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How a group of designers disrupted the UK’s dormant theatre industry with endless rolls of pink tape

A large community of set and costume designers of all ages and career stages have been creating tape installations on theatres throughout the country.

Just how strange an occurrence that is can only truly be understood by people within the industry. We designers usually work on our own. There is usually one of us on each show – our paths rarely cross, and, as much as we know of each other, we don’t often get to know one another personally.

Going through a crisis like this brings clarity. You see what is truly important, where you might have gone wrong, where you might want to make changes. Seventy per cent of the theatre workforce is made up of freelancers. After lockdown, that workforce was sent home from across the world within a matter of days, all work was cancelled and many of us were not able to claim financial support. Even though we create the work that you see on stage, we are on the outside of the actual buildings – our journeys between them is our lonely path.

The realisation of this isolation is what led a group of designers to start talking to each other. The time we had to think, hand in hand with this newfound clarity is what drove us on, leading us to form SceneChange.

The fact that we designers – who traditionally are seen as competitors – managed to be mutually supportive and form a community that stretches around the country and even internationally within weeks of lockdown is, I think, our biggest achievement.

The wider landscape changed incredibly fast during lockdown, nearly week by week. The progression of the tape project spanning from the middle of May to now is a clear reflection of these extreme shifts.

Having formed only seven weeks ago, the tape idea first emerged at a time when we were almost innocent – the real impact of coronavirus had not sunk in. The idea of the #MissingLiveTheatre tape was inspired by the hazard tape at the National Theatre, which was put up to discourage people from gathering there, making it look like a toxic site. Our version was an inventive and playful gesture: it was a gift to the theatres, a source of encouragement, a positive image of the empty, waiting spaces inside.

While being locked in our homes, and with many of us homeschooling, the question soon became: How, within social distancing rules and in the absence of any funding, could we conceive to create installations large enough to compete with the vastness of most theatre buildings?

By the time SceneChange really committed to planning the project, we had no idea if there would even BE an industry by the autumn. Theatres were closing. The “Missing Live Theatre” message became more political – almost “missing, presumed dead” …still positive, but much more of a gesture of solidarity to the theatres, showing ourselves as optimistic allies.

A small group of us chipped in the little money we could afford for one order of tape. The planning – getting the support of venues and arranging installations with often only one duty manager in-house – was a huge undertaking. We were joined by production managers and technicians, and a hugely talented group of theatre photographers, as well as Kate Morley PR to help with promotion.

Many had worked hard to secure a £1.57bn rescue package for the cultural sector, but without knowing when theatres can open again, how long can this money last? As pointed out by Arts Council England, the money is to be spent on cultural institutions and buildings so until those buildings can employ us again, we still won’t have work. There is a serious worry about cuts to fees as well as cuts to budgets, which in design terms inevitably leads to some of the many craft professions that depend on realising our designs potentially not being employed at all.

The general reaction to and the reach of our installation story however, has reaffirmed just how powerful art can be. It highlights the way the visual impacts us; attracts our eye; causes reaction. In a world which has been essentially void of new visual stimulation, installing these sculptures felt like an impactful action, with many members of the public reacting to and relishing the activity.

The offer of support from all walks of life has been overwhelming, from florists to printers to volunteers from other performing arts professions, showing once again that this crisis (despite attacking our deep-rooted human need to socialise by making us avoid each other) has, at the same time, inspired countless acts of community spirit and support.

To answer the question: “Why are we still taping up buildings now that the government has announced the support package?” …we are freelancers. Although the money will help the institutions which are mostly preventing our jobs from total collapse, it is not making our immediate personal positions any better. A few days ago, we did not know if we would ever work again in the careers which have taken years to build. Today, all we know is that we will most likely be able to work in the buildings again, but whether this will be in four months’ time or in a year is totally unclear. Will we be able to survive this long?

The installations can once again be seen as a creative promise – a kind of “hold this space”, or a signal showing that we are “ready when you are”. Funding may have come in, but live theatre is still missing because there is no clear date when we can all work again.

One of the hardest things has been the many voices that question whether we are even relevant, or deserving of saving. Where does this dismissive notion come from? Surely we are all living under the same basic rules: we earn to survive, and we contribute to the greater good of society. People working in the cultural sector do both of those things like everyone else. There is no more mystery to our profession than this. Our jobs are not hobbies, they are how we earn our living.

If you consider yourself the sort of person to question the relevance of culture, I urge you to spend one of your lockdown days turning off your TV. Don’t watch films; don’t listen to the radio or music; don’t read books or magazines; don’t listen to any podcasts. All this is culture as much as theatre is. More importantly, many people working in the disciplines mentioned above would have trained through theatre and employ the specialist craftspeople that theatre provides.

#MissingLiveTheatre – this slogan will remain relevant until the government lets us open the doors, go back to our jobs and invite audiences back into our theatres, sharing live performances once again on our national stages.

Anna Fleischle is a multi-award winning freelance production designer who works internationally in theatre, musicals, dance and opera

Originally published 10th July 2020

Photography by Marc Brenner

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