theatre design to performance art, thus deataching it from the idea odf ‘entertainment’ and linking it more with ‘fine art’ – several designers thought this was unhelpful, as ‘art’ has a different kind of reception to theatre. Discussion of the ways in which ‘art’ can generate money, while theatre does the oppostite – sucks money in and often doesn’t repay it. Art is a commodity which can retain its kudos and individuality because an artwork is considered worth money, while commodified theatre becomes staid and no longer experimental – long running large scale west end musicals for example.


Discussion of some specific projects which allowed a very collaborative process to exist in which people’s titles and specialisms were put on hold for the initial discussions, and all the practitioners involved viewed as equal contributors [ London Bubble] then specialist roles slowly re-adopted as the technical production time became more intense. Discussion of how only really good funding can allow this to happen enough – the Scottish Arts Council for example funds working weeks for practitioners to create the beginnings of shows, then these are viewed by the council who then decide whether to fund the full development of that show.  Everyone agreed it would be great for all involved to be involved as early as possible, so that designers and lighting for example are included in very initial; meetings with directors. Ideas raised of using designing ina  devised way, so that the written material grows out of the technical possibilities. Can designers be directors? Not everyone felt confident about this, genral agreement that using people’s specific skills and trainings is good, but ctreating greater understanding of those actual skills is more important that allocating titles. Cross pollination of ideas and as much collaborative discussion as possible is good, as early as possible – lighting particularly laments coming in for two days of tech as the end of a rehearsal process and ‘playing safe’ because of lack of time/ not being properly paid. Designers also felt this to some degree – lighting and design should not be visual ‘sticking plasters’. Ideas of involving directors in design work and designers in directing work – e.g director and designer building rough card models together.


Ideas that ‘design’ is still regarded very much as the visual side of the show, rather than incorporating all the senses. Although some designers think about lighting, some about sound as they design, there is a general fear of stepping on the toes of sound and lighting designers by making suggestions – or this occurs too late in the whole process.


Main discussion was how to enable fuller collaborative work involving all contributors equally, normally prevented by time, contractual issues, money. The structures of the way shows are made needs to change. Suggestion to run two shows in a dual rehearsal process, allowing design to become a more devised part of how the final product is created. Show one  rehearses for one week, then show two, with a different designer and same/ different director, while show one director/designer have week two to work on the development of show one, before going back into rehearsals in week three, allowing show two to develop during week three, and so on. Problems that this elongated process might be detrimental in terms of momentum for actors? Or is that a problem created out of the traditional expectations of the traditional structures – maybe the speed of working can change and the results can be just as productive but less stressful for all. Main problem would be funding the space and pay for all concerned for essentially twice the time that is now usual. However, this would allow actors to work with the design earlier thus preventing the ‘scariness’ of tech week, which is usually the first time they have experienced the set in reality [ mention that designers are often more frightened to experiment because of this aspect of shock/surprise and the limited time to make changes necessary if actors can’t work with what is on stage.


General agreement that longer processes would be interesting experimentally and useful in terms of creative fulfilment for all. Discussion of cross generational input and devised designs, whereby a framework for young people / students is put in place and designs are created in groups out of game-playing and collaborative tasks. Should design be essentially like ‘art’ where it is necessarily ‘authored’ by one individual, or can it be a much opener process? This appears to be down to individual choice, but the lasting concensus is that the structures of the design/ rehearsal processes need to become more integrated in order to allow more collaborative work to occur. Practical considerations need to be built into the conceptual and emotional generation of work with much more acceptance that these are equally important aspects of making work, and that they do, and perhaps can more fruitfully, interweave. Practitioners need to work hard to destabilize hierarchies and stereotype that still exist, limiting what work can become. No proper solutions without the money to try out new models…Scottish Arts Council sounds like a good thing!