Cliques, Collectives and 'Cruel Intentions'

Some of you may know that for the last few years I’ve been writing a monthly column for The Stage about the trials and tribulations of being a designer. In a lot of those pieces, (which I obviously urge you to go and read in their entirety) I have railed against the industry’s gatekeepers. The people in charge. The hierarchical structure within theatre that does all of our heads in.


So I thought I would use this beautiful designer-created platform to instead talk about our community, a community which is known for being solitary, but which is currently flinging out lines of communication between paint-splattered desks everywhere.


There’s a graduating-designer Emergency WhatsApp group, and there's an emerging-designer one, also a mid-level one, and a chat containing only me, where I send myself motivational quotes and photographs of cats. The networks that have appeared are moving and magnificent. And importantly, they show us something a little icky about how we as designers do business.


Our job means we are often separated, so to cope with designer-on-designer interaction, we’ve created a sort of American high school tier system. We have our own cliques, and houses. If you do your time, survive, and climb that ladder, you become a rule-the-school senior, watching as the freshmen carry around large rucksacks full of brand new model making equipment.


In so many ways, Scalpel School is a force for good. I was an assistant for a long old time and learnt as much from doing that than I did from my three year degree. You are taught by the masters while being able to make a living. Plus, for the first time, you get to see behind the curtain and sit at the jock’s table. I’m a big fan of the apprenticeships, I couldn’t have been a designer without that mentorship and simultaneous pay-cheque.


But, the tier system does have its downsides. I’ve spoken to a couple of current (well, pre-corona) jobbing assistants who were hired by “top dog” designers for weeks of professional level work, for which they weren’t paid a penny. I, quite frankly, do not want to go to a school where the freshmen have to pay to do our homework. 


On school trips when we sit around the campfire, we love to share ghost stories. Tales about the actor who threw a shoe at your head, or the producer who still refuses to pay you…but we don’t discuss the shortcomings of the people we most respect.


We also don’t talk about some of the more insidious lessons at Cutting Matt High. It was a designer who told me if I wanted to be hired, I needed to pronounce my “t’s” and “speak properly”. It was a designer who suggested I’d do better in future if I dressed more like a girl. And it was a designer who told people I probably wasn’t good enough to “make it”.


So we’ve gone from mentorship and simultaneous pay-cheque, to Poundland Pygmalion and being hungry. I don’t need to spell out what effect this toxicity and elitism has on diversity with in our sector. And how a normalisation of this behaviour causes huge amounts of distrust and suspicion between the grades.


I think it’s important to address directly some of the circulating tension around the conception of Scene Change. When it first appeared on my timeline I found it all too easy to be sceptical. Like a lot of us, all future work had been heartbreakingly boxed up, labelled with a question mark. I was feeling vulnerable and marginalised, and completely disillusioned that something seemingly "top down" could look out for the little guys.


I couldn’t have been more wrong. The problem wasn’t Scene Change, it was how we used to do business. How we used to not pay for assistants sometimes, how we used to do a Henry Higgins on emerging talent, how we used to have cliques and politics. But our school is currently on fire, and we can decide what aspects of the hierarchy and curriculum we want to leave behind.


That’s why this junior is donning her cheerleader outfit (calm down) and dusting off her pom-poms (it’s only rude if you make it rude) and endeavouring to do a jump split for our school spirit. 


On a micro social-media level, we can start being a friendlier community by messaging someone about how great their show looks in broadcasts; try cross-pollinating our WhatsApp groups a bit more; lift up someone else by liking and sharing and following work from designers of all levels and backgrounds.


And on the macro, by supporting and getting excited about Scene Change we can now start building a less hierarchical, more friendly community. We need to acknowledge our structural shortcomings and admit that we are also the gatekeepers within our overly homogeneous community, and we need to do better.


I’m so thankful that those with the most power and loudest voices are leading the charge by calling us to Model Box Academy’s first communal assembly, and now it’s the duty of people in every grade to utilise the lectern they’ve built us.


Grace Smart




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