What lies ahead for graduate and emerging designers as we slowly move into, ‘the new normal?’

This might be a daring one, but the question I want to pose is one that has been on my mind for quite some time before theatres around the world went dark. It may be a personal opinion of mine, but it seems to be that it is way harder for graduating designers to jump into this industry if they come from poorer backgrounds. Of course, with more and more graduates of theatre design graduating every year, it can be hard to try and fight for the very few design jobs that are going out there. This is made harder by the cycle that I feel is quite common for the emerging designer.

Graduate, work for free through assisting or interning, build up your network and contact circle, so that when hopefully there are paid jobs, they will filter down to you. The more jobs you get, the more contacts that are made, and this will lead to more paid jobs. Great! But in my opinion, this system favours graduates from wealthier backgrounds. Graduates who can afford to work for free, perhaps while not paying for the bigger expenses in life such as rent or art supplies, or simply those who need not worry where their next pay check is coming from.

So if this system favours the wealthier graduates, what can those who have to work and earn in order to support their stay in London, do, while they crack into the same industry. Like many of my colleagues throughout my time at university, we worked for several years in pubs, retail and supermarket chains to support our study and living expenses. This system meant that we had little time throughout the week to support our careers and find the time to not just find the jobs, but maintain them and provide designs to a high standard. Of course my love for this profession and my drive to succeed always helped, but it can be hard to find this motivation in an industry that seems to favour entry level designers who can afford to work for free on whatever comes their way.

So if you are someone in that situation where you rely on a month to month pay check at the start of your career, what options are available? So the RSC offers two design assistant positions every year, full time wage, with even a two month paid leave to work on another project you may be involved in. The National offers one full time design assistant trainee position every year, as do other theatres such as the Donmar and a few others. But that is pretty much it. There are very few jobs out there, that offer young designers the chance to get into the industry, make contacts, work on their skills, all the while earning a regular income. So let’s say that there are 5 or 6 positions like this in the country. With around 36 theatre design courses across the UK alone, pumping out an average of 20 designers per course every year, one can easily do the math at how hard it is to fight for these very few positions.

So what is the problem here? I can think of one factor that contributes massively to this cycle. Unpaid internships. I feel that the system where we have to accept that we must work for free as graduate designers, to make those contacts and get paid jobs, is a serious problem that I feel not many are addressing. With the creation of #scenechange I feel comfortable enough that there is no better time and place to ask such hard and daring questions as these...

Is there a gap that we must bridge between graduate designers who can afford to take on unpaid work, and those who can not? Are those, who can, benefitting from a head start?

What can we do as an industry to help those in situations of financial hardship, to give them the time and money they need to work their way into the industry?

How can we, as a collective, put more pressure onto those who make the decisions about the paid internship schemes available, to help those who can’t afford to work for free straight out of University?

What other paid schemes could we create as an industry to help solve this problem?

It’s a subject that I wanted to raise as I came through a similar path of my own, where I worked in a pub for 6 years before I felt I was financially able enough to survive in the theatre industry without the safety net of a weekly wage.

It’s something that I believe has been a problem for some time now, and as we start to head into our new normal, as theatres begin to reopen, I dread to think of what the situation will look like for emerging and recently graduated designers of the next few years to come. I would be so keen to get a conversation going about this. To learn more myself of what is out there in order to support those from backgrounds who don’t benefit from unpaid work. I think that the solution is simple - Introduce more paid internships for those who need them. As a community, we must press on the government/art councils/whoever we must press on, to make that happen. We must be a voice for those who struggle financially, yet deserve just the same chance as those who can afford to take the unpaid jobs.

I myself am guilty of being forced into this system, by designing some productions for free and with little or no budget for materials and expenses. It took me two years since graduating to feel financially comfortable enough to take some of those opportunities. Of course, they were incredibly enriching and I learned a lot through the process, but something needs to change in our community to allow us to take on these jobs, without worrying how to pay the next bill.

I leave you with a photo from the biggest scale design of my career so far, for which I didn’t receive a penny, and this question,

What will this situation look like for graduate and emerging designers, and what can we all do to make breaking into the industry less of a financial worry, as we head into the new normal?

Jake Smart

Private Lives, Questors Theatre, September 2019.

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