I sometimes wonder if my untamed optimism is dangerous. I once chased a designer (over email, not through a field), on and off for over 9 months till I gave up the hope of having a coffee together. Lovely guy, but our timings never quite matched up, and as a lot of designers can attest: we are underpaid, understaffed and overworked. Designers sometimes barely have enough time for their own personal lives, let alone giving up their precious free time to a complete stranger who has done far too much Googling and oogling of their wonderful designs.
The theatre industry can feel like the Wild West for an early career designer, from cowboy contracts to a vast unknown landscape with no clear route. Thankfully pistols at dawn is more metaphorical than physical these days. It can be hard to know where to start and what (or who) to pursue. On my postgraduate course there was only one other designer, so my initial network was small to say the least. After graduating, I started talking to other early and mid-career designers, trying to see how they had grown their practise and made contacts; however, there seemed to be an inevitable career plateau. They needed someone to guide them into a different genre, help them approach a new venue or shake up their design process. Designers I talked to said they often end up feeling disconnected from each other, apart from those chance encounters in costume stores or a quick coffee on the go.
If only we had a network that connected designers with some kind of long form mentoring, for all career stages: be it figuring out the first few years or coming back from a hiatus after having children. A trellis, or support structure if you will. We could all do with a few insightful observations and a different perspective from time to time. So, a year ago I started researching and building just that.
After many focus group meetings, phone calls, individual meet-ups and approximately 5000 cups of tea later, I was able to pinpoint where the gaps were and what we needed: artistic and career development with a mentor who can get to know you and your work. A mutually beneficial partnership to encourage connectivity, communication and community between the generations in the theatre, opera, and dance industry. What was I saying about that dangerous, untamed optimism?
Over the past year, the Society of British Theatre Designers has helped link me up with other designers interested in mentoring projects and have been a key sounding board and valuable source of advice. So I am delighted to announce that a pilot run of the Designers Mentorship Network has just been launched with the SBTD. We have already had an overwhelmingly positive response from mentors and mentees alike. We have 20 mentors, who have kindly volunteered their time, and 30 mentee places available. SBTD members will be given priority for 24 of these places, and there are 6 bursary places available for under-represented individuals in the industry. These bursaries will consist of a mentoring placement, as well as a year-long membership to the SBTD.
The pairings can use approximately 5 hours spread over 3 months, as a guide. It can cover everything from portfolio feedback and general industry advice, to analysis of your design process and how to break into new genres. Hopefully this network is a step in the right direction, and will be a positive contributor for enabling better connections within the industry, particularly for under-represented individuals who need an initial point of contact and source of information.
In the current climate this is the perfect time to get involved and change what you don’t like in the industry, as many have already been doing. It is incredibly cheering to see lots of projects kick off and I can only hope this momentum continues. After all, there are only so many times you can say ‘Why don’t we have one of those?’ before you should probably get off your butt and do it yourself.
I have found my own mentoring experiences invaluable, all stepping stones to discovering the kind of designer that I am and want to be in the future. From brutally honest chats about the job lifestyle to showing me how to use a circular saw in the backend stairwell of a theatre - it’s been quite a wild experience so far. So cheers to all the patient, kind designers, production managers and technicians out there for sharing their experiences with us behind the glitter curtains. My hope is that this network will achieve just that, an enriching and confidence-boosting experience for all (although preferably power tools will remain in the workshop).
Mentoring projects are usually run on volunteers and sheer determination, and we have been very fortunate to have received a lot of people’s time and input. We wouldn’t have the pilot today were it not for their dedication. The long-term aim is to work towards a funded project where, to ensure the sustainability of this network, the mentors, administrators and organisers are paid for their time. If you are interested in the network, please do drop me a message - we’d love to hear from you.
There are many options; you could apply for a mentee placement, apply to be a mentor for the next round, spread the word, or if you know any fabulously wealthy designers willing to support the next few generations, please send them my way!
Performance and Events Designer
Further information about the Designer Mentorship Network can be found here:
Please note the application deadline is 21st September 2020 at 5pm.