You know what’s mad? People don’t know what we do. I don’t just mean public people - I’m talking about people within theatre. Actors, producers, technicians, even directors have all been dumbfounded by the fact you can’t just buy models, costumes, props wholly from shops in my experience. This is how bad the visibility of the crafts people who actually make theatre is. It also goes part of the way to explaining some of the problems we encounter within theatre.
Let’s start in a very simple sense with scenic designers - predominately the people who are going to read this. Unless you work in theatre, it’s unlikely that you have favourite designers, and if you asked normal audiences I reckon they’d struggle to name the designers involved in shows they’d seen. To be honest, I can go and see a show and unless I look it up I don’t necessarily know who has designed it. A super-easy fix which would help with this would be for designers to have their names on posters, in the same way directors do, and to be credited on production shots. When mainstream artists, who don’t need the attention, decide to toss out a design for theatre their names get splashed all over the shop drowning out everyone else. But theatre has its own artists, who do it better, so why can’t their names be shouted about? Or designers only get recognised once they’ve ventured into public art, or pop music: this doesn’t then make them the authority on theatre design. In addition to this, if theatres made digital programmes available to all audience members, audiences could learn entire creative teams with no additional costs or took down one poster and replaced it with a comprehensive credit list. Yes, this is easy to ignore but if you were interested in the visual aspect of theatre it would be much easier to find, or might stimulate interest in these fields which leads me to my next point...
Diversity, inclusivity, whatever you want to call it and I’m going to apologise in advance if I don’t use the correct terminology, but the lack of people from a wide range of backgrounds who work in theatre. Theatre has a bad rep, I often look at audiences and around myself in meetings and it’s just loads of posh white people (lets face it men in meetings) and fully understand why. There is lots of chat about mixing this up, and in terms of actors and to a lesser extent directors and writers this is changing, but this is also because these are the most visible jobs! How can we expect to make a more representative work force if nobody knows what the jobs are? Why aren’t model makers seen to be as important as box office staff? If the only way to see who makes a show is to buy a programme, but you can barely afford to see a show and are buying the cheapest ticket you aren’t going to spunk half of that ticket price on buying a glossy magazine that focuses more on showcasing the actors than featuring everyone who helped make the show happen. Digital programmes are not only sustainable but could also be covered by the ticket cost (as the Barbican were doing) making it accessible to everyone.
Why can’t programmes also contain a design blurb? This would benefit critics who are pretty atrocious when it comes to design, they don’t even always get colours right. It would also be incredible for students and schools, as it gives an insight into the design process and would help promote design as well as help with their studies. I know this for a fact, as my sister was a drama teacher and I’d get a message after every theatre trip asking for a quick summary of a design that she could give to her students to use. These were designs I’d have to google, that I often had no relationship to but by doing it and by knowing that someone vaguely within their orbit worked in theatre it inspired students to pursue careers in the creative industries.
Taking this idea further, why aren’t social media channels utilized to highlight design? It might be a stereotype but the youth love Instagrams, Tiktoks, fancy technological things. Don’t limit your stories or videos to the performers, interview wardrobe staff, dressers, stage managers, other people who contribute to the day to day business. But also do features on designers, props makers, scenic artists-go through the making process or request 5 minutes during a paint call to show the different ways art can be a career. Actually talk to the people who make it rather than just asking the director or actors their opinions on it. These small bursts would plant the idea that theatre is so much wider than what you see during a show, and hopefully inspire kids to search out these careers without needing a paywall to access information.
Since that was going quite modern, lets go old school; books. Books are great, and books are for everyone in every age group. There just aren’t enough good books about the process on making theatre. Why isn’t there a ladybird book about how a play gets made, or a beautifully illustrated book showcasing all the cool characters you meet to make a show happen. Where are the texts for secondary school students all so dry and not about design? Where are the coffee table books with dreamy photos of studios and workshops and the people that inhabit them? I’ve got a book that’s part of a series which is just 20 female artists talking about their practices-where is the equivalent for theatre? Pamela Howard is great, but there is more than one opinion on what scenography is.
If ever scenic design is mentioned as a career in fiction, when that source material is adapted into film or television it’s replaced by a “sexier”/more accessible art career such as photography. Likewise shows and films about theatre always cut the design team-you’ll at best get a lighting or sound designer, but the set and costumes just magically appear. If these jobs are cut out of fiction, then nobody is going to splash any dollar on making anything factual about them. Yet they should! The slow craft films on BBC4 could easily feature theatre makers, and people love them. They could do whole documentary series about all the different makers involved in the creation of just one show. There is an audience for these, be it as part of the craft film festival, or youtube or proper tv. We need more than just that one Netflix show that isn’t wholly accurate and is once again hidden behind a paywall.
One argument about this is time and money. It’s so boring, yet sadly has to be mentioned. Theatre happens fast, to the detriment of all involved, and means you can never record the process. The hours are long to accommodate the speed at which things need to get done, nobody gets paid fairly and to make ends meet ,more shows need to get designed and made. It’s a vicious circle and I know there is a lot of chat about how this should be addressed now so won’t go into it in a big way. One thing though is that we need to shout loudly about this, as what we do largely happens outside of theatres which is why it is easy to ignore. As an assistant/associate producers often only see my end product, and get grumpy about paying because they have no real insight into the hours and skill needed to get there. Yet they are happy to spend big bucks on people pushing buttons to control lights and sound because they can see that work happen. I don’t mean to discredit the job programmers and operators do, as it is an important job, but no more or less than all other creatives involved. Designers shouldn’t be subsidising their process, as it’s assistants as well as work spaces they have to provide as they can’t just work from a laptop. Pay is a problem at every level but we shouldn’t need to send photos of abandoned white cards created at the directors whim to justify assistants payments just because it is made outside of an auditorium. Designers shouldn’t be sacrificing their fees to make the shows happen, or worry about losing work if they bring this up.
I’m going to stop talking about pay as it’s a whole other topic, but just to say it definitely relates to visibility and to a lesser degree the old fashioned, hand built nature in my opinion. Without a fairer pay system in place, theatre is rapidly becoming an unviable career path for the majority, which needs highlighting.
This feels like it’s become negative, which isn’t the point- creatives need to be celebrated! I want kids to grow up knowing how theatre is made, so that they want to join in on the magic (and hopefully get paid fairly).
Looking at where we are right now, I think we should carry on shifting the focus and use theatre spaces in unconventional ways until shows can resume. Why can’t auditoriums be filled with cutouts of everyone involved in the making of the set sitting on the stage? Hallways and foyers could display paint samples, costumes, model boxes...Poster frames could be filled with photos of the makers with brief explanations of their roles, like they did with TFL staff. Countless other ideas about how to raise visibility and promote theatre makers. Why don’t we use this time to get people into theatre and show them how the sausage is made? It’s really good sausage.
Shining a light on the creative process should continue forever. Models should always be displayed in the foyers of the shows, with costume drawings and fabric samples to create tactile memories. Exhibitions should happen showcasing costumes and props and scenic paintings should be framed and hung for all to see. When a show is specifically aimed at children and schools activity packs prominently featuring design should be distributed. There should be instagram feeds, blogs, tv series, festivals and books devoted to all the makers and their beautiful objects. We need stories on stage, but also from backstage, not just about what’s made but also how people got there to inspire others.
I know we prefer the shadows, and the spotlight is ghastly, but if we don’t promote ourselves nobody will, and the makers are as important as the actors. Theatre is a massive team sport, and this needs recognising.