Theatre Critic and Journalist

Designers: Doing It For Themselves

Designers: Doing It For Themselves

Published in The Stage, 01.05.2014

Design is often considered a secondary element in theatre. It exists to serve something else, be that a text, a director’s vision or the actors for whom it provides a playing space. Walk around an exhibition dedicated to theatre design – a room full of empty model boxes, walls lined with production sketches and costume drawings – and the feeling is, invariably, one of absence and incompletion. These objects are not works of art, but artefacts. They are part of a wider process, not products in themselves.

No designer would argue with that. Even a finished, full-scale design is an empty shell without the production it exists to house. Increasingly, however, designers are taking on a more primary role of one kind or another. This summer, for example, two prominent designers – Jeremy Herbert and Tom Piper – will present work as artists in their own right. Look around and you start to realise that they’re part of a wider sea change. Designers are doing it for themselves.

Herbert and Piper are working on similar projects; both best, though imperfectly, encapsulated by the term installation. Herbert will present Safe House at the Young Vic, a collaboration with the writer and artist Gabriella Sonabend, in which audiences encounter a series of spaces – abstract but familiar – each of which houses a recorded story. Piper, meanwhile, is working with the artist Paul Cummins on a large-scale piece in which more than 800,000 ceramic poppies will be arranged around the Tower of London, marking the centenary of the first world war.

The reason the term installation sits so uncomfortably is that both projects have a distinct theatrical quality to them. Neither is a theatre production per se, but nor can they simply be categorised as visual art. Like theatre, they have their roots in stories, but here those stories are being told largely through space.

While Cummins came up with the broad concept behind the poppies – one for each British and colonial fatality suffered in the conflict – Piper is responsible for the spatial configuration and it that which will carry various metaphors and narrative elements. Some of the poppies will form a wave, a nod to a particular war poem. Others will seem to climb up or cascade down a wall.

Safe House, meanwhile, is a marriage between Sonabend’s stories and Herbert’s spaces. The rooms themselves, which suggest staircase cupboards or potting sheds, inform the stories told therein. Outside the overall cubic structure, a vast wind machine gives the sense of a storm. You might call it immersive theatre, but for the lack of live performance.

In both cases, both are still working as designers, but they are most definitely lead artists. Their processes reflect an equality and an independence. Herbert was inspired to make something by Sonabend’s invitation to respond to her late grandfather’s house. Her writings, in turn, drew on his sketches, and his spaces on her stories. “Essentially,” he says, “I’ve done a design for something that inhabits it – but that’s terribly reductive.”

Piper has had a similar experience: “One of our strengths [as designers] is that we are great collaborators,” he explains. “It’s Paul’s vision with my installation. I’ve tried to keep true to the original idea, while animating it in space. It’s like two artists working in parallel.”

In truth, however, designers don’t need independence to be lead artists.  “A lot of people aren’t aware how many months, it’s just the director and designer,” argues Es Devlin. She’s currently working with Lyndsey Turner on initial concepts for Hamlet – the Benedict Cumberbatch one – even though it’s due to open in August 2015. “Hopefully, by the end, neither of us will know who had which idea.”

“Designers increasingly are lead artists,” agrees Tom Scutt. “Our role in making theatre is shifting, but the system doesn’t reflect that.”

In other words, hierarchies still exist. “The fundamental problem with starting your own projects is that directors have the profile and are on top of the ladder. Designers play second fiddle to that.”

Devlin believes the nomenclature needs to change to disrupt the hierarchy. Not set designers, she says, but production designers – a term borrowed from music gigs, where designers often employ their ‘stage directors,’ not vice versa. “Let’s stop putting the director at the top. Let’s just say that the thing is born of this collaboration.”

That can be reflected in theatre. Designers Nick Ormerod and Helen Scarlett O’Neill are co-artistic directors (and co-founders) of Cheek By Jowl and The Spectators Guild respectively. Theatres are increasingly employing designers as associates. Piper has been at the RSC for years and recently joined the Tricycle, Herbert’s at the Young Vic and Scutt, the Nuffield theatre in Southampton.

Such roles allow designers to expand their practice and exercise greater sway over the wider theatre culture. Scutt’s involved in programming, but also in the theatre’s use of its spaces. Piper played an integral part in the redevelopment process in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and is repeating with the Other Place and the Tricycle’s new education spaces. He also helped design the RSC’s Shakespeare in the World exhibition at the British Museum, incorporating a number of his set designs into the walk-through exhibition. Compare too, the way that Chloe Lamford reconfigured the Royal Court bar during Open Court or the artists given free reign to design the new bedrooms downstairs at Battersea Arts Centre.

Devlin, meanwhile, has found another direction, spreading herself across several art-forms by working in opera, pop and stadium ceremonies, as well as theatre. While that affords novelty, it also allows her an artistic identity of her own. Often she tries ideas and styles out on different stages: Take That got a giant iron man for their Progress tour; the Royal Opera House, a giant iron horse for Les Troyens; the revolving cubes of Chimerica and Machinal have their roots the stage machinery of pop and rock concerts.

Part of the frustration in all of this is the repetition involved in designing one production after another, especially when one’s own artistic identity is flattened in the process of collaboration. Artists need ownership and they need impact. Designers are no different in that.

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